ST. PETERSBURG — The Rev. Watson Haynes II, longtime Pinellas County Urban League president who dedicated his life to addressing generational poverty and empowering young people, has died at 69.
The St. Petersburg native was a towering faith, political and civil rights leader in the community. Several local and statewide officials said Sunday it is difficult to think of a part of city life Haynes did not touch with his care and compassion.
The cause of death has not been announced.
“Today our community mourns the loss of a great man,” U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who went to high school with Haynes, wrote in a statement. “Reverend Watson Haynes was a humble public servant, someone who woke up each and every day with a commitment to fight for freedom, justice, and equality for his neighbors in Pinellas County. But above all, he was my dear friend.”
Crist appointed Haynes to the Florida Commission on Human Relations in 2008, when Crist was governor. Haynes was reappointed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2011.
Haynes grew up in the former Gas Plant neighborhood, one of seven children of a single mother whom the Tampa Bay Times described in 2015 as having “a third-grade education, a stern work ethic and steely determination that her children would amount to something.”
Almost every Saturday during his boyhood, Haynes would be visited by the Rev. Enoch Davis, a civil rights activist who helped lead the campaign to integrate lunch counters in St. Petersburg. They would discuss equality and the importance of community involvement over milkshakes at nearby Webb’s City.
“I never understood why he chose me out of the other kids,” Haynes told the Times in 2015. “But I look back now and I am grateful.”
Haynes was elected class vice president as a junior and class president as a senior at St. Petersburg High School. He later attended St. Petersburg Junior College and then Eckerd College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
He was named president and chief executive officer of the Pinellas County Urban League in 2012. At the time, he listed the needs of returning veterans, particularly those who are African American, unemployment, parental involvement and education among the issues he was most keen to tackle.
“Watson was a counselor, advisor, peacemaker and bridgebuilder,” St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch said in a written statement. “We are forever thankful for his lifelong example of principled leadership.”
Haynes also served as a chaplain for the Eta Rho Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and a minister at New Pleasant Grove Baptist Church.
City Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders described Haynes as “a giant of benevolence” and credits him with opening her to a life of public service. They first worked together two decades ago at the Coalition for a Safe and Drug Free St. Petersburg, a nonprofit of which Haynes was president and chief executive officer.
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“His fingerprints are all over the place,” she said. “His footprints are on every street, every avenue in the city.”
Last year, then-Mayor Rick Kriseman presented Haynes with a key to the city, St. Petersburg’s highest civilian honor.
“I’m hard-pressed to think of an area of our city where the voice and the work of Watson Haynes has not been heard and felt,” Kriseman said during the presentation.
On Sunday afternoon, Kriseman praised Haynes again, telling people gathered for a Souls to the Polls event at Williams Park in St. Petersburg that Haynes was always focused on making his community better.
“The best way we can keep his memory alive is by voting,” Kriseman said.
Terri Lipsey Scott, executive director of The Woodson African American Museum of Florida, said the get-out-the-vote event was planned long before Haynes’ death, but said it had taken on newfound significance and served to celebrate his ever-present “commitment to democracy.”
Among those present was St. Petersburg NAACP President Esther Matthews, who counted Haynes as a mentor.
“Were he still with us on Earth, he would’ve been here at this event,” she said. “Our job now is to continue his legacy.”