The mid 20th century was a time in which downtown St. Petersburg sidewalks were lined with thousands of identical benches. Photographs and postcards show locals and tourists congregating every day, filling in any open spots to enjoy each other’s company and our tropical weather. The selling point: come to paradise on earth, the city of the green benches, and be welcomed. The campaign dazzled and drew thousands of new residents and travelers. Between waterfront developments like The Vinoy and The Million Dollar Pier, and business investments like Webb’s City, St. Petersburg appeared to be in a social and economic boom.
The green benches, however, were not accessible to everyone, and for some, they remain a constant reminder of a time in which African Americans were denied access to basic public commodities. A time in which people of color could not drink from the same fountains or use the same parks as their privileged white neighbors. Several times, in the first 60 years of the 20th century, blacks of the city had been relocated to further grow the enterprises of the upper class and to promote local tourism. Full and culturally thriving neighborhoods were torn down to make way for multi-million dollar investments and baseball stadiums.
In the ’60s, businesses including Webb’s City, a cornerstone of St. Petersburg’s economic growth, denied service to African Americans at their lunch counters. Led by activists Dr. Ralph E. Wimbish, the president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP, and his wife, C. Bette Wimbish, hundreds of blacks picketed and held sit-in demonstrations at lunch counters and around green benches, while protesters called for boycotts against local stores that withheld lunch services. And now, 60 years later, there are entrepreneurs choosing names like Green Bench Brewing and Webb’s City Cellar – of which I, a black man, am an owner.
I was born in Memphis, Tennessee. My neighborhoods and my schools were generally all black, save for the single white family on the block, or the handful of white kids in my entire elementary school. My brother, my sisters and I were raised primarily by my grandmother and my single mom. My grandparents were born and raised in the Tennessee country outside of Memphis, and I recall stories of them entering restaurants through back doors and sneaking through fields of corn so that they didn’t have to use the main roads, to avoid running into groups of white people.
I moved to St. Petersburg when I was 10 years old , to live with my white father and stepmother. It’s taken me years to develop through the sudden cultural shifts, a struggle that I still battle with today. I became the first in my immediate family to attend and graduate college, and soon after I had a dream of opening a brewery. But my partners and I didn’t just want to make beer, we wanted to honor our families, our histories and our community. In 2013, we opened Green Bench Brewing Co.
Four years ago, I was in Chicago attending a Dickerson family reunion. At the end of the weekend, the family asked for suggestions on where to host our next reunion, and with a blend of nerves and pride, I raised my hand. During the summer of 2017, I was grateful to welcome two hundred Dickersons – my family – to Green Bench, and I had an opportunity to explain the significance of the green benches and the reasons why we chose that name.
Family members of mine were persecuted so that I could enter through the front door of any restaurant and freely sit on whatever bench I chose. I decided that my bench would be green; that I would sit, lie, climb, and stand on what others could not; that I would celebrate their fight every single day, and that I would invite everyone to take a seat with me. The green benches, and places like Webb’s City, were where colored people in St. Pete elected to demonstrate through peaceful protests and sit-ins. These symbols, once inaccessible, are now owned by a black man. It is through our business that we acknowledge, remember and memorialize the brave activists of our town.
This opinion is not mine alone. From the top down our co-workers are proud locals that encourage and participate in St. Petersburg’s inclusive progression. An important aspect of our internal culture is to challenge the status quo, whether it be through our products or our community relations. My co-owners Steven Duffy and Nathan Stonecipher and I speak about this a lot. Neither of them have shied away from discussing the complete history of our city. The three of us have been, and are, excited about the opportunity to not re-write the narrative, but to own it together.
Ultimately, that is the vision. The green benches are for us all, not just a separated segment of our society. They are now available, as they always should have been, to everyone. Our dream is to give this symbol back to the people, a symbol that has always been rightfully theirs.
We do not use green benches as a way to romanticize the past. Rather, we use green benches as a way to remember the past. As far as we’re concerned, St. Petersburg’s history is not glamorous, and the green benches allow us to never forget our mistakes. We chose Green Bench and Webb’s City to honor our history, all of it, to proudly demonstrate just how far our city has grown, and to remind us all just how far we can still go.