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St. Pete’s iconic green benches: Their legacy is more painful than you think

The green benches that dotted the city for decades were symbols of hospitality — and segregation. A public discussion attempts to heal old wounds.

ST. PETERSBURG — For years, Midge Trubey proudly displayed a green bench at her home, lovingly repainting the St. Petersburg icon and having its hardware repaired.

In 2011, Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, installed two green benches in his organization’s lobby.

Several years later, St. Petersburg newcomers Ashley and Tony Sica published the inaugural issue of their Green Bench Monthly magazine. The green benches that once lined downtown streets were a symbol of “community and welcomeness,” their editorial said.

But some readers begged to differ, prompting the Sicas to acknowledge in their next issue that they had not fully understood "the entire historical and cultural significance” of the green benches.

The city’s era of the green benches officially kicked off in 1916, when Mayor Al Lang set about regulating the color and size of benches that had begun proliferating throughout downtown. St. Petersburg was to become the city of the green benches, which numbered in the thousands at the peak of their popularity.

Visitors at the Florida Holocaust Museum look at a Ku Klux Klan uniform, left, doors from a segregated doctor's office waiting room, Ybor City, Tampa, center, and a St. Petersburg green bench, right, which was a symbol of segregation to African Americans in St. Petersburg. The items are all part of the exhibit: "Beaches, Benches and Boycotts: The Civil Rights Movement in Tampa Bay. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

But not everyone was welcome on those benches, where white tourists and residents sunned, socialized and people-watched.

“The black residents of St. Petersburg had their place, but that place was not on the green benches, or on the Million Dollar Pier, or in the parks along the waterfront,” Ray Arsenault – John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg – wrote in his book, St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream, 1888-1950.

Arsenault said that a 1945 report by the National Urban League detailed “the fear that kept blacks away from the city’s famous green benches,” even though they were no longer barred by police. “The wounds of a lifetime would take a long time to heal,” the historian said.

By the 1960s, officials decided to pursue a more youthful image for the city and banned the green benches.

Related: After 100 years, St. Petersburg's green benches evoke history and a mixed legacy

Last week, black and white residents gathered at the Historic Manhattan Casino on 22nd Street S for a discussion about the complicated legacy of the city’s green benches. The program, “Beyond the Green Bench: A Community Conversation for a New Generation," was co-sponsored by the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum and the Florida Holocaust Museum.

Moderator Stephanie Owens opened the discussion sitting on a green bench.

Community advocate Stephanie Owens moderated "Beyond the Green Bench: A Community Conversation for a New Generation, Feb. 18, 2020, at the Historic Manhattan Casino in St. Petersburg. [ The Florida Holocaust Museum ]

“We are here, not only to listen, but to learn and grow," said Terri Lipsey Scott, executive director of the Woodson Museum. It was "critical to further the dialogue beyond our silos,” she said.

Related: https://www.tampabay.com/archive/1996/05/11/green-benches-making-comeback-in-st-petersburg/

Khris Johnson, co-owner of Green Bench Brewing Co., sought to explain the name of his business. Johnson, who is biracial and was born in Memphis, spoke of being taught about that city’s place in the nation’s civil rights struggles by his black relatives. Green bench was never just a name for him, Johnson said, but a means to tell the entire story. “The pain is a very important part of the history,” he said.

For years, thousands of St. Petersburg residents and visitors came together to socialize on the city's green benches. And they became part of the city's image, appearing on postcards and tourism brochures. However, black residents were excluded from using the benches, a sore point that taints the nostalgic feeling many have for that time. [Times]

Eula Mae Mitchell Perry, a 1965 Gibbs High School graduate, told the audience that black residents knew the green benches were “off limits.” She is a docent for the Florida Holocaust Museum’s exhibition, “Beaches, Benches and Boycotts: The Civil Rights Movement in the Tampa Bay,” which has been extended through March 15.

Perry’s observations appear above a green bench in the exhibition: “What green benches meant to me was racism. It meant ‘no.’ It meant, ‘You’re not good enough,’ and from my perspective today, I would not want to see ... green benches along Central even if I was able to sit on them, because I know what they meant.”

Related: Florida Holocaust Museum explores Tampa Bay’s civil rights movement

Steinocher spoke of his grandfather’s collection of St. Petersburg postcards, showcasing the nationally famous green benches packed with white tourists. To him, the benches represented hospitality. So when he placed two of the benches in the chamber’s lobby, he thought, “Everybody would love it.” The crowd laughed. At the time, Steinocher added, “Nobody said anything to me.”

That’s until two years ago, when the Rev. J. C. Pritchett II of Faith Church, and president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, objected to their placement. Last weekend, he did so again, posting a photograph of himself on Facebook perched on a green bench at the city’s Mangrove Bay Golf Course.

The Rev. J.C. Pritchett II sits on a green bench at St. Petersburg's Mangrove Bay Golf Course, Jan. 22, 2020. [ The Rev. J.C. Pritchett ]

“Stop repairing the existing benches and painting green,” his post read. "Or have serious dialogue, planning and strategies on recognizing our past, making steps towards healing, and creating a future that is equitable, fair and productive. #Green. #Tired.”

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who plans to run for mayor of St. Petersburg in 2021, commented, "Well said.”

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin also weighed in, saying St. Petersburg shares Pritchett’s “perspective and concern.”

“I gave the directive to address our procurement and practice with green benches last year," she said. "As benches are repaired and replaced, green is no longer being used. And, we are no longer installing new green benches on city property.”

“It’s not the issue of the green bench; it’s what it represents,” Pritchett told the Tampa Bay Times this week, going on to name several St. Petersburg businesses with the controversial benches on their properties.

Steinocher and others on the panel said there’s need for continued conversation about the issue. “I see history as our rear view mirror. We do have to understand everybody’s history to move forward, but we’ve got to keep driving too,” the chamber president said. “What are all of our shared values? How are we going to treat each other? How are we to take care of each other?”

Bilan Joseph, a Gibbs High School teacher who ran for the Pinellas County School Board, was also on the panel. Joseph, 36, who is black and was born in St. Petersburg, said she hadn’t known about the green benches. She didn’t learn about them until she attended a program offered by Hillary Van Dyke, senior professional development coordinator for equity for the school district, and a fellow panelist.

“We all carry whatever pains we have from the past and they are real and they are justified,” she said. “But if we’re only going to sit in that bitterness, that anger, we are never going to move forward as a people, as a city."

Trubey acquired her prized green bench in the late 1970s from brothers who owned the Tramor Cafeteria at First Avenue S and Fourth Street, which was later bought by the Times Publishing Co. A retired caterer, florist and event planner, Trubey remembers sitting on the green benches with her sister in their fancy dresses when their mother took them downtown to have their photographs taken.

She was unaware of their segregationist history, Trubey said. “I am kind of shocked. ... It kind of makes me feel dumb that I didn’t know. I don’t think we were put on this earth to hurt people.”

Scott said she had been planning the discussion for more than a year, impelled by lingering bitterness in the black community.

“It is extremely important to never negate our history. However, I’m not offended by a green bench in 2020. I am celebrating the successes. Right now, we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams. This is what they wanted for us,” Scott said. “There’s a place on the green bench in St. Petersburg for everyone.”

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