DANSVILLE — On a breezy Saturday morning, in the neighborhood he’d spent his life, David Baldwin was nervous.
The 70-year-old wasn’t one to speak in front of crowds, and this was a big one, about 40 people, dotted with Pinellas County commissioners and employees and Baldwin’s family members, friends, neighbors and old co-workers.
But Baldwin had a story to tell. That’s why they were there, after all: to honor his story, his family’s story, the story of Dansville, a historically Black community south of Largo founded decades ago by Baldwin’s grandfather, Dan Henry.
Longtime residents and Pinellas policy makers gathered Saturday on a plot of land in the heart of the community to unveil a historical marker commemorating Dansville. It was the latest step in a county-community effort dating back to the 1990s to redevelop the area while preserving its remarkable history.
“We know that history can take the form of a tremendous story, a rolling narrative, filled with great personalities and tales of turmoil and triumph,” said Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice. “History provides us with a sense of identity. We are here today to celebrate that identity and continue telling the story of Dansville.”
The story — preserved in an extensive collection of oral histories, research papers, newspaper clips and the memories of Baldwin and other descendants of the founding families — goes like this:
Henry and his brother, Lloyd, were sharecroppers in Georgia when they went south, lured by the prospect of jobs on the railroad or in Pinellas’ once-thriving citrus industry. In 1928, Lloyd bought land in a neighboring community now called Baskin. His brother followed suit about 20 years later, purchasing two 40-acre tracts where Dansville is today.
Back then, in the Jim Crow south, it was rare for Black men to own property. Henry shared his bounty with family and friends. Many residents recalled him “stepping off” the land, measuring plots using his feet. Families built homes and settled in. Businesses, like Davis’ Moon Stop Sandwich Shop and J.W. Williams’ grocery store, opened up. Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist filled with worshippers on Sunday mornings.
Baldwin recounted how the neighborhood got its name. His grandfather wanted to open a bar and, while trying to obtain a liquor license, government officials learned the area didn’t have a name, a requirement for the paperwork. So they asked Henry what his was.
“Dan Henry,” he told them.
“And Dansville,” Baldwin said, “came forth.”
For years, the community was largely ignored by county officials. Residents drove on dirt roads and relied on wells and outhouses for water and plumbing. Men generally worked as mechanics or citrus pickers and women cleaned houses or cooked.
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It was tough living, but there was also a strong sense of community. Residents watched each other’s children, held a fish fry to raise money for a community fire truck and brought plants from their own front yards to help landscape the newly built Ridgecrest Elementary School in the late 1950s.
Everything changed on Oct. 3, 1992, when tornadoes swept through mid-Pinellas, killing four and devastating Dansville, where 26 homes were destroyed. Once again, the community rallied, and this time, county officials joined the effort. They helped rebuild houses, cleaned out enough trash and junk tires to fill up multiple Olympic swimming pools, and set off on a project to map property lines through a process called platting.
Meantime, historians began recording the stories of residents in an oral history project preserved at the Heritage Village living history museum. And county officials formed a partnership with residents to improve amenities in the area and develop homes on vacant land.
After many stops and starts, the project is still ongoing. But on Saturday, the progress was clear. New homes filled up once-empty lots, the majority built by Habitat for Humanity. Wide sidewalks connected the new homes with the old, winding past the construction at Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist, which is expanding.
And, of course, there was the historical marker, still covered Saturday morning by a navy piece of cloth cinched by a gold rope.
Baldwin, with butterflies in his stomach, made his way up to a lectern and leaned toward the microphone.
“I thank you for bringing this forward and thinking about us,” he started.
Then he launched into stories, of waiting for the school bus on a road of crushed shells, of watching Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 thriller “The Birds” at an old one-room theater, of his granddad teaching him how to drive and sitting on his stoop with a rifle, ready to shoot an aggressive bull at a nearby cow pasture if it ever got out.
“I could keep on going, but I don’t want to bore you,” Baldwin said. “But I just want to say thank you to the commissioners, the planning committee and all those who had a hand in bringing this commencement forward. I appreciate it, and if my granddad was still living, he would be very honored.”
Then they gathered at the veiled marker, ready for its big debut. Baldwin did the honors, untying the rope and pulling the cloth down. It revealed a black marker engraved in cream lettering telling Dansville’s story.
Attendees snapped photos on their phones and cameras as Baldwin beamed. His speech over, he was back in his comfort zone, flanked by family: his wife, Annie Ruth; one of his daughters, Therese Baldwin, who lives in Dansville a few blocks from her dad; and his three grandsons — the future generations who will carry on Henry’s legacy.