1. Opinion

Is it time for St. Petersburg to get rid of the green bench name? | Editorial notebook

It’s great to acknowledge our progress, but don’t forget the past.

One of the first stops I made as a newcomer to St. Petersburg was Green Bench Brewing Company.

I don’t remember feeling anything about the name. When I did learn what the green benches symbolized, it came as a sinking disappointment. Black people were banned from sitting on the benches that white people so embraced. In fact, the benches were hailed as an iconic symbol of St. Petersburg, even given to President Harry Truman as an emblem of the Sunshine City.

Until a recent panel on the controversial green benches hosted by the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American museum and the Florida Holocaust Museum, I hadn’t taken the time to hear the stories of local business owners. Green Bench co-owner Khris Johnson hails from Memphis, Tenn., but he moved to St. Petersburg when he was 10. But he never forgot his roots, growing up in a community where the vestiges of segregation were still deeply entrenched.

As a child, his grandfather would point to the back door of a local restaurant, where he had to go to order a fish sandwich. When he was young, Johnson visited the town in Mississippi where his great-uncle was lynched for talking to a white woman.

So Johnson didn’t fully understand when Green Bench Brewing opened and experienced a backlash to its name. So many assumed the owners had no idea of the racist overtones of the green benches. In fact, Johnson said, they did and wanted to send a message. This place would be a different kind of green bench, one where everyone was welcome.

Johnson has leaned in to the city’s complicated history. Webb’s City Cellar opened in March 2019. This time, Johnson knew the name would be controversial and welcomed it. Webb’s City was a spot for NAACP-hosted sit-ins in St. Petersburg.

In small ways, Johnson has also tried to rewrite history through his work. A bottle of one of Green Bench’s Florida Poster Girls shows an illustration of a young black woman wearing a bikini on the beach. In reality, it is an image that never could have happened. At that time, black women were not allowed to sit on most beaches.

The inverse of Johnson’s point is that there is a danger in forgetting. When we forget what happened not so long ago, we are able to stuff it in a box and say, “That happened then. It could never happen now.”

But systemic racism is still happening, and turning a blind eye to history is not the answer. Eradicating the green benches is not the right response. Because, eventually, we will forget. Eventually, we will see a green bench somewhere and think, “How quaint.”

So keep the green bench name to remind us of our past and our challenges now. But know that with a controversial name comes great responsibility. Both Green Bench Brewing and Green Bench Monthly magazine have the power of an audience — they can share the history with others who may not otherwise know.

Elizabeth Djinis is a Tampa Bay Times editorial writer.