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In town within a town, stories needed telling

Rosalie Peck grew up just four blocks from 22nd Street S, the black community's main business district in St. Petersburg during the segregation era. Jon Wilson, a St. Petersburg Times staff writer and graduate student in USF St. Petersburg's Florida Studies Program, moved to St. Petersburg from Nebraska with his family in the mid 1950s and never visited 22nd Street during its heyday.

But the two met in the spring of 2001, when Wilson was covering the city's redevelopment plans for the Midtown area. Wilson interviewed Peck for an ensuing project, "The Deuces," published by the Times in July 2002. The two found they shared a similar interest in the history of 22nd Street, and Peck approached Wilson about collaborating on a book.

Together, the two wrote St. Petersburg's Historic 22nd Street South, released this month by History Press. The book is a collection of stories, gathered through extensive research and interviews, that gives context and meaning to the historically black area and its role in the lives of those who lived there during segregation.

"The book wouldn't have happened had (Rosalie) not suggested it," Wilson said. "She was an inspiration, and just so interesting. We tried to be consistent and meet at least a couple of hours every week to work, but half the time I just wanted to sit and listen to the stories she had."

Asked about their different backgrounds, Wilson said it never came into play.

"We never thought about it as younger or older, black or white," he said. "We were just two people with an intense interest in St. Petersburg and a love of history. And we both recognized that there was this wonderful story about what was essentially a town within a town, and that it was a story that needed to be told."

Peck said she has always had a love for storytelling.

"I started writing before I started school," she said. "I loved fairy tales and I could tell stories. My brother Mark would ask me to tell him a story about, let's say, the tree that fell across the road, and I'd come up with a whole story for him."

Meeting Wilson, Peck said, was fate.

"We were both so passionate about the subject, which was unique in itself," Peck said. "It's a history that needs to be told."

The two worked on the manuscript weekly for two or three years, Wilson said. They each wrote parts of the book and would take turns editing each other's work.

"Something he would say would provoke my thoughts or something I would say would provoke his," Peck said. "We'd talk about points of interest that emerged just from talking about 22nd Street."

Wilson said the story of 22nd Street needed to be told because it is an integral part of the city's history that has long been overlooked.

"The people who lived in the 22nd Street neighborhood helped build St. Petersburg," Wilson said. "They are as much a part of the city's history, the city's story, as the movers and shakers downtown. And they were ignored for years. I mean, it's hard to find an obituary about Elder Jordan Sr. (for whom Jordan Park is named), who had a huge influence."

Peck said things have changed dramatically since she was a child. Back then, neighbors stepped in to help raise, or discipline, a child. Teachers came to a student's home to talk to a parent. Everyone pretty much knew everyone in those days, Peck said. The area offered a strong sense of community, Peck said, but that came at a price.

"People weren't scattered all over the place. It was a tightknit community. What was missing was freedom in the highest sense," Peck said.

Peck is also the author of Learning to Say Goodbye: Dealing with Death and Dying (written with Dr. Charlotte Stefanics and published in 1987) and Threshold: First Book of Poetry 2001, a self-published book of poetry. She is also editing her latest work, A Blackberry Winter, a fictionalized history based on stories that Peck's grandmother used to tell her.

St. Petersburg's Historic 22nd Street South is Wilson's second published book. Pineapple Press published Bridger's Run, a "Cracker western," in 1999. Wilson is one of several authors associated with the Florida Studies Program at USF St. Petersburg with recently published, or soon to be published, books. Professor Ray Arsenault's Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Pivotal Moments in American History) was published in January; Professor Gary Mormino's Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida was published in June; graduate student Adam J. Carozza wrote Images of America: New Port Richey, published in 2004; graduate student Michelle Hoffman's book, St. Petersburg's Maritime Service Training Station, is to be released in May; and Florida Studies Program Fellow Lee Irby's new book, The Up and Up, will be published this June.