A simple question about the legacy of St. Petersburg’s infamous green benches triggered a conversation that brought more than 160 people together Thursday at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club’s discussion on Race and the Legacy of Racism in the ‘Burg.
Those green benches, which once lined Central Avenue, were depicted on postcards and tourism brochures. It is estimated that at one time, nearly 7,000 benches lined the streets of St. Petersburg. For some, they represent a romanticized image of St. Petersburg’s history.
For many, the green bench’s legacy means something altogether different. As a practice, black residents were not allowed on St. Petersburg’s green benches. They were, by all practical measures, white-only, throughout the 1950s, though the practice was never enshrined in ordinance.
“A few months ago during a Tiger Bay luncheon, a question was asked during our panel discussion on historic preservation about the green benches that used to line Central Avenue,” explained Suncoast Tiger Bay Club President Elise Minkoff.
“To a significant segment of our community’s population, those benches are at best an artifact of the past and at their worst, a symbol – an ugly symbol – of a segregationist era in our history and in our city.
“The question triggered a discussion among Tiger Bay’s board where we identified that a larger, long overdue conversation needs to happen here at Tiger Bay,” Minkoff continued.
Ironically, the conversation came together Thursday at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, which for much of its history did not allow black members. According to its Centennial Book, the St. Petersburg Yacht Club did not admit its first black member until 1985.
In a sort of public reckoning, Minkoff acknowledged that in Tiger Bay’s more than 40 year history of community conversations and dialogue, Thursday’s meeting was the first to be entirely dedicated to a conversation on race.
“We want to make a commitment that this will not be a single conversation,” she said, to audience applause, “but rather that we model what we hope will take place throughout the rest of our city, our state, and our country. That courageous conversations can happen and will happen.”
The event’s panel was moderated by Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, and featured Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg, Imam Askia Muhammad Aquil, longtime community activist Winnie Foster, and Tim Dutton, executive director of Unite Pinellas.
Welch framed the conversation in the context of St. Petersburg’s checkered racial history, recalling heated issues like gentrification, specifically related to certain areas of South St. Petersburg, like the Gas Plant District, which was razed to build what is now Tropicana Field and its many parking lots; as well as the Deuces Live, the historic black business district, bifurcated by I-275, and now segmented by the Warehouse Arts District.
Welch recalled the “Courageous 12,” a group of black police officers who successfully sued the city for the right to patrol white neighborhoods and use the same locker rooms, water fountains and cars as white officers. He also mentioned the 1996 killing of Tyron Lewis, an unarmed black teenager shot by a white St. Petersburg police officer, and the riots that ensued.
“Even here in beautiful and progressive Pinellas, like most communities in our nation and particularly in the South, we are not immune from the legacy and enduring impacts of discrimination and racism,” said Welch.
“And so an honest discussion on race is really the only path to a mutual understanding of our past and that in turn will empower us to successfully lay the foundation for equity, shared progress and prosperity for our future.”
The panel tackled issues from gentrification, to deep-seated structural inequality, to the need for historical awareness and education.
One theme that continued to resonate? Green benches.
“Ollie’s Outlet on 9th Avenue North, Chik-Fil-A on 4th Street, Green Bench Magazine and the ever-expanding Green Bench Brewery are a few of the businesses in this community that continue to use the green bench symbol,” said Reverend JC Pritchett.
“My question to you is, is this a dog-whistle in your opinion? Is this subtle? Is this a misunderstanding? Should we be sympathetic to people who continue to use this symbol that has been hurtful to many in our family?” Pritchett asked.
“Sympathetic, no. Understanding, no. Accepting, no,” said Reese.
“Many efforts are being made to romanticize the green benches, and it’s very romantic for some people. But I was born and raised here. I walked down Central Avenue and could not sit on those green benches,” she explained.
“To romanticize it and lift it up in one way without understanding or even voicing the history and the perspective of other people who were adversely affected, it’s not romantic to us, it’s humiliating to us. It reminds us of a period, an era, Jim Crow and segregation, that is a part of our history. But why do you lift it up and romanticize it?
“I think the green benches are very much like – you may not like this – but they’re like the Confederate statues that are all across this country, romanticizing a period in our history that was not romantic for many Americans.”
Dutton encouraged audience members to engage in economic activism. “I do think this is an opportunity – an economic opportunity – for us to use our wallets to influence change,” he explained. “And do it vocally, do it with a noisy approach. Don’t buy those products and tell people about it. Don’t buy those products and make sure everybody knows why.”