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Waveney Ann Moore: Saving an important part of St. Pete’s African-American history

Waveney Ann Moore

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The Melrose Clubhouse shown in the 1993 application for historic designation. Photo courtesy of Gwendolyn Reese.

Retired Tampa Police Sgt. Rufus Lewis has fond memories of St. Petersburg’s historic Melrose Clubhouse. As does Jasper Hunter Dixon, who lived just a block away.

In conversations this week, the septuagenarians reminisced about gathering with other African-American youngsters to play football and softball on the Melrose Clubhouse grounds. The clubhouse hosted a swim team, though there was no pool. And it was where the city’s first Black Eagle Scout earned scouting’s highest rank.

For Black residents of all ages, the clubhouse was an important and welcoming social and civic center in the era of enforced racial segregation. It was where lifelong friends were made, skills were taught, the local NAACP got its start and a community denigrated by outsiders forged close bonds.

Unfortunately, almost eight decades since its dedication, the fate of the Melrose Clubhouse is uncertain. It sits unused – but not unwanted – on the campus of the newly reconstructed $25 million Melrose Elementary School.

 The African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg, other Black organizations, and supporters including Preserve the ‘Burg, are pushing to ensure the historic building survives beyond nostalgic stories told by the community’s elders. Hence, the birth of a coalition called simply, Save the Melrose Clubhouse.

Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg, says too many structures of importance to the Black community have already been lost.

“They tell our stories … You can walk up to a building and someone can say what it used to be and this is what we did,” she said. “Our history is disappearing. Many of our historic buildings are gone and eventually, our story is gone.”

The Pinellas County School District bought the historic African-American meeting place as part of its plan to upgrade and expand Melrose Elementary. There’s been talk about converting the building into an amphitheater. A rendering exists. There’s also been discussion about relocating the structure. Then there’ve been rumors that it might be demolished.

Those pushing to save the building are meeting today (Sept. 17) with Clint Herbic, the district’s associate superintendent for division of facilities and operations. The topic will be options for the clubhouse.

Invited to the virtual meeting are Reese, Veatrice Farrell, executive director of the Deuces Live, Inc., a nonprofit created to “revive and revitalize” the historic African-American neighborhood of 22nd Street S, and Robin Reed, president of Preserve the ‘Burg, whose mission is “to keep St. Pete special through historic preservation.”

Meanwhile, the Save the Melrose Clubhouse collaboration is fortifying its ranks. The influential St. Petersburg Chapter of the National Council of Negro Women has signed on, as has Pearl Sly, president of the City Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. In 1942, the building was dedicated as a meeting place for the women’s clubs.

Mrs. Sly, now 85, said she supports efforts to save the clubhouse. “It has so much history for the Black women in St. Petersburg,” she said. “It was the only place that we had to go to socialize. It was the only place we had to meet back in that day. So, the building has a lot of history. Now the younger people don’t know that.”

Reese also expects the Jordan Park Nostalgic Association to join the coalition’s efforts. And she plans to enlist the support of the city’s Black Greek fraternities and sororities, churches and other civic organizations. “We keep inviting partners. We keep planning,” she said.

Supporters of the Melrose Clubhouse are clear about what they’d like to see happen with the building — with the school district’s help.

“It is our understanding that the engineer found the structure stable enough to be moved and that they are amenable to that happening,” Reese said. “We do not want it moved off the property, but to another location on the property. It seems as though they had considered that possibility. I think we’re thinking the southwest corner of the property.”

The clubhouse boosters want it turned into a museum to tell its stories. Designated a local landmark in 1993, the building has served many functions. Preserve the ‘Burg notes that it hosted Boy and Girl Scout troops, was a war nursery for African-American children during World War II, and a planning site for both the local chapters of the NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women.

For Lewis and Dixon, now in their late 70s, memories of the clubhouse center around its site as the Black branch of the YMCA. 

“We used to say, ‘Let’s go to the Y,” said Lewis, who grew up in Jordan Park. “We used to compete against one another and it was all in fun.”

Dixon, who went on to play four years of professional baseball for the Washington Senators, attended summer camp there. This week he joked about enjoying the lunches, especially Kiss brand sodas that came in strawberry, grape and orange flavors.

He also talked about the Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church softball team that played on the Melrose Clubhouse property. There was a catch, though. “If you wanted to play, you had to go to Sunday school that Sunday,” he said, reminiscing from his home in North Carolina.

The building was widely used, Lewis said. “Sometimes people would rent it for dances and parties. To us, it was a gorgeous place. It was a place where we could go and relax and have fun … In no way should it be torn down or destroyed. A lot of us came through here, Dr. Paul McRae, Glenn Edwards played with the Steelers, and Ed “Gum” Charles, he played with the 1969 New York Mets.”

Saving the piece of history will take money.  Reese said a GoFundMe campaign is being planned to help the community demonstrate its commitment to the effort. There’s also hope for state funds from the African American Cultural and Historical Grants program. It is offering a nonrecurring sum of $30 million for facilities that “highlight the contributions, culture, or history of African-Americans.”

Money from the grant will mainly be used to renovate the building and tell its story.

“Our story is one of resilience and courage, determination, love and unity,” Reese said. “During segregation, we were united as one to overcome racism. So, people who don’t know that this is part of our culture, that this is where we came from, they can be empowered and be lifted up. Instead of what is being told about who we are by the revisionist history that is taught in our schools.”

A story that might be told is of Lewis. He is one of the “Fearless Four” Tampa police officers who filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1974 against the Tampa Police Department. Two years later, Tampa was cited for numerous violations and then-mayor Bill Poe signed an agreement to rectify the problems. In April, a monument to the Fearless Four was unveiled in Tampa.

St. Petersburg’s Melrose Clubhouse can also claim him as a hero.

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    Rose Hayes

    September 22, 2021at10:27 pm

    I attended many gospel singing programs at the Melrose Clubhouse. It was once the YMCA. The girls went to the ‘Y’ on 15th Avenue South. It was a two story house. The Melrose Clubhouse was a place where many of us dressed up in our nicest clothes for different events. It needs to be some type of Community Center for us again.

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