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Dunedin minister recalls history of city's black community

DUNEDIN — Leroy Hardy Jr. remembers growing up in the public housing projects of north Douglas Avenue, the heart of the city's black community.

Hardy's family lived on Lorraine Leland Street, bordered by a few dozen families in the neighborhood later known as Highlander Village. Hardy and his friends would climb mango trees or cast nets onto St. Joseph Sound, a short walk away.

"Everybody knew everybody. It was truly a community," Hardy, 44, said Friday. "If you were riding your bike down the street and you did something wrong, your parents probably heard about it before you got home."

Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, now more than a century old, was the small community's spiritual and political center. As the civil rights era dawned, the church mobilized its members to action. Hardy grew up in the church's pews; now, he serves there as a minister.

But Dunedin's black community has shifted and shrunk in the decades since Hardy's youth. Many families followed jobs or housing outside city limits, and Hardy believes only a few original families remain. U.S. Census figures estimate only 3 percent of the city's residents are black.

The geography of the North Douglas neighborhood has changed as well, gentrified over generations. The old wooden houses and crumbling projects were razed for planned townhomes by developers eyeing the nearby waterfront. Where once there were homes, there are now open lots. But even as the landscape changed, the black residents of Dunedin, many of them Shiloh parishioners, left their mark on city history.

In the early 1990s, Shiloh members joined other residents to protest the city's plans to open a yard-waste mulch site next to the church, saying the noise and odor would devastate the community. Persistent lobbying by minority residents — a rarity in city affairs in those days — persuaded officials to cancel the plans.

Five years ago, neighborhood residents flooded City Hall to protest another plan — this time, the expansion of the nearby sewage-treatment plant further into their neighborhood. The church argued that the larger plant would displace land long used for homes. Smells from the plant had sickened neighborhood residents for years. Its foul stench, they said, sometimes wafted into the church sanctuary.

Former Dunedin Mayor Bob Hackworth and current Mayor Dave Eggers, serving then as commissioners, agreed with residents that the land would better serve the community as affordable housing. The plant expansion plan failed.

"You can't underestimate the power of the church in the black community," Hardy said. "The church itself is the voice."

But not all of the church's involvement ended in clear victory. When the city considered renaming Jackson Street, a short road through the low-income area, after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 2003, the church argued the road was too small to be significant. Commissioners next proposed Patricia Avenue, but business owners there fought the idea, saying the name carried a stigma of destitution.

After more than a year of discussions, the city chose to rename a low-traffic, litter-prone stretch of Highland Avenue between Skinner and San Christopher boulevards. Hackworth told the Times in 2004 it was a cop-out; another resident called it a mockery.

However, Hardy stood before city officials at a meeting last week and praised their devotion to diversity and inclusion. He said their efforts, including designating a week each year to celebrate other races and cultures, had made a difference.

The city's first Diversity Week was in 2004 and was partly credited to the Rev. Clem Bell, the church's leader. This year marks the seventh annual celebration, which began Saturday with a breakfast and performances at the downtown Pioneer Park and continues all week.

Even that has faced its own struggle. Church members met with the local NAACP in 2005 after a King Day choir was interrupted by a white man in a truck driving along Main Street, honking his horn and blasting Dixie.

Hardy, speaking Friday from the pews of Shiloh's sanctuary, said he can't be sure what the future holds for Dunedin's black neighborhood. His children — Ashley, 25; Latoya, 23; Eboni, 17; Leroy III, 16; Isaiah, 13; and Darius, 8 — know little of the community he grew up in, and he imagines that within 10 years even the old projects' streets will be unrecognizable.

Yet the history remains.

"When I drive down Lorraine Leland, I still hear voices," he said. "I still hear kids playing."

Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Dunedin minister recalls history of city's black community 01/15/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 15, 2011 12:17pm]
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