Who built St. Pete?

BY JON WILSON, Columnist

From 1888 on, African Americans played huge roles in building St. Petersburg. Doing their part to put an obscure village on the map, black workers graded beds and laid the tracks when the Orange Belt Railway pushed through forest that one day would be replaced by a modern city.

As St. Petersburg grew and developed its reputation as a tourist resort, African Americans provided the labor to put down streets, dig sewers and build palatial downtown hotels. They also helped build houses in classy residential neighborhoods in northeast St. Petersburg, restricted to white people.

Such was their skill in planning and building; black contractors began to be hired by white people – frequently enough that they threatened the dominance of white contractors.

Thus, in 1925, the city council voted to restrict black contractors to working in black neighborhoods.

Though their work was restricted, the names of some of the earliest African-American builders are still remembered, among them Peter P. Perkins, Thomas Kelley Childs, Thomas Hunt and James Boggs. Some of their projects survive also.

Perkins, originally from Bainbridge, Ga., came to St. Petersburg in 1923. He had a hand in several historic buildings in the 22nd Street South neighborhood, many of which are noted on the developing African American Heritage Trail.

Among Perkins’ projects was the remodeled Ninth Avenue South Trinity Presbyterian Church in 1948. In 1952, he was responsible for additions to the Fannye Ayer Ponder Chapter House of the National Council of Negro Women, also on Ninth Avenue. In the late 1940s, he taught carpentry at Gibbs High School. There he supervised construction of vocational buildings and the school’s gymnatorium. He is also credited with building the Melrose Clubhouse and the Moure Building at 909-913 22nd Street S.

Hunt was the general contractor on Christ Gospel Church when it was dedicated in 1973 on 22nd Avenue South. But he also was recognized for building luxurious homes in the community.

Sometimes his work was noted in St. Petersburg Times stories, as in a 1957 article that described a new home for Mr. and Mrs. Theodore L. Williams as “palatial.” At 3001 16th Ave. S., the home was an early project south of the infamous “red line,” a city-codified barrier that was meant to stop African Americans from living south of 15th Avenue South.

Another of Hunt’s projects was a four-bedroom house at 1701 Dayton Avenue, built for Mr. and Mrs. Everett Wallace in 1961. The Wallaces were typical of people who had started out living in Jordan Park and eventually bought their own homes, thus refuting the charge made by some white owners of rental property that public housing would destroy initiative.

Childs was another widely respected contractor who worked on numerous residential projects. He was an early pioneer, coming to St. Petersburg in 1905, about the same time Elder Jordan Sr. and his family migrated here. Like Boggs and other African-American builders, master mechanics and carpenters who often worked in relative anonymity, much of his legacy has gone unrecorded through the years.

Nonetheless, he and all of these builders played an important role in helping St. Petersburg grow from a village to a small town to a major Florida city.

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