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StoryCorps parks in St. Petersburg to record oral histories

ST. PETERSBURG — Inside a chrome Airstream trailer, Sevell Brown III settled into a booth across from his friend. Microphones bent and craned toward their faces, begging for stories.

It's not as if Brown hadn't told his stories before. A born talker, he practically couldn't stop telling them, outside the trailer, on the way into the trailer, inside the trailer. But when the recorder started rolling in that tiny mobile booth, it would be different.

He was talking to StoryCorps, the nonprofit oral history project that urges people to tell stories of their lives. StoryCorps travels the country and records conversations between two people who know each other. The talks are preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. All month, the bus will be parked outside the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, recording histories.

Less than 1 percent of the conversations end up broadcast on National Public Radio, and in Tampa Bay, on WUSF, and they're often tear-jerkers. But most people do it for the record, for proof they existed or that their lives matter.

Brown, a civil rights activist, brought his friend, Thelma Davis, to talk Monday — one of the first StoryCorps conversations to take place in St. Petersburg.

Forty minutes sounds like a long time, interviewer Callie Thuma told them, but it's really not. Not when you get to talking. She showed them the countdown symbols she'd quietly issue. Ten minutes, five minutes, one minute, wrap it up.

The conversation started gently and without fanfare, breezes blowing against the trailer on the sleepy morning. Brown and Davis talked about their segregated high schools. About sports, families, the reputation of St. Petersburg. They talked about riots and lynchings, of struggles and triumphs they each knew in 60-plus years on earth.

But what Brown mostly wanted to talk about was his vision. His parade.

"We have a picture of myself and my brother at 6 or 7 years old, sitting right here on Central Avenue on the curbside, where we were sitting there watching the historic preeminent Festival of States Parade. … The same little boy that was sitting there with that indelible image in his brain about this parade, mesmerized, just by happenstance is the same one that gets the vision to do this national Martin Luther King parade."

Thuma didn't break into the conversation very often. But she had to ask.

A vision?

A medical condition gave Brown trouble breathing, he said. He prayed God would give him a distraction to take his mind off the attacks.

"This spiritual thing happened, where at 2:30 in the morning, I was awakened, sat up in the bed, the Lord just showed me this panoramic view of this parade in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, and there were all these bands. … So when I came out of the vision, I then couldn't go to sleep for two days, and just wrote everything down, everything that I saw, I just wrote it down."

He went to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where King was the first president. He told then-president Joseph Lowery of his vision, he said. But everyone did civil rights marches back then, not parades with bands and music.

"They couldn't wrap their brain around the concept of a parade. They kicked me to the curb. They said, 'Sevell, you crazy. We can't do no parade.' They said, 'Look, whatever you want to do, you go ahead and you do this vision that you got from God. And just don't ask SCLC for no money to do it. … I put my tail between my legs and left that national office in Atlanta, Ga., and got back to St. Petersburg.

"That's when the Lord had a reckoning with me, and said, 'Look, if I wanted Dr. Lowery to do the vision, I would have given it to Dr. Lowery.' "

In 1986, Brown and his brother founded the National Martin Luther King Drum Major for Justice Parade. It has gone on for 29 years, at one point winning a fight to roll down Central Avenue, the street that once segregated the city, the street where Brown sat with his brother and watched his first parade.

Brown and Davis posed for pictures to be archived with their stories. They took a CD of their conversation wrapped in a yellow sleeve.

"That was therapeutic," Brown said. "Knowing that it's preserved for posterity's sake. Finally."

He opened the Airstream's door and let the crisp air flood in, then headed back out into his city's streets.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394.

>> fast facts

Want to tell your story?

The list of recording times is limited to participate in the StoryCorps storytelling project. So for the best shot, log onto storycorps.org at 10 a.m. today to schedule an interview or get on the waiting list. The bus travels next to Gainesville, so you can always try again there.

StoryCorps parks in St. Petersburg to record oral histories 01/06/14 [Last modified: Monday, January 6, 2014 11:04pm]

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