Part one of a three-part series
It’s been more than 65 years and Gwendolyn Reese still remembers the first time she experienced the sting of racial inequality.
She and her mother were walking out of the Kress building on Central Avenue when the little girl spotted the marquis outside the Florida Theater. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was playing, and like any 4-year-old, she asked her mother if they could go see the movie.
“My mother told me no, and as a curious child, I asked why, and she said because we can’t go there,” Reese remembered. “And I asked why, and she said it was because we were negroes. I believe with all my soul that was the moment when I realized in my little mind this was not right.”
Now, at age 71, Reese continues to ask why as she works tirelessly to improve the quality of life for Black residents of St. Pete – and the community as a whole. Reese, who calls herself a “concerned citizen” and shuns the title of community leader (“did the community vote for me? No they didn’t”), has a hand in numerous projects and initiatives across Pinellas County, and things aren’t slowing down despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I’m probably doing more now than I was,” she said.
That’s just the way Gwen Reese operates when she’s passionate about something, and by the time she was six, she began taking an active stand against injustice. When her mother boarded the bus, Reese wouldn’t join her at the back of the bus. She stopped drinking from the colored water fountains. She sat at tables where Black people weren’t supposed to sit.
“I believe the incident at 4 put in my head this is wrong, and I’m not going to do this,” said Reese.
The early years
To truly understand Reese and why she is the way she is, you have to go back to the beginning, which she remembers with stunning clarity. Names, addresses and tiny details many people would forget come easily to her.
Born in 1949, Reese was delivered by a midwife at her uncle’s home, which was directly behind Mercy Hospital. When she was a year and a half, she and her parents moved to an apartment on Sugar Hill in the Gas Plant area. She recalls her early childhood as very rich, vibrant and nurturing.
When the time came for high school, Reese was given the option to attend Dixie Hollins High School, although Pinellas County Schools hadn’t yet desegregated. She told her parents she wasn’t interested because she’d “lived her life to be a Gladiator” at Gibbs High. Plus, she was concerned that the school might not be friendly to Black students.
After graduating from Gibbs at age 17, Reese attended St. Petersburg College, and the experience was a painful one.
“It was culture shock,” she said. “We weren’t accepted by many of the teachers and many of the students. I never faced racism to that degree because most of my life I lived in a safe community.”
Much of the racism was subtle, little slurs made in passing, dirty looks across the classroom, because “most people like that are cowards.” Always a strong student, Reese was confused when her English professor handed back every paper marked up with red lines. The teacher ignored her requests to discuss her papers and when she raised her hand in class, the teacher regarded her as if she was invisible. She went to her counselor, who encouraged her not to give up, but eventually it became too much.
“It was devastating, but after a year and a half, I said ‘I’m not dealing with this,’” said Reese, who remembered she was the only Black student in every class she was enrolled in. “I said I don’t want to go back out there. I don’t want to do this anymore.”