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Waveney Ann Moore: Shedding St. Petersburg’s shameful past, and present

Waveney Ann Moore

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The Gas Plant Neighborhood was razed in the 1980s to make way for Tropicana Field. File photo.

The city-commissioned report on structural racism and its pernicious effect on the lives of Black people in St. Petersburg is in.

It’s infuriating. And frightening in the realization that the overt hate and racial supremacy once commonplace in the United States may be shamelessly acceptable once again.

The University of South Florida report outlines St. Petersburg’s racist history of powerful Ku Klux Klan leaders, lynching, enforced segregation, redlining and callous disregard for Black residents as demonstrated in unfair policing, the uprooting and division of neighborhoods and limited access to decent jobs and healthcare.

The cumulative result is a community plagued with health disparities, diminished educational and career opportunities, discriminatory and life-altering applications of the legal system, devalued housing and stunted generational wealth.

It’s painful reading, even without the lived experience of the cruelties that enabled one segment of St. Petersburg to blissfully thrive on the backs of the scorned and downtrodden.

St. Petersburg, the USF study says, “remains one of the most racially segregated large cities in the United States” half-a-century after the racial integration of the city’s neighborhoods.

The study also points to data from the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, which reveals that the average life expectancy of residents living in predominantly Black neighborhoods around Campbell Park was 66.5 years compared to 82 years for residents in the affluent, white areas of Vinoy Park and Snell Isle.

Furthermore,In census tracts with larger percentages of Black residents, both the value per square foot, as assessed by the County Property Appraiser, and the actual sales price per square foot of residential properties are among the lowest in St. Petersburg,” the report adds.

And sadly, data from the Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court show that “for most offenses that include a degree of discretion on the part of the law enforcement officer, the percentage of Black people charged far exceeds their percentage in St. Petersburg’s general population.” It seems the lesson is, if you’re Black, don’t make the mistake of forgetting your wallet with your driver’s license at home.

To sum up, in virtually every facet of daily life, Black St. Petersburg residents continue to suffer from entrenched racist attitudes, policies and practices that impair their health, housing, financial security, children’s education and sense of well-being. There’s even a discrepancy in income between Black and white residents with the same qualifications. Oh, and lest we forget, in the heart of St. Petersburg’s Black community, there’s no supermarket.

For African Americans in St. Petersburg, nothing in the USF report, titled, “Building Bridges & Supporting Racial Equity in St. Petersburg, Florida,” is surprising. Many live it.

Contradictorily, there’s reason for hope, even if it’s just in the fact that a study such as this was commissioned in the first place. From it emerges a number of recommendations meant to propel the city of St. Petersburg toward changes to establish racial equity.

Three recommendations are suggested for immediate action: Creation of an equity department within the mayor’s office; implementation of an effective accountability strategy; and formation of a resident race equity board or commission that is permanent.

Interestingly, while Mayor-elect Ken Welch won by a wide majority in November, voters rejected two charter amendments that sought to establish an equity framework and chief equity officer with related funding.

The day after the Nov. 2 election, though, outgoing Mayor Rick Kriseman tweeted: “I understand the amendment related to the hiring of Chief Equity Officer didn’t pass last night, but it is a priority of my office and we will continue to take steps to establish this important position in keeping with our commitments to building a fairer St. Pete.“

No doubt his successor, St. Petersburg’s first Black mayor, who has deep roots in the city, is thinking along the same vein.

This marker was unveiled earlier this year at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and 2nd Avenue S.

A fourth and probably the most controversial recommendation from the report refers to reparations – a term as charged as “critical race theory.” The recommendation is based on data and input from residents who complained of broken promises “concerning housing and economic development in the aftermath of the I-275 and Tropicana Field intrusions and advocated that systematic planning be undertaken to insure affordable housing and other forms of restitution and reparations.”

Reparations, the report suggests, “may include housing, reforms in the criminal-legal system, free health services, or tertiary education.”

