ST. PETERSBURG — For a few decades, 22nd Street S offered all the amenities available to white people downtown.
At its peak in the early 1960s, more than 100 businesses crowded "the Deuces," or 22nd Street S between Fifth and 15th avenues, including auto repair shops, hair salons, doctor and lawyer offices, grocers and cobblers, real estate hubs, car dealers, funeral homes and a theater.
Barco's Grocery stood in the heart of the Deuces. The proprietor, Paul "PJ" Barco Sr., built the store at 924 22nd St. S in the late 1950s and raised his family in the loft above the store.
Mr. Barco, a St. Petersburg native, understood the segregation that had made such clustering necessary. He remembered the days of his childhood, before a wave of retirees pushed black residents out of downtown.
Mr. Barco, whose passion for self-reliance and continued learning helped him prosper during St. Petersburg's Jim Crow years, died April 8 after an illness. He was 97.
"The educated people he knew," said William Barco, 65, his son. "The doctors. The people he grew up with. The wineheads, all up and down the street, he knew everybody.
"They'd say, 'How you doing, PJ?' "
Friends and family remember Mr. Barco as diligent, focused and — this phrase comes up often — "no-nonsense."
"He was an extraordinary man," said Charles Fulwood, 63, a widely published writer who grew up in St. Petersburg. "He was very focused on being productive all the time. He was relentless in the consistency of his message about being organized, meticulous and responsible in what you did."
His children learned that they had better get that message. If they didn't, said daughter Paula Barco Caesar, 59, "He would have you come and sit in his library, and he would simply tell you some vignettes or some short stories about how your decisions in that particular instance had consequences, and here is how that played out for other people."
He recorded his own history and his surroundings through journal writing and photography, a passion for which he once traveled to New York for courses.
Paul Johnson Barco was born in St. Petersburg in 1916 with the help of a midwife. The family lived on 13th Avenue S, then a rural area. He attended Davis Academy, for years the only school for African-Americans.
During his childhood, he saw the beginnings of aggressive segregation. The green benches in Williams Park where his parents had courted were now off-limits.
"In many instances, black people in the community and Caucasians went to the same doctors, the same places," said Sharon Robinson, another of Mr. Barco's daughters.
One day stuck in his memory.
"He remembered the time the dentist said to them, 'You can no longer sit in the front of my office because my white patients say they don't want to sit around — this was after Northerners started coming into the city. They did not want to be taken care of in the same room."
Mr. Barco graduated from Gibbs High in 1935 and then Florida A&M. He opened a grocery store in rented space on Seventh Avenue S in 1940. By 1959 he had finished the store and home on 22nd Street.
Integration starting in the late 1960s brought with it a new freedom of movement and a subsequent decentralization of the black community. Convenience stores and Interstate 275 made it easier to skirt the Deuces.
Business was slipping, yet Mr. Barco had children to put through college. He took a side job at Honeywell as a custodian — omitting his college degree from the application on the advice of previous prospective employers who had turned him down.
Barco's Grocery closed in 1981. Mr. Barco took a woodworking course, where he learned to make cabinets for his wife, Jessie. He traveled to Africa and Europe. In recent years, he spent much of his time in a small study, surrounded by bookshelves floor to ceiling.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.