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Chronicling St. Petersburg's African-American history

ST. PETERSBURG

In the annals of African-American history in St. Petersburg, some heroes live on in places christened in their honor. Near downtown, the Jamestown Townhouses and Apartments commemorates the late Chester James Sr. and his prolonged campaign for decent housing in the historic black neighborhood known as Methodist Town.

Among other place names that recognize the city's black trailblazers are the Fannye A. Ponder Council House, Swain Dental Office and Apartments, Jordan Park Elementary School and the Joseph Savage Sanitation Complex.

This Black History Month brings news of both Jamestown and the growing African American Heritage Project, which will document the history of the city's black community.

Jamestown, at 1035 Burlington Ave. N, is undergoing close to $1 million in improvements with federal and city funds. The work is part of an initial phase to rehabilitate the complex that opened in 1976.

James' granddaughter, Lynnette Hardy, spoke of the legacy of the man after whom the complex is named.

"What he basically really did was he fought for urban renewal over in Methodist Town and what they did was all of the houses that were dilapidated, they tore them down and the people that owned their own houses, they relocated them," she said.

"They put up the apartments and named them Jamestown. He was proud of that name. They let him cut the ribbon."

Beginning in July, the African American Heritage Project, initiated by Mayor Bill Foster and launched during Black History Month a year ago, will begin producing almost two dozen markers to identify places like Jamestown.

The markers will serve as reference points along a heritage trail that will include 22nd Street S — the heart of what was the black business and entertainment district — and Ninth Avenue S. Methodist Town — so named because of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 912 Third Ave. N and home of Jamestown — will be part of a future effort. The Gas Plant area, from which black residents were displaced for Tropicana Field, also will eventually get markers.

The first phase of the project is being funded with a $50,000 grant from the state Division of Historical Resources, said Kimberly Hinder, a historic preservationist for the city.

Gwen Reese, who headed the project's steering committee, said members took a walking tour of the area in January to determine locations for the 20 plaques.

"We want to meet with property owners next," Hinder said.

In its grant application, the group indicated that the two initial routes of the trail will start at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum at 2240 Ninth Ave. S. The building served as the community center for the 1940 Jordan Park housing complex. Additionally, the trail will incorporate traditional housing, such as shotgun and bungalow-style architecture, as well as "a few high-style homes occupied by prominent members of the community."

Landmarks such as the Manhattan Casino, Royal Theater and Mercy Hospital, where the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center now stands, will be among sites that will receive markers.

"We are now finalizing what will go on the markers, the photographs, the information," Reese said of the work being done by the group that recently became incorporated as the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg, FL.

Additionally, said Reese, the organization is continuing to collect photographs and artifacts for the 30- by 40-inch double-sided fiberglass markers.

Meanwhile, community gatherings are being scheduled at which older residents will get to share their stories.

"We are doing it in a public way, so people can come in and listen to them and ask questions," Reese said.

During a telephone interview this week, Jon Wilson, a former Tampa Bay Times reporter who served as vice chairman of the steering committee, spoke of hearing Chester James tell his own story.

"I remember having a chat with him on his front porch in Methodist Town," said Wilson, author of the books St. Petersburg's Historic 22nd Street South and St. Petersburg's Historic African American Neighborhoods, with the late Rosalie Peck.

"When I met him, he was a much older gentleman, but he did not seem feeble at all,'' Wilson said. "He was passionate about his neighborhood. He was instrumental in bringing what everyone euphemistically calls urban renewal to Methodist Town. I think he was disappointed, because so many of the houses were knocked down."

"It wasn't the way he thought it was going to be," said Hardy, his granddaughter.

"He wanted them to come in and help people fix their homes as opposed to tearing them down. A lot of people got relocated. They gave them some money to buy another home on the south side of town."

Her grandfather moved to the Old Southeast neighborhood, sharing a home with daughter Ella Mary Holmes, who was distinguished in her own right as an educator.

But history will always remember James as "the unofficial mayor of Methodist Town," as described in a Feb. 21, 1970 St. Petersburg Times article.

"I wish I was as eloquent as those people who went before me," he told the City Council during a crowded meeting.

"Do you think I'm asking too much? You want to build an (airport) runway for the rich people to enjoy, but it's time for the council of St. Petersburg to look into the desires of the poor people."

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

Chronicling St. Petersburg's African-American history 02/05/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 4:32pm]
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