ST. PETERSBURG — C. Bette Wimbish, the first African-American member of St. Petersburg's City Council and a trailblazer for civil rights causes, died Monday (Nov. 30, 2009). She was 85.
The first black person to hold modern elected office in the Tampa Bay area, Mrs. Wimbish also made history as the first black female lawyer in Pinellas County and the third in the state.
But Mrs. Wimbish left her biggest mark in public life and civic activism, from leading desegregation efforts with her husband, Dr. Ralph Wimbish, to her work as a deputy commerce secretary under then-Gov. Reubin Askew.
Her election to the City Council in 1969 and subsequent position as vice mayor signaled a thaw in the city's race relations. She later ran unsuccessful campaigns for the state Senate and Congress, championing the environment and aid for seniors, and worked as a labor arbiter until her retirement in 2003.
"The fact that she became vice mayor at least symbolically opened up the system," said University of South Florida historian Ray Arsenault. "It was going to be many years before there was much of a follow-through. But it was an important, groundbreaking event."
A self-made woman who prized education, Mrs. Wimbish so impressed her children with her intelligence, they sent in an application for her to appear on Jeopardy!.
She shared her deepest emotions with few people, if any. "She was a very private person," said Chrystelle Stewart, a friend of 65 years.
She was born in 1924 in Perry as Carrie Elizabeth Davis, the daughter of a housekeeper and an alcoholic father who left not long after Carrie was born.
A bright, athletic student, she entered Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes (now Florida A&M) at 16, intending to become a doctor. In her spare time she played on the school's tennis and basketball teams, kept statistics for the football team and fished for blue crabs with friends.
In college, she met Ralph Wimbish, another aspiring physician. They married in 1945. "They were civic-minded from the beginning," said son Ralph Wimbish Jr. "They wanted to break down the walls of segregation."
Mrs. Wimbish altered her plans, teaching physical education in the Hillsborough County school system while her husband studied at Meharry Medical School in Nashville.
In 1948 Dr. Wimbish had finished his internship. The young couple had built a house in Tampa, on the "white" side of 22nd Street, a good place to raise their baby daughter, Barbara.
The house burned to the ground the night before the family would have moved in. Dr. Wimbish suspected the Ku Klux Klan; officially, the cause of the fire remained a mystery.
The family moved to St. Petersburg in 1953; Dr. Wimbish set up a medical office on 16th Street near the current Tropicana Field. They opened their home on 15th Avenue S to black athletes and entertainers, none of whom could get a room in town under segregation.
"I remember Cab Calloway staying in my room," said Ralph Wimbish Jr., 57. Over the 1950s and early 1960s, guests also included musicians Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie, athletes Jesse Owens, Elston Howard and Althea Gibson, and an actress who played Aunt Jemima on television.
Calmly but forcefully, the Wimbishes worked to end segregation, from a successful integration of Spa Beach in 1959 to a tougher push against hotels that excluded black guests, including baseball players here for spring training.
In 1960, while pregnant with her third child, Mrs. Wimbish ran for a seat on the Pinellas County School Board, losing to William H. Williams.
In 1961, her husband told the New York Yankees that he would no longer enable the team by housing black players.
The Yankees promptly moved to Fort Lauderdale. Locals responded by burning a cross in the Wimbishes yard, sending a message to the NAACP president and his wife. Mrs. Wimbish managed to shield her two young sons from seeing the hateful symbol.
In 1965 Mrs. Wimbish entered FAMU's law school, taking her two sons with her to Tallahassee. She was a week shy of graduating in 1967 when her husband collapsed at what was meant to be a celebratory occasion in Miami. He died before reaching the hospital.
Though devastated, Mrs. Wimbish returned to law school a week later to take her final exams. She passed.
"She was a strong woman," Stewart said. "She had to think about her children. She said, 'Well, this is what I have to do and I will do it.' "
She turned her late husband's medical office into a law office, where she helped striking sanitation workers in 1968 as they protested unequal pay scales and duties for black and white workers.
"It was Bette who kept encouraging us to keep doing what we were doing," said community activist Watson Haynes. "She was in the back room, making the difference."
Though unsuccessful on its face, the strike "sort of shocked the city into recognizing that it had to address these long-standing social justice issues," Arsenault said.
Mrs. Wimbish ran for City Council in 1969, and letters beginning "Dear N-----" and containing other offensive language began arriving to the house.
"I tried to get to the mail before she did," her son said, shielding his mother from the worst of it, as she had once done for him.
But times had changed, at least a bit. Mrs. Wimbish won the council seat handily.
Joseph A. Walker was the first black person elected to citywide office in the Tampa Bay area when he won a seat on the Tampa City Council in 1887, but Mrs. Wimbish was the first African-American elected to office in the Tampa Bay area in the 20th century.
(Perry Harvey Jr. was the first African-American elected by citywide vote in Tampa in modern times in 1983).
Mrs. Wimbish left her seat in 1972 to run for state Senate against Richard Deeb, but lost.
In 1973, Askew appointed her to the deputy secretary of commerce, where she was the second-highest-ranking woman in state government. Mrs. Wimbish lost bids for a state representative seat in 1982 to Alfred Lawson, a black candidate who accused Mrs. Wimbish of being "overeducated," and for Congress against C. W. Bill Young in 1988.
"I fail to understand the 'elitist' appellation," she said in 1982. "If it means being a lady, I am a lady. If it means being genteel, I am genteel."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.