Documentary pays homage to St. Pete’s black pioneers (w/video)

Published February 21 2018
Updated February 26 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — In the 1940s, David and Archie Boston grew up together in the Gas Plant neighborhood and hung out together on 22nd Street S, where black residents created their own main street, their own haven, in the midst of a segregated city.

The street was called "The Deuces" back then. But to the brothers, it was an educational institution.

"This is where we’ve learned our teachings and how to conduct ourselves as adults," said Archie Boston, 75. "Right here in St. Petersburg."

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There the brothers met the prominent members of St. Petersburg’s black community who helped shape their lives. Now the Boston brothers want to use the stories of those pioneers to inspire the next generation.

Together they produced Black Pioneers of the Sunshine City, an hour-long documentary set to debut at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum on Wednesday before debuting on public television this month.

"We’re trying to leave history (behind) ...," said David Boston, 77, "also a lot of the storytellers are up there in age and you know they will not be around for a long period of time so we’re trying to leave that history.

"And hopefully young people will look at the documentary and can relate ... and see the message that we’re trying to convey."

"They inspired us," Archie Boston said, "and we respected them."

The documentary tells the stories of educators, pastors, activists and more, highlighting their contributions through historical photos and interviews.

The brothers are personally connected with many of those featured in the documentary. Some were old classmates while others were members of the Boston family’s church, Galilee Missionary Baptist Church, one of the oldest black churches in St. Petersburg.

FROM 2002: The Deuces: Read the Tampa Bay Times special report on the history of 22nd Street S

Barbara Shorter, one of the those highlighted in the documentary, is the daughter of the church’s founder and former pastor. In 1991 she became the first black female high school principal in Pinellas County when she was appointed to Gibbs High School — her alma mater. She served there until 2003.

"It’s really humbling," Shorter, 81, said of being in the documentary. "It’s great to know that somebody is giving us a chance to express how we felt, and to really recognize us for all the stuff we had to go through to become principals and educators and to try to help our children."

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The Boston brothers also graduated from Gibbs High. They said the pioneers profiled in their documentary are the ones who inspired the pursuit of their own careers.

David Boston, 77, has more than 25 years of experience as a television producer behind him, working for ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS-affiliated stations while coproducing "hundreds" of documentaries before Black Pioneers of the Sunshine City.

Archie Boston, 75, has extensive experience in graphic design, advertising and education. He worked in advertising for 12 years before moving to academia at California State University Long Beach, where he spent more than three decades teaching at the School of Art. He also produced a documentary about Los Angeles’ top designers.

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Telling the stories of St. Petersburg’s black pioneers proved to be a challenge — especially, the brothers said, when it came to funding.

They started working on the documentary in March 2014. The original plan was to be finished in six months.

But then they were rejected for funding several times. So the Boston brothers decided to just bankroll it themselves.

David Boston also had to put it together in between travelling and working as an auditor for Underwriters Laboratories.

Eventually they secured the assistance of Bernardo Motta, an assistant professor of theory and community journalism at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, and student Shawn Fok, who helped edit the documentary.

"We just stuck to it," Archie Boston said. "I feel like it’s something that St. Pete needed."

• • •

The inspiration for the documentary came from Archie Boston’s books: Fly in the Buttermilk in 2001 and Lil’ Colored Rascals in the Sunshine City in 2009. The former was a memoir while the in the latter he recollected his childhood.

David Boston was particularly inspired by the sections of the books that detailed their lives growing up in St. Petersburg.

They were born in Clewiston. Their father was a migrant worker tilling the sugarcane fields and later a truck driver. Their mother raised them and their three other siblings and worked as a babysitter on the side.

They moved to St. Petersburg in 1943, grew up in "Pepper Town." Back then, St. Petersburg’s black community numbered about 14,000 people living in roughly two square miles of the city now known as Midtown.

Archie Boston said he was thankful for his upbringing in that world and the fun times that came along with it, which helped inspire the documentary.

"It was about having something in common and mutual respect that helped us to move to this point," he said. "And this documentary you gave us the opportunity to sort of reconnect in the way that we grew up. And it’s still the same."

They were also inspired to recreate the harsh reality of the world they grew up in. Racism and Jim Crow laws made it risky to step outside the borders of the black community.

Strict rules were to be adhered to. White people were to be addressed as "yes ma’am" or "no sir" only, the brothers said, while looking at white women was dangerous.

"You knew your place," David Boston said. "Your parents always told you ‘You have to behave in this manner’ because when you go outside of your community because you can actually be lynched.

"And the only time you can actually be outside of your community would be if you were in route from work to home because the cops would stop you and you could not be in the way."

The brothers said they were stopped by St. Petersburg police numerous times growing up. The same thing happened to them when they moved to Los Angeles. Fortunately, the brothers said, neither experienced violence.

It’s a dynamic they said they tried to capture in their documentary — balancing the fun times they had growing up with the difficult times.

"There’s no reason to lie," Archie Boston said. "We were just telling things that sometimes they try to push under the table and don’t discuss.

"But they need to know. The kids need know what we dealt with."

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Barbara Shorter was the first African-American principal in Pinellas County. It has been updated to reflect that she was the first African-American high school principal in Pinellas County.

Contact Donovan Harrell at