ST. PETERSBURG — Like other African-American children growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, Rosalie Peck had doors closed in her face. The Pier was off-limits. So were the city's ubiquitous green benches. Department stores said she could buy their dresses but not try them on first.
A veterinarian's office even refused to treat her dog, saying, "We don't take colored dogs."
But inside the Jim Crow confines of her neighborhood, a community thrived. Jazz legends like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington performed at the Manhattan Casino. Businesses bustled on 22nd Street S.
Ms. Peck helped break a racial barrier as the first black female student at St. Petersburg Junior College. She became a social worker and author, often writing about her hometown with a mixture of realism and nostalgia.
Ms. Peck died Friday of cancer. She was 82.
In her poem Twenty-Second Street: The Way We Were, she wrote, "We had doctors, lawyers and barbers for you … drugstores and grocery stores too; soda fountains, shoe repairs and when life was through, there was a well-established funeral home to bury you."
"She was an integral part of Midtown's history and folklore," said Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis.
Ms. Peck was born at home on 10th Avenue S and delivered by her grandmother. She was one of 10 children of James and Octavia Peck. She often tagged along with her mother, a grocer, as she shopped on 22nd Street.
She grew up to be tall and striking, and was voted Queen of the Manhattan Casino in 1947 and 1948. A Gibbs High School graduate, she tried to enter Bixby Business School but was denied admittance because of her race. She went to a business school in Washington, D.C., and married Dr. Bob Swain, a dentist and civil rights activist.
The marriage lasted about a decade. In 1961 she resumed her education at St. Petersburg Junior College — a year before James Meredith cracked the color barrier at the University of Mississippi.
That experience, though anxiety-producing, solidified her confidence. She went on to get a bachelor's degree at Bethune-Cookman University and a master's in social work at Atlanta University.
She worked for Veterans Affairs hospitals in Michigan and California, returning to St. Petersburg in 1975.
She told friends that life in far-away places caused her to miss the "small-town values" of St. Petersburg. "She remained very positive about growing up in a segregated St. Petersburg because of the richness it provided her," said friend Gwen Reese, 60. "She credited the richness of the black community for who she was."
Ms. Peck retired from Bay Pines VA Medical Center in 1989.
Then-Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed her to the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council in 1995, and she advised city leaders on 22nd Street redevelopment.
In 2006, she co-authored St. Petersburg's Historic 22nd Street South with Jon Wilson, a former St. Petersburg Times staff writer.
"One of the reasons she was interested in chronicling the history," Wilson said, "is that she wanted to help show the younger generations what once was, and even though there were hardships, there were points of pride as well."
Ms. Peck's health, already hindered by cancer, recently took a turn for the worse. Community leader Watson Haynes, a friend of hers, tried to fast-track her plan to donate items to the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, including some of the earliest Gibbs High School yearbooks and a gown she wore to the Manhattan Casino.
Haynes was on his way to visit Ms. Peck on Friday when the hospice called to say she had died. The museum donation, which had been set for today, likely will take place in the fall, he said.
"She would keep saying, 'I've had a good ride.' That's kind of telling folk that your time is here."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]