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St. Petersburg’s African-American Heritage Trail to launch digital history tours

Founder Gwendolyn Reese has long desired a digital replica. Now, thanks to a grant and software, it’s coming to fruition.
St. Petersburg's African-American Heritage Trail suspended trolley tours as a safety precaution during the pandemic. Now, the trail will soon be available digitally.
St. Petersburg's African-American Heritage Trail suspended trolley tours as a safety precaution during the pandemic. Now, the trail will soon be available digitally. [ MONIQUE WELCH | Times ]
Published May 11
Updated May 11

ST. PETERSBURG — Soon, the history of St. Petersburg’s prominent Black neighborhoods, community leaders and landmark businesses will be at your fingertips.

The African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg Inc. recently announced its African-American Heritage Trail will be accessible digitally in November. That’s being made possible thanks to a $60,000 grant from the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg and the Florida Holocaust Museum, which donated the software.

The trail’s two corridors along 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue S, one focused on faith, family and education, the other on community, culture and commerce, will come alive via a QR code and a YouTube series.

Trailgoers can scan the QR code to access a mobile guide that mimics a trolley tour, with virtual appearances from Gwendolyn Reese, the trail founder and association president; Jon Wilson, a local author and former St. Petersburg Times reporter; and other community voices connected to history makers or historical events on 20 different signs.

While they are still preparing content for the YouTube series, Reese said they intend to address a different part of history each week. Videos will include history lessons linked to current or historical events. And there will be bonus interviews with history makers such as Leon Jackson, the last living member of the “Courageous 12,″ a group of Black officers who filed a lawsuit in 1965 to get equal treatment in the St. Petersburg Police Department.

Reese, who has long desired to expand the trail’s reach, is excited about the digitization project. She said a lack of funding delayed it from becoming a reality.

Then the pandemic hit and in-person tours were suspended. She knew it was time to go digital. Reese wants to resume in-person tours at some point but has no immediate plans.

A guided trolley tour departs from the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg on Oct. 26, 2019. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, in-person tours were suspended.
A guided trolley tour departs from the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg on Oct. 26, 2019. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, in-person tours were suspended. [ MONIQUE WELCH | Times ]

“But the biggest jump-start we received,” Reese said, “was when Elizabeth Gelman from the Florida Holocaust Museum offered us the platform, which is expensive, at no charge. We thought, ‘This is being given to us, and we need to take advantage of this as soon as possible.’”

Her dream started becoming a reality.

Reese said this would not have happened if it weren’t for her relationship with Gelman, the museum’s executive director. She called Gelman’s support a blessing.

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

Gelman said Reese and her team were critical partners as the museum researched and developed the “Beaches, Benches and Boycotts” exhibit. “We are honored to help bring more awareness to this important community resource.”

She said the museum’s costs are now being covered by Lorna Taylor of Premier Eye Care, who agreed to underwrite the effort.

Reese’s “relationship-building” also helped the heritage trail net a grant from the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, which will go toward developing the videos and paying those involved.

Carl R. Lavender Jr., the foundation’s chief equity officer, said in a news release that the digitization effort will help preserve Black history, bring the trail to a broader audience and “ensure legacy learning.”

The foundation believes it will help economic development efforts in south St. Petersburg, he said.

“Actively listening and learning and engaging with the community often yields life-changing perspectives,” he said, “and will encourage audiences to explore more.”

Reese is most excited about the educational opportunity and convenience a digital trail provides students and teachers.

“A number of social studies teachers would book tours, but field trips are expensive, and teachers had to find money in their budget to rent buses,” Reese said.

“Now, they can take tours without leaving the classroom.”