Love for Clearwater's North Greenwood is 80 years strong

CLEARWATER

Talmadge Rutledge was born and raised in a house that fronted a North Greenwood dirt road in 1929. The house still is on La Salle Street — and so is Rutledge. Now 80, Rutledge built a house a block up on the same street. The man who still walks the predominantly black community every day has seen much change, and he helped fight for much of it.

On a recent afternoon, Rutledge stood in his two-car driveway and looked up and down the now-paved street. He said he sees progress, but there is also concern about what lies ahead for the community that he has spent his life nurturing.

"I've always been vocal about things that go on in our community," Rutledge said. "I've been criticized for being too vocal. But for those who say that, that's their problem, not mine. I care about my community."

His older brother agreed.

"He always was a talkative one," said Charles Rutledge, 84, who now lives in Countryside. "Even growing up, he would tell us what's on his mind."

• • •

Talmadge Rutledge is the youngest of six children. All but one are still living. He said his father was a sharecropper in Clearwater and owned a small store beside their home on La Salle Street.

Rutledge graduated from the all-black Pinellas High School in 1947. He then spent a couple of years at Florida A&M before heading back to Clearwater in May 1950. In September of the same year, he was drafted into the Army. It was during the Korean War.

"I never went to Korea, but I didn't know what Korea was until I went to the Army," Rutledge said, with his usual hearty, throw-your-head-back laugh.

In the Army for the two years, Rutledge then moved back to North Greenwood, where he has been ever since.

Back in the place he was born, Rutledge opened Palm Dry Cleaning on Greenwood Avenue. He owned that business for 30 years. He also owned a coin laundry and a small ice cream shop.

While running the businesses in Greenwood, Rutledge remained active in the community. He was president of the local NAACP chapter. He attended community meetings. He lobbied city commissioners about the welfare and betterment of the city's black community.

"It was Oct. 19, 1967, and it was my first day on the job as city manager," said Merrett Stierheim, Clearwater's city manager for six years. "I looked out my window and there were about 300 black residents. They had marched on City Hall and had a list of 22 demands. Tal was one of those I sat down and spoke with that day."

One of the demands was for the city to pave the roads in North Greenwood, said Stierheim, who now lives in Miami. "At that time, none of the roads were paved," he said.

• • •

Charles Rutledge is the last surviving member of a class-action suit filed against Pinellas County Schools to integrate the school system in 1964. Because Charles is not able to get around as a result of a stroke, younger brother Talmadge continues to attend monthly meetings to ensure that the system is upholding the terms of the agreement.

Escarraz Enrique, the St. Petersburg lawyer who handled the lawsuit, said some of the things being worked out are the disparity in discipline for black students and the hiring of black teachers and administrators.

"You don't start a fight and then back off," Rutledge said of attending the meetings. "I'm not supposed to back off."

Brother Charles is thankful for that.

"He's still holding the fort down," he said. "That makes me feel real good."

Rutledge, divorced with five adult children, retired in 1992 to his home on La Salle Street. It is a few blocks away from where he was born and about a block away from where he worked for 30 years.

A conversation with Rutledge is a litany of remembrances of how the street used to be. Or about how there were enough boys in the area to field any kind of sporting team. Or how as youngsters, they used to spin tops or fly kites.

A lot has changed in North Greenwood. Some for the good, some for the bad, Rutledge said.

But the one thing that hasn't changed is Rutledge's love for North Greenwood and his daily walk. Every morning at 5 a.m., he walks a 2-mile route around the community.

"My daddy said a man should be able to walk 5 miles in an hour," said Rutledge, his 170-pound frame looking stronger than ever. "About 20 years ago, someone told me that they've been watching me walk for 20 years.

"I feel good. I think that walking helps me."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached (727) 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

Love for Clearwater's North Greenwood is 80 years strong 02/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 7, 2009 2:27pm]

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