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Century of hallmarks to line African-American Heritage Trail in St. Pete

ST. PETERSBURG — Elihu Brayboy remembers when baseball great Willie Mays could be spotted around the city's traditional African-American neighborhoods.

Back then, 22nd Street S — known as the Deuces to those who frequented it — was the community's fulcrum. It was where Brayboy's mother worked as a nurse at segregation-era Mercy Hospital and where he and his friends went to enjoy amateur night or movies at the Royal Theater.

"My whole life as a kid was on 22nd Street," recalls Brayboy, 65, now the owner, with wife Carolyn, of four properties on the historic stretch.

Three of those sites will be among notable stops along a new, 2-mile African-American Heritage Trail expected to open this fall. Two years in the making, the trail will call attention to people and places significant to the history of black St. Petersburg residents.

Initially, it will focus on 22nd Street S, which at the height of success had been the center of black business and entertainment. The trail also will highlight a section of Ninth Avenue S, pinpointing historic churches, community organizations and schools.

A $50,000 state grant from the Division of Historical Resources is funding the project. Together, the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg and historic preservationists in the city's planning and economic development department are developing markers, a walking tour brochure, a smartphone app and a website for the routes.

"We hope these materials will allow the public to learn about and explore the role of African-Americans in the city," historic preservationist Aimee Angel said in an email.

"Although an emphasis will be placed on existing properties, significant demolished resources will be identified and interpreted as well."

The trail will commemorate a 100-year period, starting in 1868 with the arrival of the first African-Americans to what would become St. Petersburg, and continuing to 1968 and the civil rights era.

Brayboy is pleased to see the history of the city's African-Americans being recognized. "Many times, the historians exclude the African-American community and its contribution," he said. "We will have something to see and something to talk about on this side of town."

Markers will spotlight 22nd Street S landmarks such as the Manhattan Casino, where Sylvia's restaurant recently opened; Mercy Hospital, now home of the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center; and the Royal Theater.

On Ninth Avenue S, the 30-by-40-inch fiberglass markers will identify points including the former Jordan Elementary School, the Ambassadors Club and Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church.

Both routes will start at the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, at 2240 Ninth Ave. S. The museum occupies the former community center of the Jordan Park housing complex, where both Academy Award nominee Angela Bassett and Pinellas County School Board member Rene Flowers grew up.

Gwen Reese, who headed the project's steering committee, is excited that it is becoming a reality. "We believe that in August we will begin installing the markers," she said.

The hope is that the trail will eventually include Methodist Town, which gets its name from Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, at 912 Third Ave. N. The oldest African-American congregation in St. Petersburg worships at a Gothic revival-style church built in 1922 that is a local historic landmark. The Gas Plant area, where black residents lived until they were displaced for Tropicana Field, also could be part of the trail.

More money will be needed, though. "We're going after grants to improve the trail so we can actually have guided walks and lecture series," Reese said.

She and Jon Wilson, a former Tampa Bay Times reporter who wrote, with the late Rosalie Peck, the book St. Petersburg's Historic 22nd Street South, have conducted walking tours of the historic African-American neighborhoods. The most recent was in February, Reese said, attracting 60 people, including 28 high school students. She said several students mentioned that they had driven on 22nd Street but were surprised by its history.

Brayboy said he feels obligated to preserve some of that history. "It's kind of, where else should I invest? I've watched this side of town go downhill. If I don't invest here, why should I ask Bank of America to invest, Wells Fargo to invest?"

Of the four properties he and his wife own, the most notable is the two-story, 1925 Merriwether building, at 951-963 22nd St. S. It's a local historic landmark.

The Brayboys also own the building at 901-903 22nd St. S — a local historic landmark — where the late Sidney Harden Sr. had his grocery store, remembered for selling meat from rabbits, turtles, goats, raccoons and opossums. The building was constructed and owned by local resident George Washington, who also operated a beer garden on the site, where the Brayboys plan to open Chief's Creole Café. The couple already has an ice cream parlor and men's consignment shop next door in the Moure building at 909-913 22nd St. S. That too has a local historic designation.

"I have gone to so many cities where the history of the community is a vacant lot and they give you a story of what used to happen," Brayboy said. "Carolyn and I really felt that if it is going to be saved, that there has to be us to take on that endeavor. There will be a real building with real history, and it will be a future place for businesses to start up and people to live. That's the closing of the circle."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com.

fast facts

Want to help?

The African-American Heritage Association and historic preservationists in St. Petersburg's planning and economic development department are looking for photographs and memorabilia, including early photographs of Campbell Park and the Negro Baseball teams (1920s-'30s) and churches along Ninth Avenue S. Contact Aimee Angel at Aimee.Angel@stpete.org or (727) 892-5470.

Century of hallmarks to line African-American Heritage Trail in St. Pete 04/15/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 15, 2014 5:18pm]

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