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African-American Heritage Trail to open in St. Petersburg Saturday

ST. PETERSBURG

A 2-mile African-American Heritage Trail to honor and recount the history and memories of the city's black residents will officially open Saturday.

The 5 p.m. ceremony will take place at 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue S, a key intersection of the 2-mile route. There, one of 20 historic markers will be presented during the event that is expected to include former Mayor Bill Foster, who is credited with initiating the project two years ago.

Gwen Reese, who headed the project's steering committee, said she is "elated" that its goals are being realized.

She said she is also "very aware of the significance of the work that has been accomplished . . . and knowing that after all of us who worked on the committee are gone, the markers will still be there."

The trail starts at the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, 2240 Ninth Ave. S, the former community center of the historic Jordan Park housing complex.

Along 22nd Street S, known as the Deuces — at one point the center of black business and entertainment — nine of the 30-by-40-inch fiberglass markers will call attention to landmarks such as the Manhattan Casino, now the site of Sylvia's Restaurant, the former Mercy Hospital, now home to the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center, and the Royal Theater.

Markers along Ninth Avenue S will highlight historic churches, community organizations and schools. Eleven markers will highlight the former Jordan Elementary School, the Ambassadors Club, Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church and other notable points.

The route traces a 100-year period, beginning in 1868 with the arrival of the first African-Americans to St. Petersburg, and continuing to 1968 and the civil rights era.

The project was funded by a $50,000 state grant from the Division of Historical Resources. The African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg, which includes black and white residents, worked with historic preservationists in the city's planning and economic development department to develop the markers and a walking tour brochure. Reese said the group hopes to get a smartphone app and a website is being developed.

Aimee Angel, a historic preservationist with the city, said the brochure is being distributed to local businesses and hotels to attract tourists.

"It's truly one of the most rewarding things I have ever done," Angel said. "I have gotten so many hugs from residents. To see what it means to other people, it makes me so proud to have been a part of it."

Mayor Rick Kriseman and City Council members will attend Saturday's event. Reese said Foster has accepted an invitation to the afternoon program and she is grateful to the former mayor "because this would not have happened without him."

Two years ago, she said, Foster "put out a call about concerns he had about so many elders dying . . . and said we need to find a way to preserve their stories."

The project developed far beyond a collection of stories.

"We never envisioned this, but we were committed and the idea grew and grew," Reese said.

The growth plans haven't stopped.

There is hope for the trail to eventually continue through Methodist Town, a neighborhood that got its name from Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 912 Third Ave. N. The Gothic revival-style church, built in 1922, is a local historic landmark and home to the city's oldest African-American congregation. The Gas Plant area, where black residents lived until they were displaced for Tropicana Field, could also eventually be part of the trail.

But more money is needed, said Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association.

They plan to apply for additional grants and are hoping the initial phase helps spark interest, she said.

Reese said Jon Wilson, a former Tampa Bay Times reporter and vice president of the heritage association, has committed to writing a book about the historic route.

"We will be looking for funding for the book," she said, adding that the organization will also create a fund to maintain the markers. "There is still a lot of work still to be done."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

African American Trail unveiling

5 p.m. Saturday, northeast corner of 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue S, St. Petersburg. Light refreshments.

How to help

There is a three-day trail celebration planned for Oct. 10-12. A kickoff planning committee meeting is planned for 6 p.m. Aug. 19 at the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, 2240 Ninth Ave. S. For more information, call Gwen Reese, African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg, (727) 418-2881, or Aimee Angel, city of St. Petersburg, (727) 892-5470.

African-American Heritage Trail to open in St. Petersburg Saturday 08/07/14 [Last modified: Thursday, August 7, 2014 12:02pm]

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