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Black history honors look backward and forward

Freedom Rider Bernard LaFayette  took part in the week’s events.
Freedom Rider Bernard LaFayette took part in the week’s events.
Published Feb. 15, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Legacy Week celebrated Black History Month with a look back and a look forward. Events from Feb. 2 to Feb. 10 included a discussion with Freedom Rider Bernard Lafayette, an awards banquet, a golf tournament and a celebration party.

The Legacy Awards Dinner held at Empath Health recognized four men for their service to the community: state Sen. Darryl Rouson, educator Samuel Davis, Bishop Preston Leonard of Christ Gospel Church, and Ben Shirley, the city's director of sanitation.

"He's been in sanitation for 45 years and I'm 46. It's the only job I've ever known him to have," said Shirley's son, Ben Shirley Jr., marveling at how far his father has come since starting as a trash collector. "His work ethic of getting up at 4 a.m. all those years, I think that inspired my work ethic."

There was a time when the immaturity of youth made Ben Shirley Jr. and his siblings not as pleased with their father's profession.

"It wasn't popular in the '70s to say your dad was a garbage man. We laugh now, because we remember how we just said our dad 'worked for the city.' But it's honest work. It's providing for the family," he said. "We use this saying in our family, 'garbage has been good to us.' He put three kids through college on it."

Ben Shirley Sr. became the city's first black director of sanitation in 2006.

The "I Am A Man" discussion with Lafayette focused on the history and status of black males. The event held at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg included USFSP history professor Ray Arsenault. Lafayette shared details of multiple sit-ins and his role as an adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and spoke about the power of nonviolence to evoke social change.

Arsenault is author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. The two men later teamed up for the Legacy Golf Classic at the newly renovated Twin Brooks Golf Course, calling their duo the Freedom Riders.

Guests were asked to wear black at the week's culminating event, the Black Party, held at USFSP's Harbor Hall.

Laquita Monroe said the week's events impressed upon her the tenacity of local and national African Americans.

"They didn't give up. They helped our generation and we have to keep the legacy going," she said.

"My generation needs to rise up and continue the fight and fight for education," said her daughter, Katrina Jenkins.

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