ST. PETERSBURG — They bundled up in winter jackets, some sporting gloves and chic hats, all of them wearing masks. Mayor Rick Kriseman said it was the largest crowd he’d seen since the city began marking the start of Black History Month five years ago with a flag-raising.
“There’s no denying that as my time in City Hall grows short, I find myself reflecting on how far we’ve come,” said Kriseman, whose second term expires next January. “And we have come a long, long way as a nation and as a city.”
He ran down a list: Kamala Harris. Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator. General Lloyd Austin, the first Black secretary of defense. St. Petersburg renaming its main library after Barack Obama.
And on that breezy first day of February, city leaders lifted a flag representing the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum. Days later, the City Council completed its $1 million pledge toward a new $20 million home for the museum on 22nd Street S, once the vibrant heart of the city’s Black community.
Collecting the rest of that sum will be up to Terri Lipsey Scott, the museum’s 61-year-old leader, who first approached the city with the idea of raising the flag at City Hall. In the years since she retired as a city administrator, she has turned “the Woodson” into a center for cultural programming and a focal point for racial equity.
Through that lens, her view of St. Petersburg differs from the mayor’s.
The city, she notes, pays for an airport and marinas. It has spent millions on Tropicana Field, a project that once pushed Black families from their homes. So it could be doing more to recognize those residents with a museum that elevates their history and contributions, Lipsey Scott contends.
“I’m grateful that the needle is moving,” she said. “But in this day and era, I would expect more.”
Lipsey Scott landed in St. Petersburg, her husband’s hometown, in 1981.
She met Clarence Scott her freshman year at Savannah State University, where she arrived on campus as a former cheerleader and yearbook staffer. A young woman who loved to write and ask questions, her dream of pursuing journalism faded when a teacher advised against it.
She was one of five children, longing to claim her own identity. There was the oldest, then the only boy, then the prettiest, and the baby. Who was she? The one “after the pretty girl and before the baby,” Lipsey Scott said jokingly.
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In college, she earned a business degree after steering away from her first few majors including journalism and early childhood development. She also joined the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, known for its involvement in public policy and social action on issues like voting rights, health care and gender equality.
Uprooted from her historically Black college in Georgia, Lipsey Scott arrived in St. Petersburg to find a town deeply divided along Black-white color lines. “I was in a time warp,” she said, amazed at the separation that persisted.
She started her career at the housing authority, then landed a job in banking.
In 1987, then-Mayor Robert Ulrich set out of find someone competent and diverse for an administration job in the office of the mayor and City Council, he said. “And Terri was chief among them.”
The city manager, whose loan she had processed at the bank, recruited her for the job.
She called her dad, telling him she had been invited to become the first Black employee hired in the office.
“Honey, the door is open,” she recalled him saying. “Now what happens once you go through it, only you will determine that.”
For nearly seven years, Lipsey Scott was the sole Black administrator in the council office until she hired more. Then other departments began to reach out to her asking how they might find people of color to hire.
By virtue of her intellect and good handle on a variety of issues, “she made my job much easier,” Ulrich said. “She was just an awfully good employee.”
Years later, as the housing authority demolished and redeveloped the historic Jordan Park neighborhood, residents in 31 bungalow units — mostly seniors and people with disabilities — determined they’d like to see a building that would “preserve, present, and interpret African American history.” The Woodson museum was started in the Jordan Park Community Center.
In 2008, Lipsey Scott joined the museum’s board of directors, and about 10 years later, after her retirement from the city, she assumed the role of executive director. A more accurate title would be “programmer, fundraiser, caterer, janitor,” she said.
She dreamed of having a new artist on display every month, but soon realized that was too heavy a lift. Instead, she leaned on the board to okay curations and catering that would support the programming.
Lipsey Scott said she bore some of the expenses along with the museum’s bookkeeper, Thelma McCloud, sometimes filling up credit cards to pay utility bills and stipends to those willing to showcase their art.
The duo has been organizing community events since they met in the 1990s. Women of the Word, coordinated with their church, raised scholarship money for Black and brown children. The group Colors of Culture aimed to create a Black history museum before there was one.
Lipsey Scott and McCloud have teamed up on the Legends Ball fundraiser and ladies events, among other celebrations. The Silver Spoon Tea Party program gives girls a dress-up day, a fancy luncheon and the inspiration to dream big.
The new Black Lives Matter mural on Ninth Avenue S, in front of the Woodson, has become a focal point, where crowds celebrated the 2020 election results. And, during the holidays, a Black Santa grants wishes in the museum’s Legacy Garden.
“There’s a small group of us that pulls these things off,” said McCloud. “And (Lipsey Scott) is the main ingredient in it.”
She begins her days by rolling over in bed to answer emails, then reads her devotion and prays that she can stay true to her schedule.
Requests for her time come from all sides.
“I always tell her, ‘Nobody is as passionate and involved in that museum as you,’” Clarence Scott said of his wife. But, “she does get tired.”
He added: “She doesn’t wear her feelings on her sleeves unless she senses that people are trying to take advantage of the least of us.”
Before the COVID-19 era, the couple — married 40 years this past Valentine’s Day — would recharge by traveling. “She’s never totally disconnected,” Clarence Scott said, so her best chance for relaxation is to find a good Jazz cruise with limited cellphone reception.
It’s not the demands on her time that exhaust her most, she says, but the constant battle for racial equity.
St. Petersburg “is still not progressive,” Lipsey Scott said. “I still sometimes feel like, in this community, we’re in a time warp.”
She thinks of Savannah, which has elected more Black mayors than she can count. St. Petersburg has had none. And she questions how much progress Florida can claim when it has no statewide museum to document the history of its Black residents.
“If Mississippi can have a Black museum and Alabama can have a Black museum, what is it saying about the state of Florida?” she asks.
Lipsey Scott’s background in city administration equipped her with the knowledge she needed to tap into city resources with projects like the new museum. She understands how to leverage relationships, and those who know her say she uses that ability when she senses the least are being taken advantage of.
“You don’t have to wonder about where she stands,” said Pinellas County Commissioner René Flowers, a former City Council member who worked with Lipsey Scott during her time in city administration. “She will definitely tell you.”
She’s known for holding people in power to account, but with a soft Southern voice.
“She’s going to stay on you and make sure you do what you need to do,” Kriseman said.
In the weeks since raising the Woodson flag, Lipsey Scott’s days have been full this Black History Month.
Through the museum, she hosted “Brothers Begging to Breathe,” a dialogue geared toward Black men about their struggles for racial equity. She organized “Coffee in Common,” a race and politics discussion series bringing white women and women of color together. And she is engaged with the Woodson Warriors Scholarship Auction.
All of which raises a question that may have to wait for an answer: “If I grow weary of doing this work,” Lipsey Scott said, “my concern is who will pick up the torch?”
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.
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