ST. PETERSBURG — In a few weeks, Mansfield Johnson will be 92. His voice is raspy with age, but he happily reminisces about the home where he grew up on Second Avenue S, Sunday school at Bethel AME Church in Methodist Town and parties at the Manhattan Casino.
"I used to boogie-woogie there,'' he said of the dance hall that in its heyday hosted the likes of Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn and Duke Ellington.
Johnson and others like him are being sought for oral histories for a new African American Heritage Project that will focus on the history of a community whose men built tracks for the Orange Belt Railway, laid Augusta blocks in the Historic Old Northeast and made the prized hex blocks seen on some city sidewalks.
The project, launched in February, was initiated by Mayor Bill Foster.
"I guess what really motivated me was that I keep going to the funerals of some giants in the community,'' he said. "The best way to preserve our history and heritage is to document eyewitness accounts. … It will better enable us to tell the real story of St. Petersburg."
Gwen Reese was born in one of the historic African-American neighborhoods and leads the heritage project's steering committee.
"I'm very excited, because we have such a rich history and this is the first serious attempt to even chronicle it and make it available to the larger community," she said.
A primary goal, Reese said, is to develop a walking trail through historic neighborhoods. The first phase will take in 22nd Street S, the heart of what for decades was the black business and entertainment district. The second will go through Methodist Town, a few blocks north of Central Avenue, the historic racial boundary. Reese said she expects the first part of the trail to be complete by December, with a brochure, website and phone app.
"Eventually, with fundraising, we will actually have markers and maybe pavers,'' she said.
Minson Rubin graduated from Gibbs High School in 1963 during segregation and a time when the school was the pride of the black community. He is pleased to see the project get off the ground.
"I think it's a long time coming. Going back as far as Mayor David Fischer, I had tried to establish something like this," said the retired Pinellas County teacher who is on the project's steering committee.
Since its launch, the committee has been spreading word of its endeavor at community gatherings and seeking stories and memorabilia. Reese spoke fondly of listening to older residents' stories at the Enoch Davis Center.
"It was awesome. They just started telling stories and naming places," she said.
Johnson, who danced at the Manhattan Casino, could tell stories about Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he went to Sunday school and still attends. The church at 912 Third Ave. N was the first for African-Americans in the city and gave its name to Methodist Town, the neighborhood that grew around it.
Pepper Town, where workers from the Orange Belt Railway settled, also will be included in the annals of local African-American history. Doctors and other professionals lived in Sugar Hill, while the Deuces — 22nd Street S — was known for the Manhattan Casino, Royal Theater and Mercy Hospital, on whose site the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center now stands.
As names are assembled of those who have made significant contributions, they are certain to include oral surgeon Dr. Robert Swain Jr., who defied the 15th Avenue S "red line" that dictated where black residents could live and open businesses.
Dr. Fred Alsup, Willet Williams, Naomi Williams, Chester James Jr., Harold Davis and Dr. Ralph Wimbish sued to end segregation at Spa Beach and won. C. Bette Wimbish became the first African-American elected to the City Council.
Rubin is working on a special honor for Elder Jordan Sr., after whom the city's first housing project was named. It was Jordan who built what would become the Manhattan Casino, he said, and donated land for Jordan Elementary School and Jordan Park.
"This man is deserving,'' said Rubin, who also is working to make sure that the stellar history of Gibbs High is not lost.
The heritage project is important to the community, said Jon Wilson, a former Tampa Bay Times reporter and author of two books, St. Petersburg's Historic 22nd Street South and St. Petersburg's Historic African American Neighborhoods, with the late Rosalie Peck.
"The newspapers didn't really cover the African-American community for years and years and years,'' he said. "So much of the history has been an oral tradition. I think this is going to help tell the story and it will be formalized to a degree."
"As we document the events and the places, we can demonstrate to the community the determination and the pride of the generations that went before us," Foster said.
"Plus, it allows us to celebrate our diversity and culture and provides us with a window where we need to go."
Reese hopes the project will resonate with residents across the city.
"My hope is it will bring our community together and it would serve as a connector and increase our value and respect," she said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.