It’s easy to get swept up in the Rev. J.C. Pritchett II’s zeal for boosting the legacy of his African-American forebears.
He’s determined not to squander their sacrifices for fairness and equality, nor their struggles to build a foundation of security for their families and community.
Pritchett is a pastor, so one would expect that he’s a praying man, open to the unexpected. Providence, he calls it. That’s how he explains the whirlwind purchase of a piece of property on 22nd Street S, the historic African-American business and entertainment district known as the Deuces and the focus of increased revitalization efforts.
As president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, Pritchett says he just happened to be walking out of the organization’s new rental office when he saw a for sale sign going up nearby. He hurriedly called the IMA board and within an hour, they had made an offer on the property at 800 22nd St. S.
The closing was Sept. 15, with the IMA paying cash for the vacant land that once was home to Geech’s Bar-B-Q Pig Meat and the real estate office of Cleveland Johnson Sr., whose son became editor and publisher of the African-American newspaper, The Weekly Challenger.
Pritchett declined to say how much the IMA paid for the property near the Historic Manhattan Casino, and the sale has not yet been recorded by the Property Appraiser’s office.
The nonprofit social justice group has ambitious plans for the land in a neighborhood poised for rebirth. The vision is of a three-story structure with offices, parking, housing, a tech center and space for meetings, workshops and community gatherings.
There’s no certainty about what the housing piece will yield. “If we put up eight units, it’s not going to make a dent” in the current demand for affordable housing, Pritchett acknowledged. “I wish we could build 800 units. Whatever number they put in, it will be something that is reflective of the history and tradition of the Deuces corridor.”
Pritchett, who was born in St. Petersburg, as was his wife, Karen, and their son, J.C. III, a senior at the University of South Florida, pushed back at stereotypical expectations for development in the African-American neighborhood.
“Why should Black people build something and it has to be a charity?” he asked. “I’m not going to operate a food bank. Black folks are creative and smart. In D.C., there are Black folks excelling in finance and real estate. Only in this backward, segregated town are we expected to be less than the best. We are going to look at the best options. We are going to talk to our architects and bankers.”
They’ve chosen Behar + Peteranecz Architecture in St. Petersburg to design their new Legacy Center. It’s a fitting name. Over the past seven years, the IMA has organized a Legacy Week program to celebrate African-American history and culture, heighten the organization’s visibility and raise funds for social justice work. Recent speakers have included Civil Rights lawyer Ben Crump, perhaps best known for representing George Floyd’s family, and Sen. Raphael Warnock, invited in 2018, before his historic election as Georgia’s first Black senator.
The organization’s original home was at 2900 First Ave. S, which it sold in July for $317,000. Pritchett said the century-old building, which the city had given to the IMA under Mayor David Fischer, is expected to be demolished. In the past year, it served as an office for Pritchett, a food pantry for those in need during the pandemic and also a home for a man who found himself without one.
The organization is now renting office space at 2184 Ninth Ave. S from Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy, owners of Chief’s Creole Café and known for their commitment to revitalizing the Deuces.
“We are on the verge of history,” Pritchett proclaimed, as he savored IMA’s purchase of property in the historic district and contemplated what’s to come with millions flowing to neighboring projects, including new parks and a new Woodson Museum.
He also envisions opportunities for African Americans from the redevelopment of Tropicana Field – land that was “stolen” from the city’s Black community – and potential changes to the City Charter to address equity concerns.
“We were not treated right in this city. There were segregated, horrible schools, limited industry and a highway came and divided our community,” the pastor said. “We’re at a place now, there’s going to be changes in this city.”
For that he credits the perseverance of intrepid Black forebears who laid the foundation, such as Dr. Robert Swain, Dr. Fred Alsup, Dr. Ralph Wimbish and his wife, C. Bette Wimbish, the first African American to be elected to the St. Petersburg City Council.
The stage is now set, predicts Pritchett, for the election of Ken Welch as the city’s first Black mayor.
Given that he’s head of the IMA – a diverse group – I wondered about his campaigning for Welch. “I’m doing so because my forefathers and foremothers died and bled and marched so that I can have the right to vote,” he said. “I reserve the right to shout as loud as I can or to post as much as I can the people I think would be good leaders for our community. I am under no illusion that I’m not hated by some people.”
As you can tell, Pritchett doesn’t shy away from expressing his thoughts. He’s brought change to the IMA, once made up of mostly African American ministers. Well known among them was the late Bishop John Copeland, a longtime leader of the group. It tackled controversial issues in his time, including racial insensitivity in the St. Petersburg Police Department.
By the time Pritchett was elected president in 2018, the organization had dwindled to a handful of Black ministers and was in debt. He decided a new approach was needed.
“I asked our elders to trust me,” he told me. “You can’t tackle a global pandemic, voter suppression, with a small group of faith leaders.”
He reached out to white, LGBTQ and Jewish clergy, reasoning that it was important to build an alliance with those outside IMA’s traditional circle. “There is stress and tension when you grow in that kind of way,” he said. “It’s easy to work with your own, but there’s no football team that’s all quarterbacks.”
He recruited religious leaders such as Rabbi Philip Weintraub of Congregation B’nai Israel, the Rev. Kim Wells of Lakewood United Church of Christ and Doug McMahon, director of religious life and chaplain of Eckerd College.
Pritchett also has been intentional in other matters. IMA now uses a Black financial institution – OneUnited Bank – a decision he calls both “simplistic and symbolic.”
“For us, it has to be, if we are faith leaders, there has to be a conversation about saving for the future, investing in the future … Wealth creation is something that our children need to hear us talk about,” he said.
Groundbreaking for the new Legacy Center was on Sept. 18. Among those attending were Mayor Rick Kriseman, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin and other officials.
“Just imagine if there was a place where a bunch of people were just working together to improve their city, their county, their state, their country?” Pritchett asked as he spoke this week about his vision for the newly acquired property.
“I believe we can do it. I believe we can have a place that is the best architecture, the best design that people can work from, can live from, in our community.”
I dare anyone to tell him he’s being idealistic. After all, he is a praying man.