ST. PETERSBURG — Suncoast Tiger Bay on Thursday drew one of its largest crowds to tackle a difficult topic: race.
It was the first time in the nonpartisan political organization's 41 years that it dedicated an entire lunchtime discussion to race in the community. Suncoast Tiger Bay president Elise Minkoff opened the event by saying the conversation was "long overdue" — and promised it would not be the only conversation.
"The way to right our wrongs is to turn the light of truth," she said.
But 75 minutes wasn't nearly long enough to examine the history of race and racism in Pinellas County and St. Petersburg in front of a packed room of about 160 people at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.
County Commissioner and St. Petersburg native Ken Welch moderated the panel discussion titled "Race and the Legacy of Racism in the 'Burg." He was joined by Imam Askia Muhammad Aquil, community leader and equality activist Gwen Reese, United Pinellas executive director Tim Dutton and St. Petersburg political activist Winnie Foster.
Welch wanted the panel to address three topics: the level of racial awareness in the community, the relationship between the black community and law enforcement, and the gentrification of black neighborhoods.
The panelists talked about the infamous history of the city's green benches, which African-Americans were forbidden to use, and the destruction of the Gas Plant District, the African-American neighborhood that the city bulldozed decades ago to build the then-Florida Suncoast Dome, now known as Tropicana Field.
The panelists said many in the community are unaware of the past and present conditions facing residents of African-American neighborhoods.
"Obviously we're not doing well, we're not even doing average, so I'm going to say we're doing poorly," Reese said.
She added: "Most of us don't know the history of the black presence in this community. Not even black people know the history of our presence."
"If you don't know the history, how can you then relate in an effective way, in a true, open, candid way to the issues about race?"
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Aquil recalled visiting the old Harlem Theater in the Gas Plant District in the 1950s, by Third Avenue S. It was the time of segregation, and the theater was one of the few serving African-Americans. Today that site is part of the Trop's parking lot.
"That was the entire community that I grew up in," Ken Welch said. "Churches, houses, businesses. My granddad's business was right on 16th (Street S), like where the ticket window is now."
His father, David Welch, served on the City Council in the 1980s when the Trop was approved and built.
Ken Welch said he remembers the promises made of jobs and economic development that were never fulfilled.
Now the city has a second chance. Whether the Rays stay in St. Petersburg or not, and whether or not the city builds the team a new stadium, the Trop will be torn down in the coming decade and the land redeveloped.
"That should be our primary focus as we redevelop those 90 acres," he said, "and the Rays' new home, in my view, is secondary."
Contact Monique Welch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @mo_unique_.