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Interstate memorial honors Bette Wimbish's service to St. Petersburg

By Adam Henig, Guest columnist

Bette Wimbish: A Fighter Till the End

The St. Petersburg City Council recently voted to approve state Sen. Darryl Rouson's bill that would rename a portion of Interstate 375 after the late Vice Mayor Bette Wimbish.

Like her husband, civil rights leader Dr. Ralph Wimbish, Bette's never-ending fight for gender and racial equality defined her life and enabled her to become the first African-American elected to the St. Petersburg City Council.

Born in Ybor City and raised by her mother, Ola Mae, a housekeeper, Bette (born Carrie Elizabeth Davis) confronted challenges even in her early years.

When she was old enough to attend high school, Ola Mae, discontented with her daughter's limited schooling options because of segregation, transferred her to Florida A&M's junior campus, a far superior institution even though it was in Tallahassee, more than 275 miles from her home.

Despite her uprooting, Bette excelled in her studies and enrolled at Florida A&M University, one of the few colleges in the state that was open to African Americans. At A&M, where she would meet her future husband, Bette majored in chemistry with hopes of becoming a doctor. When she realized that the profession was virtually out of reach because of color and gender, rather than get discouraged, she chose to become a physical education teacher.

After graduation, she married Ralph and settled into a career as a middle school teacher, where, once again, she faced barriers to success.

Displeased over the lack of resources she was given to do her job, Bette also had to contend with a salary that was less than her white counterparts. There were many other teachers of color in similar situations, but she was the one who spoke up. Her colleagues were surprised that this black woman, right out of college, went to speak with the school district's white superintendent. Fearing retaliation, as her colleagues believed would occur, her demands were met.

But, it wouldn't be long before she encountered another hurdle.

When her and Ralph planned to purchase a home in a Tampa neighborhood that consisted mostly of white homeowners, the day before they were scheduled to move in, their house was torched and burned down. The suspected arsonist, an active member of the Ku Klux Klan, was never charged. The Wimbishes moved to St. Petersburg and discovered similar segregated housing problems. The city's nicest homes, which they could afford, were located in the white section of town. Unable to buy where they wanted, eventually they purchased a home — to the chagrin of city officials — adjacent to the invisible red line that divided black and white neighborhoods.

As their family grew and Bette stepped away from the classroom, she got restless and decided to do something that no African-American in Pinellas County had done before — she ran for office. Her previous experience leading voter registration drives allowed her to foster political connections, establish name recognition and possess inside knowledge of how local politics worked. Black, pregnant and female, Bette Wimbish hardly posed a serious challenge yet she frightened the opposition, as evidenced by a number of death threats, topped off by a firebomb thrown at her house. Although she did not win, her defeat was telling: she won an unusually large white vote, demonstrating that African-Americans had the potential to be formidable candidates.

Always on the forward trajectory, she went back to college, earned her law degree and passed the bar — a bittersweet success. Only two weeks before, her husband died of a heart attack at the age of 45.

Indomitable as ever, Bette sought a seat on the St. Petersburg City Council and was the first African-American elected to that office. Although years later she ran unsuccessfully for statewide office, Bette was a formidable figure in Florida state politics, having been appointed by Governor Reuben Askew to serve as deputy secretary of commerce.

The naming of the interstate highway after Bette Wimbish is a well-deserved honor and a reminder that if this petite, black Ybor City native, raised by a single parent, could leap beyond her modest upbringing, any goal is possible to attain as long as you're willing to fight for it as Bette did.