African American Heritage Trail
A Walk Through History
The African American Heritage Trail is a self-guided walking tour that provides an overview of the African American influence and history in St. Pete. Covering more than a dozen city blocks in South St. Pete’s downtown area, nineteen markers identify landmarks and provide details about the history of St. Pete’s African American community.
Individuals, groups, and classes can arrange for a guided tour (walking or by trolley) by contacting the African American Heritage Association.
The African American Heritage Project
The African American Heritage Project identifies the people and places significant to African American history in St. Pete. Many areas of the city were identified, however the first phase of the project focuses on the neighborhood surrounding 22nd Street South and includes businesses, churches, schools, social clubs, cemeteries, houses, and recreation areas. While there is an emphasis on existing properties, some important places that were demolished are also identified.
Experience the African American Heritage Trail
The trail is split into two corridors that provide a glimpse into the varied culture of this South St. Pete neighborhood. Both trails begin at the Carter G. Woodson Museum at 2240 9th Ave. S.
Community, Culture, and Commerce — 22nd St. S. Corridor
This section of the tour focuses on the rich cultural heritage of the neighborhood, community leaders, landmark businesses, and the evolution of the neighborhood from the Jim Crow era through desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement. The 22nd Street Trail is approximately 1.25 miles long and includes ten trail stops.
The 22nd Street trail takes visitors on a tour of the commercial corridor of 22nd St. S. and includes the history of local businesses like Harden’s Grocery and the Sno-Peak Drive-In, as well as entertainment facilities like the Royal Theater and the Manhattan Casino. The 22nd Street trail also features Mercy Hospital, one of the first African American hospitals in the area, and a number of medical offices built and occupied by doctors who played a significant role in breaking the color barrier and promoting the Civil Rights movement in St. Pete.
The North/South Corridor Markers
- The Beginning
John and Anna Donaldson were the first African American settlers on the Pinellas peninsula when they arrived in 1868. Relegated to separation by a series of racial segregation laws known as Jim Crow Laws, African Americans created their own community along a dirt trail known as 22nd St. S. Jim Crow was a way of life in which blacks were relegated to the status of second-class citizens. They could not shop, find entertainment, receive professional services, or even attend most churches. The exclusion fostered need and energized the rise of streets such as 22nd St. S., which became the commercial, professional, and entertainment thoroughfare for black St. Petersburg.
- In the Name of "Progress"
Because black residents were required to stay in their own neighborhoods, they created their own businesses to serve their needs. These businesses provided opportunities for self-employment not available a generation earlier and allowed for success even without an education or advanced training. By 1977, many of these businesses closed or relocated, and the buildings were demolished for interstate construction.
- Manhattan Casino Hall
Originally known as the Jordan Dance Hall, this building was constructed in 1925 by Elder Jordan Sr., one of the first African American businessmen, and his sons. The building, a stop on the infamous Chitlin' Circuit, was the focal point of culture and entertainment in the community for more than 40 years and was instrumental in the development of blues, gospel, jazz, and big band music in the south during the period of segregation.
- At the Crossroads
Local African American owned businesses were the cornerstone around which the neighborhood thrived. Places like Harden's Grocery, Henderson's Sundries, Sylver's Shoe Service, Moure's Barber Shop Delux, and South Side Cab provided everyday goods and services as well as places to relax. Undertakers were also leaders in the community, providing ambulance services as well as last rites and burials.
- Building 22nd Street South
African American contractors constructed the buildings along 22nd St. S., financed by African American developers. First settled in the 1920s, some of the original buildings remain interspersed with buildings representing the era immediately before and after World War II. The buildings along 22nd are typical of 20th century commercial construction, with designs indicative of the African American main street featuring large storefront windows opening to stores, restaurants, or bars on the first floor and living space above.
- Royal Theater
Opened in 1948, the Royal Theater was one of two theaters that African Americans could attend and was also considered a leading venue for weekly community talent shows. Its Quonset-hut design was a popular method of construction after World War II because the buildings were light, portable, and relatively cheap to build.
- Faces and Stories
People made 22nd Street South a neighborhood. Elijah "I got 'em" Moore sold peanuts and produce from a cart while in top hat and tails. Henry "Rag Man" Bonner bought old rags for the St. Petersburg Times to turn into newspapers. Political activist Norman Jones, Sr. and photographer Joseph Albury documented the neighborhood. A little known facet to the street's history involves the presence of a number of Jewish merchants who were also a target of discrimination.
- A Community of Caring
During the segregation era, many hospitals did not treat black people, either because of Jim Crow laws or the prejudiced attitude of the hospitals' administrators. Replacing a smaller hospital that had been in operation in the Gas Plant neighborhood as early as 1913, the opening of Mercy Hospital in 1923 formalized the 22nd St. S. community’s tradition of caring for its own. Doctors, nurses, midwives, and the Negro Health Clinic collectively cared for the community.
- Blazing the Way
Dr. Ralph Wimbish worked to desegregate bathing sites, lodging, lunch counters, restrooms, and drinking fountain facilities for all races. He founded the Ambassador Club, which provided a voice for professional African American men to advocate for civil rights. His wife, C. Bette Wimbish, fought to desegregate schools and was the first woman of color elected to St. Petersburg's City Council. The couple built his office and the Wimbish Building, which housed Doctors' Pharmacy, the first black owned and operated pharmacy in the neighborhood.