The subject of reparations was raised by Chimurenga Waller of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement during the public input period at Thursday’s City Council meeting. Waller called for reparations for the “stolen” 86-acre Tropicana Field property.

Later that day, Mayor Rick Kriseman announced that he had selected a Miami firm, Midtown Development, to develop the controversial site where Black residents once lived, worshiped and conducted business before they were displaced for the city’s dream of a baseball team. The developer’s plans for the site include affordable housing and a promise of jobs.   

Thursday, City Council members also debated how to move forward with the USF report and a resolution to accept the study and its findings. The report had been set to be discussed this week, but now is on the Dec. 9 agenda. The League of Women Voters had urged supporters of the study and its recommendations to show up at the City Council meeting, and even offered talking points.

The university research team urges swift implementation of its recommendations, followed immediately by other critical action.

“Every day in St. Petersburg, the city’s BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) residents suffer disproportionately,” it says.

“Citizens remain hungry and unhoused. Babies and mothers die at unacceptably high rates during childbirth and the perinatal period. Black adults in certain census tracks continue to suffer preventable illnesses and die years earlier than residents of more affluent and whiter areas. Black men continue to be harassed, arrested, and disproportionately incarcerated with harsher sentences. Families fight to endure on much less than living wages, Black students are still differentially targeted and pushed out of schools, and families continue to be torn apart. Action to quell these still-rising tides cannot begin soon enough.”

The hope I mentioned earlier? Despite its long, shameful history of racism, the city is making incremental, but solid, steps toward racial equity. The outgoing Kriseman administration has established a foundation for progress with initiatives such as the historic South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area.

Implementation of the report’s recommendations will require commitment and courage from people of conscience. I’m optimistic that there are many in this city.

 

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Amy Walsh

    December 4, 2021at7:54 am

    I’m optimistic too. Thank you for your powerful reporting.

  2. Avatar

    Donna Concerned Citizen

    December 4, 2021at12:07 pm

    This conservative Yankee transplant, having arrived here shortly after the integration of public schools, has seen and heard many shocking behaviors in the ensuing decades.

    Having been the minority in a 96% black inner city school up north, soon after my arrival, while conversing with a student in French in a local middle school here, I remarked to a colleague the brilliance of the child with whom I had been speaking. The teacher responded,” Yes, he’s pretty smart for a n*****.” That teacher later wound up in jail for molestation, and surely the child went on to fulfill the promise of his creation.

    Fast forward to this century and our current Junior League’s plan for the new Mayor’s inaugural ball. Always held at Mahaffee or the famed Coliseum, I imagined perhaps a dignified celebration at the Vinoy Ballroom with a jazz orchestra might be fitting for our new Mayor, with all celebrants decked out in their finest.

    Alas, for unknown reasons,the tone deaf, out of historical synch, Junior League, planned this epic affair in a warehouse with a CIRCUS theme!

    Has St. Petersburg learned nothing in five decades?

  3. Avatar

    KAREN J. DOUGLAS

    December 4, 2021at4:41 pm

    I would have liked a link to the actual report. Is it available?

  4. Avatar

    James F Mack

    December 4, 2021at4:52 pm

    Thank, Waveney Ann!

  5. Avatar

    richard stockton

    December 5, 2021at7:08 am

    I was born here in the 50’s, and it was very racist. It has made great strides forward. Thanks for your reporting.

  6. Avatar

    Laura McGrath

    December 5, 2021at12:01 pm

    Another outstanding column – honest, thoughtful, balanced. Your voice adds to the urgency to continue and accelerate the rate of change.

  7. Avatar

    Rose Hayes

    December 7, 2021at12:47 pm

    Thank you Waveney Ann for a thoughtful description of our city’s history. I have friends that live between 22nd Avenue South and 26th Avenue South and between 16th Street and 31st Street South. Many of the homes in this area are on the books as having no tax value. The County has devalued their property and homes. This invites Gentrification, sell low, rebuild and raise the tax value and clean out the area because many are retired on fixed income and may not be able to afford an increase in tax value. Same old tactics. Nothing has changed, it is just different.

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