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‘You have to decide who you are’: Blazing a trail for Black history

Mark Parker



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.

The African American story is an integral part of the fabric from which local and national history is quilted, as renowned local historian Gwendolyn Reese eloquently illustrated at the Institute on Black Life Annual Conference.

St. Petersburg held several events Tuesday to celebrate the start of Black History Month, including the 2022 Institute on Black Life (IBL) Conference at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Founded at USF in 1986, IBL strives to educate the public on historical, cultural, political and economic issues relevant to people of African descent.

The annual conference highlights the collaborative work of USF faculty, students and community partners throughout the region. Each event focuses on a different theme around key research areas, and the 2022 event is titled “The African American Neighborhoods Project of Tampa Bay.” As president of the African American Heritage Association (AAHA) of St. Petersburg, which launched the African American Heritage Trail in 2014, Reese explained the importance of chronicling and teaching Black history.

Reese began her virtual presentation by relaying a quote from African American writer and activist James Baldwin.

“You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you,” recited Reese. “Not its idea of you.”

Reese said she is a woman of African descent, born and raised in a country that still does not fully value her and her rich history. She was also a descendent of the Cherokee Nation and the formerly enslaved, raised in the south during the Civil Rights Movement. Reese was formally introduced to Jim Crow racism and segregation “at the tender age of 5.”

Reese explained that Jon Wilson, retired Tampa Bay Times reporter, vice president of AAHA and the other half of what she refers to as “the dynamic duo,” could not join her in the presentation due to Covid. Reese, Wilson and others are digitizing Black history along the African American Heritage Trail, which Reese said would be complete later this month or the beginning of March.

Reese said the AAHA began about 10 years ago when then-Mayor Bill Foster approached her with a thought.

“He said, ‘Gwen, when I attend the wakes of African Americans, I hear the most incredible stories,’” she relayed. “‘But then we never hear them again.’”

Reese pulled together a group of volunteers that consisted of local historians and descendants of people with powerful stories to share. They began conducting interviews and collecting pictures and memorabilia, and soon realized the stories deserved much more than a small book.

The St. Pete Department of Planning and Preservation helped the group secure a $50,000 grant, and the idea for an African American history trail was born. After about 2.5 years of gathering information, Reese said they realized they had more information than they could use.

Gwendolyn Reese showcases a page of the area’s African American history for a student. Photo courtesy of https://afamheritagestpete.org/.

“It was very painful giving birth to this,” said Reese. “Because so much of it we had to exclude … ”

Reese said she travels the country and world and makes a point to visit every African American heritage trail she comes across, and she believes the St. Petersburg trail is the most robust and comprehensive.

Completed around seven years ago, the trail features 20 markers along the Ninth Avenue and 22nd Street corridors.

“So, this is in the middle of what was the business district … the cultural hub of the Black community,” said Reese. “Which is along what we now lovingly call the Deuces on 22nd Street.”

Wilson and Reese planned guided tours using a shuttle in collaboration with the Downtown Partnership. Following the pandemic, the AAHA decided to formulate a way to make the trail more accessible and increase its audience. A partnership with the Florida Holocaust Museum offered the chance to create a mobile guide and digitize the presentations.

Reese said opening the trail to a wider audience is critical, as Black history in the region is so rich, and many people are not aware of the integral role African Americans played in the development of St. Pete.

“We have been a part of this community since 1868,” stated Reese.

Formerly enslaved, John Donaldson came to the Pinellas peninsula with his employer just three years after the Civil War ended, in 1868. As a farmer, Donaldson owned 30-40 acres of land, and Reese said he was well-respected throughout the community. Long before desegregation, his children received an education alongside white children as there was only one school in the area.

Reese noted that St. Pete was a part of Hillsborough County in those days, with the county across the bay treating residents of St. Pete “like stepchildren.” Residents gathered petitions to secede from Hillsborough, and when presented to the State Legislature, one included Donaldson’s signature.

“I think that’s a story that people need to hear,” said Reese. “This is not African American history; this is the African American presence in this community.”

Reese said when she thinks of American history, she envisions a quilt. There are many different patches in the quilt, and if one patch is missing, the quilt is incomplete. She believes many patches are missing in America’s quilt, causing it to not live up to its potential beauty and inclusiveness.

Reese added it is up to individuals who value the importance of recognizing the country’s complete history to learn and share it, which is the African American Heritage Association’s purpose.

According to Reese, one Black family did not raise much concern among the fledgling town’s white residents. When more African Americans migrated to the area – most worked on the Orange Belt Railway that catalyzed the city’s growth – local officials then enacted racist policies to control the Black population.

“I was very, I got to say blessed, but it was quite tedious and painful and traumatizing to be a part of the research team responsible for the study of structural racism in St. Petersburg,” said Reese.

Reese expressed her gratitude to former Mayor Rick Kriseman and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin for recognizing the need for the study and funding its commission. She said there would be little hope for change without local officials and residents understanding the embedded structural racism that was a part of every policy in the city’s history.

While she called her work on the study traumatizing, Reese said it also filled her with pride realizing what Black residents endured and persevered through.

“We are still here,” said Reese. “And we are not just surviving – we are thriving.”

Reese said she knows many African Americans are unaware of their history because the information has never been readily available. She believes the African American Heritage Trail will help address that problem, as will its soon-to-be-completed digitization.

Reese noted that every city in the country is home to a proud Black community, and each one of the communities has had incredible stories buried. She uses that term both figuratively and literally, as another discussion at the conference is on the preponderance of Black cemeteries in the region that were moved or paved over.

“So much has been done to not tell our story,” said Reese. “It is time now for us – and when I say us, I mean all of us, regardless of ethnicity – to lift up the stories of all of the people who have made this country great.”

A map of the African American Heritage Trail. Photo courtesy of st.pete.org.

For more information on the African American Heritage Trail, visit its website here.







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