Jane Silverberg, St. Petersburg entrepreneur, activist and philanthropist, dies at 89

With her late husband Donald, Jane Silverberg founded a chain of jewelry stores, supported a wide range of local causes and worked to persuade fellow merchants to provide equal access to all customers regardless of race.
Jane Silverberg during her run for the Florida House of Representatives in 1976. (Times file photo)
Jane Silverberg during her run for the Florida House of Representatives in 1976. (Times file photo) [ UNKNOWN | Times files ]
Published Dec. 19, 2019|Updated Dec. 19, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Jane Silverberg, public school teacher, entrepreneur, civil rights activist and philanthropist, died Dec. 11, 2019. She was 89.

With her husband, Don, Mrs. Silverberg founded and ran Silverberg Jewelry, which grew to five locations from Sarasota to New Port Richey. She also pursued a full range of community-focused activities, from supporting the growth of St. Petersburg College to helping to found Menorah Manor to joining striking St. Petersburg sanitation workers on the picket line.

“She could have just remained comfortable, but she wanted to make some positive change as the country was changing, and so she stood up,” said her son, Thomas Silverberg of St. Petersburg. “Sometimes she won and sometimes she lost, but no matter what she kept going.”

A lifelong St. Petersburg resident, Mrs. Silverberg graduated from St. Petersburg High School, then studied at Sophie Newcomb College, now known as Tulane University, before transferring to the University of Michigan where she graduated with degrees in social studies and education.

Returning to St. Petersburg, she taught eighth-grade American history at South Side Junior High in the 1950s. Years later, her children said, former students stopped her in the mall to reminisce. She married Don Silverberg, a childhood friend and Army veteran, in 1953. They raised three children in a home on Pelham Road, then unpaved, and Mrs. Silverberg would ring a bell in the yard to summon the kids to dinners that were an everyday touchstone of the family’s life.

In 1968, the couple founded Silverberg Jewelry Co., and went on to work together for nearly 30 years. They traveled around the world to find distinctive items, including a pre-Columbian gold nose piece they sold to Nelson Rockefeller, who put the artifact in his collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The couple also made the rounds in St. Petersburg, though for different reasons.

In the 1960s, many St. Petersburg businesses refused to serve black customers despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So the Silverbergs made a point of going out to dinner with four African-American friends.

At restaurants, the group would ask to be seated, sometimes to be directed to the bar even though there were empty tables. At the bar, the bartender would only serve Mr. Silverberg, so he would order five drinks and hand them to his friends, Dr. Fred Alsup and wife Edith, and Dr. Ralph Wimbish and wife Bette.

“Then Dr. Wimbish would explain the civil rights legislation, and the manager would usually give in," Mrs. Silverberg told the Tampa Bay Times in 2016 after her husband’s death. "We went to practically every restaurant in town doing that.”

Likewise, when theaters told the group they could sit only in the balcony, they sat downstairs, explaining the law to managers and employees. Mrs. Silverberg said her husband was diplomatic enough to "convince people that this was the right thing to do. They finally went along with it.”

In 1968, Mrs. Silverberg joined a strike by St. Petersburg sanitation workers demanding better pay and working conditions. She ran unsuccessfully for the St. Petersburg City Council in 1971 and the Florida House of Representatives in 1976, and was elected as a delegate to the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

In the mid 1960s, she wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column called “Serving Seniors,” in which she helped readers navigate the new Medicare program.

Locally, the Silverbergs supported Menorah Manor from its start and at St. Petersburg College established the Silverberg Endowment for Academic Excellence and the Silverberg Community Center at the college’s Bay Pines STEM campus. Mrs. Silverberg served on the St. Petersburg Housing Authority in the 1970s, on the board of the National Conference for Community and Justice from 1979 to 1985, and the board of American Stage Theater in the 1980s and 1990s. She was active in her synagogue, Congregation B’nai Israel, and put her skills as a teacher as a docent at the Holocaust Museum.

“If everyone did what she did, it would be a beautiful world,” Thomas Silverberg said. “No doubt about that. She did a lot.”

Jane Esther Silverberg

Born: Oct. 2, 1930 in St. Petersburg

Died: Dec. 11, 2019, St. Petersburg

Survivors: A brother, Sanford Goldman (Mary Davenport); three children, Terri (Jay Gross), Edward (Cindy Fletcher), and Thomas (Shevy), all of St. Petersburg; seven grandchildren, four great-grandchildren.