City unrest called unprecedented

Published Nov. 15, 1996|Updated Sep. 17, 2005

This city is no stranger to racial conflict, but the violence in city streets during the past three weeks is unprecedented, according to local historian Raymond Arsenault.

"These disturbances are not the conflagrations we have seen in some of our major cities," said Arsenault, "but they are frightening nevertheless."

Look far enough back in St. Petersburg's history and there is evidence of lynchings. In 1914, for example, John Evans, a black laborer suspected in the murder of a white man, was dragged out of the city jail and hung from a light pole at the corner of Ninth Street and Second Avenue S.

Still unsatisfied, some in the crowd emptied their guns into the corpse.

Arsenault, a professor at the University of South Florida, describes the history of the city's black-white relations in his book St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream, 1888 to 1950.

There was "tremendous hostility and tension" in the 1930s and '40s, he said, as the city's police department and politicians often enforced Jim Crow laws that sought to make "cradle-to-grave" segregation a reality.

Nevertheless, as the city grew and prospered, its black community did too, at least in relative terms.

But the city's constant focus on its image "had a profound effect on race relations," said Arsenault. "St. Petersburg was dependent on tourism, and therefore hypersensitive about image and public relations. It was not Birmingham and it wasn't Jackson, Miss., and it did not want to be."

Therefore, he said, for many years the city's black community was, to the extent possible, "camouflaged."

Blacks were shooed off the city's green benches and didn't have a swimming pool they could comfortably visit until 1953.

Predictably, there was trouble over the years.

On May 6, 1968, the city's garbage workers walked off the job for the third time in four years.

The strike lasted 116 days, and in that time the city experienced dozens of firebombings and arrests _ its first widespread and prolonged civil disorder.

The strike was about wages, but the garbage workers were black, and it became the kind of racial confrontation common during the 1960s.

From the garbage strike came something good, said Arsenault _ the Community Alliance.

The current strife is "very troublesome," he said.

"There was a lot of rhetoric during the Curt Curtsinger candidacy for mayor a few years ago," he said, but for the most part it remained just talk.

"Now, in terms of violence, this is unprecedented."