ST. PETERSBURG— Years ago, when Gwen Reese fought to preserve the city’s black history, she never envisioned a trail.
“We thought it was just going to be a brochure or collection of stories,” said Reese, who serves as president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg.
But thanks to the efforts of former Mayor Bill Foster, who initiated the project, and a $50,000 state grant, it blossomed into two different trails. One, titled “Faith, Family, and Education" starts at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum along Ninth Avenue S. The other, titled “Community, Culture, and Commerce,” sits along 22nd Street S, otherwise known as the “Deuces.” Together they span two miles with 19 markers detailing the city’s African American history.
The trail features churches, landmarks for black-owned businesses and entertainment, and more.
When the two trails, collectively known as the African American Heritage Trail, opened on Aug. 9, 2014, Reese, other community members, Mayor Rick Kriseman and City Council members cut the ribbon in excitement. They had high hopes that it would attract tourists and locals who would not typically visit some of St. Petersburg’s south side neighborhoods.
But now, five years later, the hype is gone and many people don’t even know it’s there. Some signs are broken, or have been vandalized.
Reese, a St. Petersburg native, says the trail doesn’t have enough visibility around the city.
Trail brochures are missing from key places like the visitor center at the Chamber of Commerce or Sunken Gardens, where tourists go seeking things to do.
As a private organization, the chamber isn’t obligated to display brochures. But in an effort to be more inclusive and promote diversity, President and CEO Chris Steinocher says the trail brochures should definitely be out.
The trail has a spot on the city’s website. According to the city’s marketing department, brochures are at the city’s two kiosks at City Hall (which is currently closed) and the Municipal Services Center.
But to Reese that is not enough. The trail does not have as much support from the city as the association had hoped.
“City Council has not taken a guided tour, the mayor hasn’t taken a guided tour, and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce have not taken a guided tour,” Reese said.
Nikki Capehart, the city’s urban affairs director, believes it’s an easy fix.
She agreed that the city and the entire community can do a better job of promoting the trail, especially those opportunities to take a guided tour.
"They were all there as a part of the kickoff, but that's different than actually taking the guided tour," she said.
“It takes it a step further and shows that commitment, so I think that’s a great idea and I know our administration wouldn’t have a problem with doing that.”
Capehart believes the only reason city officials haven’t done so already is simply that they weren’t asked.
On the guided tour, guests learn about the local schools, housing stock, community organizations, and churches that enriched the social fabric of the neighborhood along Ninth Avenue S.
This includes seven churches remaining of the original 24 that operated there in 1951 before the construction of Interstate 275 bulldozed many of them. Some still have the original buildings such as 20th Street Church of Christ and Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist.
And on 22nd Street guests can get a glimpse of the cultural heritage of the neighborhood, its community leaders, the landmarks of black businesses and entertainment, and the evolution from the Jim Crow era to desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement.
One of the landmarks is the original Royal Theater, which was one of the few places black residents could visit for entertainment during segregation. It closed in 1966, which is about the time integration began opening St. Petersburg’s previously all-white theaters to blacks. It has been designated a local historic landmark and is now utilized by the Boys and Girls Club of the Suncoast.
Capehart said it’s important to develop a plan to sustain the trail..
Reese said in the past she has not aggressively sought the city’s support.
“When you’re a one-woman show it kind of piles up,” she said.
But now, she has support from the city’s Historic Preservation Department, which plans to repair four broken and vandalized signs.
Reese’s next goal is to eventually expand it into Methodist Town — a neighborhood named after the historic Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 912 Third Ave. S that was built in 1922 and home to the city’s oldest African-American congregation.
That task, however, she knows will take years to develop before they can seek city grants.
Right now, there’s still a lot of work to do.
The focus is to first repair the damaged signs, then start providing guided tours, and grow the association.
The African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg operates solely by a limited number of active, volunteers and recently gained status as a 501c nonprofit organization.
It does not have an office, and is still developing a website for guests to easily schedule tours and learn more information about the city’s African American history.
“It’s so important that we tell our story because we have contributed so much,” Reese said. “The history is not all beautiful, but it’s history.”
Contact Monique Welch at firstname.lastname@example.org or Follow mo_unique_.
The African American Heritage Association will conduct monthly guided tours on the second Wednesday and fourth Saturday of each month beginning in October pending repairs. If interested, visit the African American Heritage Trail Facebook page. Large groups and/or private organizations can schedule guided tours by calling (727) 537-0449.