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Sharing a life, and a dance at Manhattan Casino again

The last time they danced at the Manhattan Casino was in 1955.

Or maybe it was '54.

John T. Baker, 80, and his wife, Beatrice, 77, don't agree on the year. They can't remember the name of the group that played that night. They stayed for only two or three dances. Their last one, the band blared Annie Had a Baby, and they didn't like the song.

Don't be fooled, though. Their minds are sharp, their memories fresh.

They both went to Gibbs High School. He played basketball.

Three years her senior, he teased her. She didn't like it.

He still affectionately teases her. She still doesn't like it.

After graduation, he joined the Air Force to see the world, then came back to St. Petersburg on leave from Europe.

"Immediately, I had to go check her out," he says.

Neither owned a car, so her dad and a friend with a taxi drove them around.

They enjoyed going to the soda fountain shop at 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue S.

He asked her parents if they could get married. Her dad said yes. Her mom said no, but relented.

That night on the dance floor, in 1955 or 1954, John and Beatrice plotted their future.

They wed at Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church, had a son and daughter, lived abroad, finally settled in St. Petersburg and now have three grandchildren.

Recently, the two danced at the Manhattan Casino's grand reopening to jazzy tunes of local old-timers who played there in its heyday, when the likes of Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Little Richard headlined shows in the only place in the city that African-Americans could go to hear such music.

After being together so long, he wants you to know, he is "very happy."

"He's been a very good husband and a good father," she responds. "And we get along really, really good together."

She wants to remodel part of the house. He doesn't.

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About this series

From the early 1900s on, segregation limited St. Petersburg's black residents to specific areas. There was once a large black neighborhood north of Central Avenue, but as the years passed, most blacks congregated south of Central. Integration opened the city up, diverse communities emerged, yet stereotypes remain. To the south, St. Petersburg includes places like Coquina Key, Pinellas Point and historic Midtown, where life's daily dramas unfold, some as struggles, some as triumphs. In the coming months, Tampa Bay Times will feature slice-of-life stories that often go untold.

Sharing a life, and a dance at Manhattan Casino again 12/31/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 31, 2011 3:30am]
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