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In the face of a pandemic, Gwendolyn Reese soldiers on

Jaymi Butler



Gwen Reese
Gwendolyn Reese led a presentation on the importance of Black history and the digitization of the St. Petersburg African American Trail at Tuesday's Institute on Black Life Annual Conference. File photo.

Part three of a three-part series

As the type of person who thrives on the energy of face-to-face interactions, Gwendolyn Reese has never been a big fan of online meetings. 

Then Covid-19 happened and her feelings changed dramatically. 

“I’m having a torrid love affair with Zoom,” confessed Reese, the current president of African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg. “I didn’t like Zoom before and I’m in love with it now.”

These days, Reese estimates she has two to five Zoom calls on most days, and that’s not counting committee meetings, conferences, online family birthday parties and virtual happy hours she has with her friends (whiskey apple sours and filthy martinis with blue cheese olives and anchovies are some of her favorite cocktails).

“It’s amazing that Covid-19 has not slowed things down,” Reese said. “Actually I think I’m doing more. It’s just the luxury of not having to get dressed and drive in your car and find a parking space. I love it.”

That’s par for the course for Reese. At 71, she’s showing no signs of stepping back from her extensive community involvement in advocating for social justice. The question isn’t what she’s working on. It’s what isn’t she working on. 

Here’s a not-so-quick rundown of what Reese has been up to during quarantine:

  • She’s co-curating a history wall at the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg’s Center for Health Equity. “It was supposed to have a grand opening in April, but then Covid hit,” Reese said. She’s also developing a training guide so foundation staff can provide backstories and additional information to visitors.
  • She’s teaching a class to a group of high school students at the Youth Farm at Enoch Davis on character and leadership development. 
  • She’s part of the Black Health Equity Alliance, an organization dedicated to addressing inequities related to birth outcomes and maternal and child health through policy and legislation.
  • She’s had meetings about creating a virtual tour of the African American Heritage Trail and adding QR codes to its historical markers. Reese was head of the steering committee that established the trail in 2014. She had been conducting trolley tours of the trail up until earlier this year, but she’s not planning to do them again. “Who knows when Covid’s going to be done? And I’m not going to put myself out there when it is,” she said. 
  • She’s advocating for body cameras for the St. Pete Police Department, along with policies to regulate their use. 
  • She wrote a personal recollection of her experience with St. Pete’s historic green benches, where Black people weren’t allowed to sit. Her text will be featured on the wall behind one of the benches on display at the St. Petersburg Museum of History. “Of course, I won’t be going down there to see it,” she said. 
  • She’s conducting listening sessions with people who lived in the Gas Plant area as part of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, which Mayor Rick Kriseman is a part of. The sessions will help guide the city in the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site.  
  • She’s serving as co-chair of the Pinellas County Community Remembrance Project Coalition, an organization that’s playing an instrumental role in establishing a memorial marker at the site of the 1914 lynching of John Evans. The memorial is scheduled to be unveiled in November on the anniversary of Evans’ lynching. “I’ll be there virtually,” Reese said.

Related content: Request to install lynching memorial approved by the city

If there’s a noticeable theme to Reese’s activities, it’s that they can all be done from home. Her concern about Covid-19 is real, and she’s taking social distancing very seriously.  It’s been more than four months since she’s been in a public space, and while many people might struggle with that, Reese said she’s not lonely. 

“Because I’m so comfortable being alone and I enjoy my own company, I’m not having cabin fever,” said Reese, estimating that she’s constantly reading at least four books at a time. “I’m fine.”

The pandemic has also made her somewhat of an expert on curbside grocery delivery.

“Walmart has the best grocery delivery pickup process of anybody. Instacart doesn’t stand a chance against the way Walmart does it,” said Reese, who tries to shop local whenever possible. “This is revealing so much to us about people and companies.”

One of the organizations that has pleasantly surprised her is the Tampa Bay Rays. Although she’s never been a baseball fan, she was happy to see the team’s recent tweet calling for the arrest of the police officers in Louisville, Ky. who killed Breonna Taylor.

Gwen Reese

“I don’t do Twitter big time, but I had to tweet to say thank you for standing up for justice not just for some but for all,” she said, adding that she was dismayed to see so many hateful replies to the tweet. “I wrote ‘you just won a fan’ and ‘I’m sure for every one you lose, you’ll gain two more.’ I truly believe there are more compassionate people in this world than haters and racists.” 

However, Reese wouldn’t say she’s surprised that racism still exists in 2020. 

“I don’t know if I ever held high expectations about the elimination of racism from the American landscape,” she said. “I am very disappointed, frustrated, and at times angry that there still is a denial of the existence of structural racism and how it impacts every aspect of our lives; denial and resistance to white privilege and power; and the ‘othering’ that permeates our society and allows people to devalue other humans, ignore their plight and feel no compassion for their suffering.”

Progress is being made, Reese said, but at a snail’s pace. 

“I fear to guess how long it will take for substantive change to occur,” she reflected. “It reminds me of a song by Sweet Honey in the Rock entitled ‘How Long?’”

I’ve been standing at the station, waiting for my change to come. Well if my change don’t hurry up and get here, i’m gon’ gon’ have to get me some.

To read part one of the series, click here.

To read part two of the series, click here

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  1. Avatar

    Danny White

    August 4, 2020at3:14 pm

    My heroine, and she doesn’t even know it!

  2. Avatar

    Susan Freiden

    August 2, 2020at6:34 am

    I have never heard of Ms Reese before. Your series captured a real St. Pete “stand out”.

  3. Avatar

    Amy Walsh

    August 1, 2020at3:47 pm

    Thank you for all that you do, Ms. Reese!

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