Part two of a three-part series
Gwendolyn Reese had been intellectually prepared to deal with racism. As a child, she’d had brief encounters with it when she stepped outside the safe cocoon of her neighborhood and went downtown. But nothing could prepare her for the emotional impact racism would have on her as a young Black woman navigating a predominantly white world.
“For emotional experiences, you can never truly be prepared,” recalled Reese, now 71. “I knew how bad racism was, but for it to be in your face full-time and dealing with it in the workplace and in school … Emotionally, no.”
Reese experienced the stress of being one of the only Black people at St. Petersburg College, and she had the same experience while working as an operator at GTE, where she estimates there were maybe six Black people at the company.
“It was horrible,” said Reese, the current president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg. “I guess we have to be honest that there was a period when Blacks and whites didn’t interact regularly, and when it did happen, there was a fear of the unknown. It was very hard to develop any relationships across race at that time.”
Even though the experiences she had at work and at school were painful, Reese understood that it could be challenging for white people to speak out against racism and stick up for Black people, saying it required a level of courage not many people have.
Reese hung in as best she could and even though GTE began hiring more Black employees, the strain of constantly being treated as inferior got to be too much for her, and she decided to quit.
“I’ve never been able to allow people to treat me in a way that’s not honorable and not respectful,” she said. “There’s something in my spirit that will not allow that to happen.”
Reese’s experiences with racism would shape her young adulthood, and they propelled her into action. She remembers going to see civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael when he came to St. Petersburg in 1967 to address the incarceration of Omali Yeshitela, the founder of the Uhuru movement, who then went by the name Joe Waller. Yeshitela had been imprisoned after tearing down a painting depicting Black minstrels entertaining white people at the beach from the wall at City Hall in 1966. She also recalls participating in demonstrations to desegregate the State Theatre on Central Avenue.
Reese took a step back from protests when she got married and had her two children, staying home with them until her youngest was in kindergarten. But all the while, she was learning and sharpening skills she would use later when she stepped back into the social justice arena.
“My thing around justice isn’t always about white against black, my thing is justice regardless,” she said, laughing as she remembered one of her first efforts to effect change in her community.
Reese said she got “very frustrated” with the leadership of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP, namely its president, Garnell Jenkins.
“She never really took a stand on issues impacting the Black community and I wanted to unseat her,” she said. “I didn’t want to be president. I just wanted to get rid of her.”
So Reese started a membership drive even though the local chapter of the NAACP didn’t want her to. To thwart her efforts, they wouldn’t give her any applications. That didn’t stop her – she simply created her own. She recruited more than 126 people and sent all the membership fees to the national office of the NAACP. This did not endear her to Jenkins.
“She wrote the national president criticizing this woman who was recruiting members,” she recalled. “He basically told her ‘you need to be thankful.’”
One of Reese’s key recruits was Darryl Rouson, who now serves as a member of the state senate. After he filled out one of her self-made applications and talked with her about her desire to see a change in NAACP leadership, Rouson agreed to run for president of the local chapter, and he won. Reese was his “reluctant” first vice president.
City Hall, revisited
In 1998, Reese would again turn her attention back to City Hall when city leaders unveiled their plans to install a mural to replace the one torn down in 1966. The design they commissioned included “beautiful, beautiful pink flamingos,” and that caused Reese to sit up and take notice.
“I was like, what?” she said. “We wanted to preserve the history, not cover it up.”
She joined forces with other members of the community to form the Concerned Citizens for Action Committee to protest the installation, requesting that the wall be left blank aside from a plaque commemorating the history behind the offensive mural. The committee’s efforts were successful in keeping the wall blank, and the text for the plaque was written. It seemed like things were moving in the right direction. And then, for a long time, nothing happened. However, Reese’s involvement with the City Hall mural saga was far from over.
When the city formed the City Hall Stairwell Mural Committee in 2015 to revisit the issue of the blank wall and commemorate the 50 years since Yeshitela tore the mural down, Reese was asked to serve as the committee chair.
“I can’t believe I was a part of that, but now I know it was for a reason,” Reese said. “We ended up not putting a mural up and once again saying let’s put a plaque up.”
Several more years went by. The wall was still blank and the plaque still hadn’t materialized.
“One day I woke up and I’m like, four years have gone by and nothing,” she remembered. “I can’t let this continue on and on and on.”
Reese, who sits on St. Pete’s Community Planning and Preservation Commission, went before City Council in January to advocate again for the plaque. This time, she got unanimous approval from council members and was asked to write the first draft. The council made a few changes which she agreed with, but one thing she didn’t like was that they omitted Yeshitela’s name.
“I was opposed to the fact that they chose not to use his name, and their reasoning didn’t make sense to me,” said Reese, who was part of a group who advocated to have Yeshitela’s voting rights restored, which they were in 2000.
City Hall underwent major renovations last year and has just recently opened back up again. Plans for the plaque are still in process, but an installation date hasn’t yet been determined. When it does happen, Reese said, she will feel like “we’ve finally come full circle” in preserving the story.
“It’s something our community deserves, and it’s been a long time coming,” she said. “It will cement the story in time, and the story is important.”