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'20s beach boom banished blacks

Published Oct. 16, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Julius Bradley didn't want to leave Pass-a-Grille and move to St. Petersburg. He had to. The town was becoming a beach paradise in the 1920s, and paradise had no room for a black man who raised hogs and sold concessions on a speck of beach designated for black swimmers. In fact, it had no room for black beaches or black swimmers. Or black families such as the Bradleys.

So with the subtlety of a Sumo wrestler, the beach community forced them to leave.

In 1923, when Julius was 11 years old, the family obliged.

Historical accounts of the time are not kind to William Bradley. In the few anecdotes that mention him, he's portrayed as a sometimes bumbling garbage man.

But his children remember him differently. And the evidence suggests he was an industrious man, determined to see his children educated. Quite likely, he would have joined the ranks of those who became rich developing Pass-a-Grille - except for one minor detail. His name in the city's directory had an asterisk beside it. That meant that, by statute, he had to stay in his place.

"We were the last (black) family to leave," said Julius Bradley - who, at 78, lives in St. Petersburg, as do two of his three sisters, Lucille Bradley and Maggie D. Jones. "We were the first (black family) to live there and the last to leave," Julius said recently from his porch at 2165 22nd Ave. S. The family's reluctance to leave Pass-a-Grille had little to do with its emerging paradisiacal image. Paradise for black people in turn-of-the-century Florida was an option they might have only after death. Their resistance to the idea was due to a number of factors, which had as much to do with St. Petersburg as with Pass-a-Grille.

"There wasn't nothing for black folks there (in Pass-a-Grille) except work," said Mrs. Jones, the oldest of the Bradley siblings, who playfully but steadfastly guards her age by admitting only that "I'm in my 70s."

A school was built there in 1912, the year Julius was born, but its 15 to 17 students were always white. To go to school, the Bradley children had to catch a boat across the bay to Gulfport, then a trolley into St. Petersburg. They usually stayed in St. Petersburg during the week to go to school and returned to Pass-a-Grille on weekends.

Despite the inconvenience, remaining in Pass-a-Grille seemed a better alternative than moving to St. Petersburg. "One thing about this town.... They lynched Negroes in St. Petersburg, but nothing like that happened in Pass-a-Grille," said Julius Bradley. "They lynched the last one on Ninth Street and First Avenue S, right on the coastline railroad track," he said. "That was back in the 'teens."

Two killings are corroborated by historical records of the period.

In 1905, according to newspaper accounts, John Thomas, a black man accused of shooting the police chief, was shot to death in his second-story jail cell by a man who climbed a ladder. While the deed was done, an angry mob looked on.

Another black man, John Evans, was lynched in 1914 at the Ninth Street location Bradley remembered, though the woman Evans was charged with raping said he was the wrong man. According to reports, the crowd gathered around the utility pole from which Evans hung and made an evening of the lynching. A number of people, including some children and women, emptied weapons into his already dead body.

The next year, the man accused as Evans' accomplice was convicted, then hanged.

"We never had any problems with white folks (in Pass-a-Grille)," Mrs. Jones said.

But staying there was not a choice, they said. It made no difference that their father owned two houses and a rooming house he rented to black workers who came from St. Petersburg to work in the hotels and kitchens and gardens. Never mind that he had owned pigs, which he tended across the bay on Mullet Key. Or that he had owned the concession that sold candy and popcorn, ice cream and cookies, and rented bathing suits to blacks who thronged to the beach on weekends.

"We had to leave, all Indians and all blacks. It came down from city hall or somewhere. The mayor was named (J.J.) Duffy. We were the only ones left. What was happening was the city was expanding, and they were building on the bay side and Gulf side, and the city wasn't going to sandwich in one black family," Bradley said.

It is unclear whether the city issued a written edict, but that decade in Florida history was ripe for such a move. Gov. Sidney J. Catts encouraged towns throughout the state to enforce tighter segregation policies, and many did.

In a place so small that its width would be challenged by two football fields laid end to end, the city ran out of room to tighten segregation rules.

The construction boom in the '20s - as many as 15 millionaires had homes there by 1922, according to some accounts - closed in on Bradley.

Before 1921, there had been no white people living north of what is now 13th Avenue. The Bradleys, who had moved to Pass-a-Grille at the turn of the century, lived at what is now 20th Avenue and Pass-a-Grille Way (Fants Market now stands on the spot) and were cushioned by nearly a mile of undeveloped real estate.

As the southern end of the peninsula filled, a lot of the stuffing was knocked out of that cushion. Along with the stuffing, the sources of the Bradleys' comparatively good life started disappearing.

After the devastating flood late in 1921, the city no longer saw a need to reserve a section of the beach for black people. That ended the Bradley's beach concession business. Then, "We finally had to get rid of the hogs," Bradley said. "As Pass-a-Grille started growing and people moved close down to where we lived, they could smell that odor when the wind would blow. So we had to get rid of them pigs."

Bradley said he and his father also worked in the kitchens of hotels and would gather bread and other throwaway food and carry it by boat to his hogs across the bayou. But in 1923, with little to show for the forced sale of his property, William Bradley moved his family to Sixth Avenue and 17th Street S in St. Petersburg, near Davis Elementary School. More than 60 years later, their closeness to the school is the only good thing they remember about the move.

Their father went to work for the city, their mother continued to do laundry for white people and the children went to school. All of them eventually graduated from Gibbs High School, and two of them graduated from college. Another completed nurse training.

Now retired, Bradley taught for 16 years in Tarpon Springs and St. Petersburg.

But the transition to life in St. Petersburg was not a smooth one.

The relative free movement they had at Pass-a-Grille was gone.

"They didn't have streetlights like they do now," said Bradley, "But, you never went to town after dark, anyway."

And that wasn't just because of the streetlights.

"No, after dark, you'd better be getting home," said Mrs. Jones. "I was cooking for Miss Ann and supper'd be late ... Why, police all knew about it so they knew what time I'd be getting off and knew I'd be getting out from out here.

"And no black people were allowed on this (the south) side of 18th Avenue after 6 o'clock in the evening. Now they're living over here," she said.

At one time, just before the '20s, about a third of Pass-a-Grille's population of less than 200 was black. Since the Bradleys left in 1923, the town has had no black residents, according to an area historian and longtime residents.

But the children of the first and last black homeowner there still remember - with fondness and with time-mellowed bitterness - that it was the place of their childhood.