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Safety Harbor’s first Black commissioner made history. He died at 85.

William Blackshear also helped start The Weekly Challenger newspaper.
William Blackshear worked at General Electric's Pinellas plant as a laser welder from 1958 until 1970.
William Blackshear worked at General Electric's Pinellas plant as a laser welder from 1958 until 1970. [ Courtesy Harry Williams ]
Published May 3

On May 5, 2006, Angelia Rodriguez got a manilla envelope in the mail from her father.

Dear Angelia,

By compiling the enclosed stories and information, I have attempted to shed some light on the history and lives of our ancestors and to share with you events that made them real, alive and exciting.

In his spiral-bound collection, William Blackshear wrote vivid stories about his life.

Those adventures are his history and ours.

Mr. Blackshear was the first Black city commissioner in Safety Harbor. He helped start The Weekly Challenger, now a 54-year-old newspaper serving Tampa Bay’s Black community. And he spent his life making space for people.

“‘Everybody had a story,’ that was one of my dad’s lines,” Rodriguez said. “And everybody deserved the opportunity to tell their story before you judged them.”

Mr. Blackshear died from natural causes on March 21. He was 85.

His family shared some of his stories with us.

William Blackshear recorded stories about his life, from his days growing up to covering the collapse of the Skyway Bridge for the Weekly Challenger.
William Blackshear recorded stories about his life, from his days growing up to covering the collapse of the Skyway Bridge for the Weekly Challenger. [ Courtesy Harry Williams ]

I was a wild child. I grew up that way. Maybe it was the times or maybe it was the water...I was born only 35 years after reconstruction, when trains ran by steam and everybody walked, when ice was delivered daily and every family had a wood burning stove and nobody got new clothes except maybe at Christmas, maybe.

So, I grew up yearning for adventure and thrills…

William Blackshear helped build the Lincoln Nursery in Safety Harbor so his youngest, Jacqueline Williams, would have a place to go. He’s pictured here at the ribbon cutting.
William Blackshear helped build the Lincoln Nursery in Safety Harbor so his youngest, Jacqueline Williams, would have a place to go. He’s pictured here at the ribbon cutting. [ Courtesy Harry Williams ]

God’s children

Mr. Blackshear grew up in Safety Harbor, then “a nothing place,” he wrote.

He was bussed to a Black high school in Clearwater, where he met his future wife, Betty Booze. Her sister remembers the Sunday a handsome young man came knocking at the door.

He soon became family, said Catherine Sumter.

Mr. Blackshear served six years in the Army, including two in Japan. He and his wife had six children. The couple took them to the beach, on picnics and into the woods to learn about plants and animals.

“We did everything. He let us taste life,” said Rodriguez, his eldest daughter.

They also went into segregated spaces where they were the only Black family. Some people are closed-minded, Mr. Blackshear told his children.

“But always remember that you are God’s child as well, and you are accepted even if other people say that you are not.”

On drives through white neighborhoods, “he would tell us one day when you get married and you and your husband want to buy a house, you’re going to be able to buy a house in this neighborhood,” Rodriguez said. “He taught us to be forward-thinkers.”

Mr. Blackshear and his eldest son went into migrant camps in Safety Harbor to sit and eat and get to know the farm workers. At home, Mr. Blackshear bought records and learned how to speak Spanish.

He worked several jobs — at General Electric’s Pinellas Peninsula Plant, picking up dry cleaning, as a disc jockey. At 29, he added another title when he beat three white candidates for a seat on Safety Harbor’s City Commission. It was 1964. He became the first Black candidate elected to serve in Florida since the end of Reconstruction, The Weekly Challenger reported.

“I remember the count,” Rodriguez said. “We wanted him to win. We didn’t realize what he had gone up against to do it.”

The family sat around a black-and-white television watching as results rolled in, then jumped up cheering.

Lamar Blackshear, the eldest, remembers, too. Someone called the house and threatened to kill everyone there, “so y’all better leave,” a man said.

Mr. Blackshear ran again in 1967, “to work for the betterment of living conditions for all,” he told the then-St. Petersburg Times. He lost by 42 votes in a runoff.

He offered his thanks and encouraged supporters to work just as hard for the new commissioner.

From the Times, Nov. 12, 1964.
From the Times, Nov. 12, 1964. [ Via newspapers.com ]

In 1965, President Johnson invited every Black elected official of the old south to Washington for an official welcome to politics from the chief. It was in a briefing that I met Charles Evers, brother of slain Civil Rights worker Medgar Evers of Mississippi. We found a lot to talk about and shared our excitement about the future of Civil Rights in America.

Jacqueline Williams and her father, William Blackshear, on her wedding day in 1982.
Jacqueline Williams and her father, William Blackshear, on her wedding day in 1982. [ Courtesy Harry Williams ]

The Challenger

In 1967, Mr. Blackshear worked with Cleveland Johnson, Jr. to launch The Weekly Challenger, where he handled advertising for 34 years.

“He sought and earned Publix advertising, and the supermarket has been the Challenger’s most loyal major advertiser since 1968,” the Challenger reported.

Mr. Blackshear also started the Southeast Black Publishers Association.

He and his wife raised one of their grandchildren, Jazmine Hite. He collected Native American art and literature in honor of his Native family members. He doted on his wife of 65 years, who died in 2018. He wrote stories for the Challenger and shot portraits and photos, developing them in the dark room he built in his house.

And when Mr. Blackshear got to thinking, he’d put his thumb on his chin and rub his brow with his index finger.

In 2002, the Curtis Museum of Pinellas County honored Mr. Blackshear and other community members.

“He was so thankful that we remembered him for what he had done,” said executive director Sandra Rooks. “It seems like he didn’t get very much recognition for all of his accomplishments.”

One of those accomplishments was telling his own stories. Mr. Blackshear’s children have different collections of his memories, including the 58-page book daughter Jacqueline Williams shared for this obituary.

“He loved telling stories,” she said.

William and Betty Blackshear met in high school and were married for 65 years.
William and Betty Blackshear met in high school and were married for 65 years. [ Courtesy Harry Williams ]

Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

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