ST. PETERSBURG — He was in the Navy. She was a teenager serving burgers at McDonald's.
The restaurant cashiers had a cue when a cute guy walked in — they'd shout out the register number where he stood.
"He was 2A," she said.
Three decades later, Curtis, and Beverly Skinner are still side by side. They teach Bible study together and have two grown children. Their life works, they say, because they're "nerds" who keep it simple and believe in the same things.
They're happily married, and they're an increasing anomaly.
The marriage rate among African-Americans has plummeted drastically since 1940. America has its first black president and family in the White House, but 70 percent of the country's black children are still born to unwed parents, according to the Health and Human Services Department. Studies show more than 40 percent of black men and women have never been married.
Some say it's time for a change.
People in 300 cities around the world will gather today to celebrate Black Marriage Day, an annual event started in 2003 by the Wedded Bliss Foundation. They will host luncheons and workshops and film festivals, and they will renew wedding vows.
In St. Petersburg, two married couples will be honored at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum. All the nominated couples, including the Skinners, both 51, will take a recommitment pledge.
Organizers want to send a message.
"It doesn't take a real genius to see that the decline of family anywhere is troubling," said Black Marriage Day spokesman Jamil Muhammad. "But the decline of family in black America could be disastrous."
• • •
The first red flag flew in 1965.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a white U.S. senator, wrote a controversial report called The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.
He wrote: At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family.
The report pointed out a series of deep historical scars.
Slave marriages were not recognized as legitimate, and slave owners condescended to slave women by calling them "wives." Black men were often separated from their families at the auction block, leading to a single-mother normality that bled into rural life for decades.
Modern factors also may fuel the drastic dwindle — the migration of blacks from rural areas to big cities, the sexual revolution, the drug culture, said Muhammad, also a Washington, D.C., minister with the Nation of Islam.
"The drug culture in black America was compounded by the glorification of the hustler and pusher and hipster lifestyle," he said. "We saw a gradual erosion of the commitment of the people to fidelity and lifelong commitment."
Popular culture doesn't help, he said. Take music. It used to be "Hey, hey, Paula, I want to marry you." And, "When we get married, we'll have a big celebration."
"Those kinds of cues have been replaced by the often negative messages found in rock and hip-hop and R&B music," Muhammad said.
"Music today says that men are expendable and women are to be disrespected. Society has really turned against the good, old-fashioned monogamist and successful marriages possible in the black community."
But is marriage always the best option?
In 2008, the Institute for American Values suggested two schools of thought on the black marriage crisis. One fragment of the population is an unrelenting cheerleader for the traditional two-parent home. Others say the single-mother family is a viable reality, and that a new definition doesn't mean a bad definition.
Plenty of single black people with no children are happy to stay that way.
"I appreciate my being independent and single," said Tammy Moore, 38, owner of A Precious Touch Hair Salon in St. Petersburg. "I've purchased my own home, I've established my business for 11 years, I've paid for my cars. You can do it as a single woman and you can still be OK."
Glen Gilzean of Tampa is single, black and 26. He came close to proposing to a girl once, but that relationship ended. He doesn't know about statistics and the deep, cultural reasons behind the crisis.
He just knows about himself.
"I just want to find the right person and make sure we're together forever."
• • •
In August, Charley and Frances Williams will celebrate 50 years of marriage.
They met in college. Back then, he called her "puddin." She thought he was the best-dressed guy on campus.
They make it work by giving each other space, putting the money in one pot and embracing their chemistry.
"We've never had a major fight, and people do not believe it," said Frances, 72, who is nominated for an honor at the Woodson museum today. "But that is truth on a stack of Bibles."
They spend their spare time in the community working with black teenagers, passing down what they know.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and staff writer Dalia Colón contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.