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They Were Pushed Down … But They Persevered

How Local History Reflects the Wider World

St. Petersburg’s Historic 22nd Street South
The History Press, Charleston, SC, ©2002
By Rosalie Peck and Jon Wilson

Magnificent Publications requested the following excerpt as an example of how to make local history relevant to contemporary audiences. It is reprinted with the authors’ permission.

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Rosalie Peck and Jon Wilson

On a November night in 1921, two explosions rattled the Dream Theater, a new movie house on Ninth Street South for St. Petersburg, Florida’s black residents. Someone had bombed it. No one was hurt, but the message was as loud as the blasts. The St. Petersburg Times report said: “The theater was blown up because white residents of this section . . . objected to the Negroes congregating in the place.”

The theater closed, and, as so often happened in the decades that followed, black residents were pushed out of the way. On what was then the edge of a growing city, officially not quite three decades old, African Americans began to create a community of their own along a dirt trail called 22nd Street South. Surrounded by pine trees and palmetto bushes, it was in the country, part of a sprawling tract the city government had recently annexed.

As it slowly but steadily developed, the neighborhood became a town within a town, in many ways self-sustaining. Places to buy groceries and clothing sprouted. African Americans opened medical and law practices, funeral homes and beauty shops. Entertainment spots blossomed.

Eventually, 22nd Street became one of the nation’s African American main streets — a smaller version of such promenades as Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn, Beale Street in Memphis or Ashley Street in Jacksonville. Old-timers suggest perhaps 75 percent of more than 100 businesses on 22nd were black-owned during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

All were supported by a black citizenry that, from census to census, consistently composed 15 to 20 percent of St. Petersburg’s ever-growing population. Black residents were helping build St. Petersburg, but Jim Crow custom shunted them to the city’s geographical and social margins.

The exclusion fostered need, and it made 22nd Street thrive during its half-century heyday. “That’s the only way we could exist with any spirit, because we were not looked on as human,” said the late Peggy Peterman, a keen observer who was a St. Petersburg Times staff writer for thirty-one years. For a time, she lived on the street, and her husband, Frank Peterman Sr., practiced law there.

It was a time when people shared hardship and, most of all, bonding that has endured to this day, even though the neighborhood’s people have scattered throughout the city, state and nation. In the summer of 2002, a reunion of the old 22nd Street community was held at St. Petersburg’s Lake Maggiore. It drew hundreds. They came from all over.

Despite the community’s strength, it could not fight the inertia of social change. Integration, the coming of the interstate highway and the reality of urban development fragmented the neighborhood and caused residents to scatter. Beginning in the late 1960s, a rougher, less family-oriented neighborhood began to emerge. For a time, the street’s story was in danger of vanishing along with much of its community. People moved into neighborhoods previously off limits. Familiar old buildings were torn down. A sense of belonging evaporated.

The gains of the civil rights movement properly destroyed many of segregation’s brutal and damaging ways. Integration often brought African Americans new opportunities in education, employment, housing and such routines of life as shopping, eating out and going to the movies. Ironically, the process also crushed some positive elements: a consistent sense of community and culture, a comfortable sense of connection and an appreciation of those who were pioneers in the struggle for the dignity that comes with self-determination. Most cheer the demise of Jim Crow restrictions, but the price for some has been the loss of a school, a tightly knit neighborhood, or simply that sense of place and belonging.

“Our young people now have to find their pride in other things and they can’t always do it,” was how Peggy Peterman expressed an unintended result of integration. “They’re the generation that never saw the connectedness of the black community.”

To be sure, nostalgia is not the best measure of history and nostalgia has influenced memories of the old neighborhood. But at its core, 22nd Street was born of a difficult world based on restriction because of skin color. Its story tells of pride, perseverance and triumph over adversity. Twenty-Second Street symbolizes an African American cultural experience.

The late Rosalie Peck was born and raised in the 22nd Street neighborhood. She became a social worker in several cities around the United States before returning to St. Petersburg in 1974. Jon Wilson worked as a reporter and editor at the St. Petersburg Times for 35 years.


Where to buy St. Petersburg’s Historic 22nd Street South

Arcadia Publishing
Amazon
Powell’s Books
Barnes & Noble

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