- Crossing the Line
In 1931, the City Charter established separate residential districts for white and black residents. City Council passed laws separating the use of businesses and facilities according to race. This effectively banned African Americans from downtown except when working. In the 1950s, boundary lines were drawn and redrawn several times, which limited where African Americans could live. In 1954, Dr. Swain built a state-of-the-art dental clinic on 22nd St. S. just south of the color boundary of 15th Ave. S.
Faith, Family, and Education — 9th Ave. S. Corridor
This section of the tour delves into the more personal aspects of life in the community, highlighting the local schools, housing stock, community organizations, and churches that enriched the social fabric of the neighborhood. The 9th Avenue Trail is approximately 1.25 miles long and includes ten trail stops.
The 9th Avenue Trail focuses on the educational and religious institutions of the neighborhood along 9th Ave. S. With nine historic African American churches along the trail, 9th Ave. S. served as the religious center of the community. Other stops include the recently restored Jordan Elementary School, the oldest remaining historic African American school in the city, civic clubs such as the Fannye Ayer Ponder Council House, the Pallbearer’s Hall, and Happy Workers’ Day Nursery.
The East/West Corridor Markers
- End of an Era
As the heart and soul of St. Petersburg's African American community during the segregation era, 22nd St. S. became the nerve center of the city's civil rights movement. During this era, even a simple activity like swimming carried restrictions for African Americans, who could only swim at the South Mole and in the Jennie Hall Pool after it was constructed in 1954. Local attorneys represented black police officers, school children, and sanitation strikers in their quest for equal treatment.
- Jordan Park Housing Complex
Funded by the U.S. Housing Authority and named after Elder Jordan, Sr., the Jordan Park Housing Complex incorporated 446 apartments when it opened in 1941. The project was a success with full occupancy. It provided improved housing to hundreds, but the all-black complex also reinforced segregation and the “separate but equal” construction of facilities.
- Pioneer Schools
Davis Academy, opened in 1914, was the first formal educational institution for African Americans in St. Pete. With the growth of the 22nd St. S. area, Jordan Academy was built in 1925 and named after Elder Jordan, Sr., who served as a trustee for African American schools. Opened in 1927, Gibbs High School was the first public secondary school for African Americans in the city. Teachers served as role models and mentors to generations of students.
- Civic Associations
In addition to the well-known fraternal societies, such as the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge formed in 1893, clubs organized by occupation, churches, and recreational interests enriched men's lives. The NAACP, formed in 1933, and the Ambassador Club advocated for civil rights. Veterans organizations, such as the Sons of Colored Veterans and the Colored Veterans of the World War, represented the many men and women who courageously served in the armed forces.
- Women United
In 1938, Fannye Ayer Ponder, teacher and wife of local physician Dr. James Ponder, founded the City Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs “to unite the efforts of all the colored women’s clubs...to promote better educational advantages, to promote social and civic improvements, [and to] establish recreation for young people....” Their Melrose Clubhouse served as a meeting place for community organizations and as a local YMCA. Nearby, the local Lauffer Branch YWCA opened in 1950.
- Avenue of Faith
The neighborhood is partly defined by the many churches situated along 9th Ave. S. These churches have been housed in imposing buildings, modest structures, and tiny storefronts. Every one of the seven major black denominations played a role in the moral and social development of the neighborhood. In 1939, approximately 19 of the 123 churches in St. Petersburg operated in the growing 22nd St. S. neighborhood. Some of the original buildings remain, while others have been lost, many due to the construction of I-275.
- Happy Workers — Trinity
Trinity Presbyterian Church thrived after Rev. O.M. and Willie Lee McAdams came to St. Petersburg in 1929. Founded by Mrs. McAdams, Happy Workers Day Nursery opened in 1929 with five children whose parents paid 25 cents a week for their care. When Mrs. McAdams died in 1956, the school accommodated more than 200 preschoolers. In 1948, the church built a new sanctuary, which became part of the school when the congregation relocated in 1967. As a teacher and civil rights leader, Rev. McAdams served the congregation from 1929 to 1965.
During the early 1900s, the South St. Pete area was far in the country, part of a sprawling tract that the City had recently annexed. It was a place of palmetto and pine, farms and citrus groves. As a result, early housing in this area was decidedly vernacular, meaning folk building without the benefit of formal plans. Many of the house types, such as the shotgun and the single and double pen, are types that derived from the west coast of Africa. They utilized a form that fostered togetherness, cultural traditions, and community.
- Campbell Park & Schools
In 1926, white businessman Thomas Campbell began leasing land to the City as a park for African Americans. Purchased by the City in 1943, Campbell Park was the scene of all major African American community celebrations, parades, and sporting events, including "Negro League" games. Across 16th Street, Immaculate Conception, founded in a dairy barn in 1946, was the area's first and only "Negro" Catholic School. Sixteenth Street School opened in 1952 as an elementary and middle school.
- Empowered Negro Women
African American women formed and joined a number of social, professional, recreational, religious, and civic organizations in the community. Women's clubs also sought to provide programs of culture, education, and entertainment to a population denied access to such activities in a segregated society. Two women, Fannye Ayer Ponder and Olive B. McLin, played an important role through their advocacy for women and the organization of the St. Petersburg Metropolitan Council of Negro Women.