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Friday, May 25, 2018
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Trail helps illuminate history of segregated St. Pete

There are still vestiges of the once bustling hub of this city’s segregated black community.

Couples eat at Sylvia’s Restaurant on 22nd Street South inside the restored Manhattan Casino, though it’s not the same kind of crowd that used to gather late into the night to watch music legends such as Louis Armstrong or Nat King Cole perform.

Barber shops and general stores occupy faded storefronts, but many don’t remember these sidewalks being packed with people heading to neighborhood institutions like George Washington’s Beer Garden or Harden’s Grocery near the crossroads of 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue South.

Children know the Jordan Park apartments. What they might not know is that Elder Jordan, a former slave who helped build this business district, was said to have loaned money during the Great Depression to a city that forced people of his race to live outside the prosperous downtown, said Gwendolyn Reese, president of the local African American Heritage Association.

These are the kinds of stories told in words and pictures on the new African American Heritage Trail, a series of 20 historic markers along 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue South recently installed by the City of St. Petersburg.

Neighborhood leaders and city officials, including former Mayor Bill Foster, gathered Saturday at the crossroads of the two critical thoroughfares to unveil the only interpretive trail of its kind in the region focused on the history of the local black community.

“It’s very important for our people, for African Americans, to know their history, but it’s also important for others because then there’s a level of respect when you understand how people persevered,” said Reese, 65, a lifelong city resident who led a two-year effort to develop the heritage trail.

“It’s important to know how difficult it was to be black in those times of Jim Crow and racism, but we survived and we flourished.”

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The trail was funded by a $50,000 National Park Service grant issued through the Florida Department of State, but the inspiration for documenting the neighborhood’s past came from the city’s previous mayor.

“He [Foster] talked about going to wakes and funerals of many of the leaders in the black community and hearing these incredible stories, but that’s the only place you’d hear them and how could we preserve these stories for the future?” Reese said.

Foster on Saturday said the trail tells a part of the city’s history that’s rich, but not all “sunshine” for a community that was segregated for decades. “We have a side, a story that a lot of people don’t like to tell, but it has to be told, because if you don’t learn history, it repeats,” Foster said.

The former mayor’s idea led to Reese and local historian Jon Wilson to form the African American Heritage Association, whose members began collecting stories from still-living elders of the neighborhood and their families.

Their oral histories and archival photographs tell the story of how the first black residents transformed palmettos and pine trees into a thriving business district during a 100-year period stretching from the end of the Civil War to the Civil Rights era.

Along 22nd Street, the interpretive markers tell of grocery stores, doctor’s offices, beer gardens and nightclubs, while Ninth Avenue includes important churches, schools and neighborhoods.

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By 1960, this area south of downtown was packed with more than 100 businesses.

The decades after racial integration saw it fall into decline and many of its cultural institutions disappear into history.

Reese and others identify the construction of Interstate 275, which bisected 22nd Street, as a turning point, followed by the displacement of the nearby Gas Plant neighborhood to make way for Tropicana Field.

Integration also meant people once forced to live and do business in a confined area could move freely elsewhere in the city, Reese said.

With entrepreneurs now returning to 22nd Street, residents are hopeful this neglected part of the city may regain some of its former glory.

The trail could help bring more residents and visitors south of the I-275 overpass and hasten that economic recovery, said current Mayor Rick Kriseman.

“It’s our hope that we bring visitors and locals alike from all over to explore the neighborhood, to spend money in this Main Street community and to help revitalize the district and, most importantly, to learn about the history that makes this city so special,” Kriseman said.

For residents like Betty Harden, whose great-grandfather opened the well-known Harden’s Grocery at the corner of 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue, the trail means the people that built this community won’t be forgotten.

“The younger generation now has an opportunity to learn about their relatives who came here and built a community we can all be proud of,” Harden said.

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