Local historian Josette Green is taking it to the streets – on a biking tour of St. Pete’s Black history.
When Green, who is white, moved into the predominantly Black neighborhood of Campbell Park 15 years ago, she was often surprised to hear neighbors’ stories of the community’s history. They shared accounts of the city’s rigidly enforced racial segregation, but also of a strong Black community that thrived in spite of these laws. Guided by her experience as a docent at The Florida Holocaust Museum, she began to envision a way to share this history – stories, she felt, that were every bit as “St. Pete” as the beaches and art galleries for which the city is more widely known.
And that’s how she ended up speaking to a crowd of 20 cyclists gathered on the morning of Sept. 10 – along with their road bikes, fixies, e-bikes and e-trikes – to learn more about St. Pete’s Black history. Green started at the beginning, with an account of Pinellas County’s first Black settlers, John Donaldson and Anna Germain, formerly enslaved Alabamians who built a 40-acre farm in what was once part of Gulfport (Gulfport’s city limits have shrunk throughout its history; the area where Donaldson and Germain live is now St. Pete).
From there, the 5-mile tour looped through seven stops covering nearly 150 years of history. The group paused in places such as Methodist Town and Peppertown, segregated neighborhoods that grew on what was once the edge of downtown St. Pete and housed Black Americans who came here to work as laborers, cooks, and domestic workers supporting the burgeoning tourist trade.
At that time, Green noted, even St. Pete’s famous sunshine was segregated: From Peppertown, the group visualized the long and sometimes dangerous path that Black children had to walk along Railroad Avenue (now First Avenue South) to get to the City’s only Black beach.
The tour also explored education, healthcare, and leisure in St. Pete’s Black history, stopping at places such as Davis Elementary, Mercy Hospital, and the Manhattan Casino, where St. Pete’s Black citizens built for themselves the basic resources that their City often denied them. At each stop, Green brought the past to life by sharing historical pictures, newspaper clippings, and stories of Black entrepreneurs, healthcare workers, and civil rights activists.
The group also stopped at Tropicana Field, a site whose future is currently under discussion. Looking out over acres of pavement and a silent stadium, Green evoked the Gas Plant: a densely populated Black neighborhood, with hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses and churches, that stood on this location before the stadium was completed in 1990. Close by, cars flew past along I-175, which, when built in the 1970s, effectively sliced the neighborhood in half.
Green spoke about the lasting damage of this and other “urban renewal” projects; specifically, how uprooted communities lost their sense of connectivity and a lack of opportunities for home ownership created or perpetuated generational wealth gaps. Some of the plans currently proposed for the Trop’s redevelopment have focused, among other things, on how to restore these losses.
The ride concluded with lunch at Chief’s Creole Café, where proprietors Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy shared their memories and perspectives on growing up in St. Pete’s Black community.
“This was my village!” Mr. Brayboy declared of 22nd street, where the restaurant opened in 2013. He recalled a bustling neighborhood of restaurants and grocery stores, entertainment venues, tailors providing the latest fashions, and his father’s own mortuary.
Bike tour participants Simone Beane and her partner Kayla Jones, who recently moved to St. Pete from North Carolina, were listening closely.
“There’s something special about being on the ground,” mused Beane. “About going physically to the places where all this history played out.”
Anne Sweetland, a 20-year St. Pete resident, agreed. “It’s humbling.”
Their comments reflect Green’s mission, which centers on changing the future through changing perspectives.
“Racial equity is at the heart of this tour,” she says. And so is a lot of learning: The itinerary is based on more than a decade of research Green conducted in the City of St. Pete’s archives and at local libraries. Now kicking off its second year, the St. Petersburg Black History Bike Tour has served more than 350 people.
Green has also worked hard to make the tour safe and accessible for all participants. There is no cost to sign up, and tours are offered twice a month. Green uses a microphone headset for volume and an experienced volunteer rides “sweeper” to help keep the group on course. This year, Green has partnered with Day Tripping, a Gulfport-based e-trike rental company, to offer an option for patrons who cannot bike.
“Our tour is now an all-bodies experience!” she says proudly.
This body, for one, is glad she came along. It’s more than history in motion; it’s history that moves.