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Sweet Memories Of Sweet Mangoes In South St. Petersburg

Jun 15, 2017

Walking down the dirt roads of South 34th street, near Gibbs High School, Sylvester Norton Jr. recalls how as a child, he never had to worry about where he would find food.

“I mean you had all kinds of fruits (on trees outside)…Everything, you know. You don’t have it right here now, but back then, I mean you could survive,” he said. “Got no money much, but you didn’t get to worry about something to eat.”

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, residents of the Midtown neighborhood in South St. Petersburg enjoyed being able to pick fruits within footsteps of their homes and nearby blocks. Rosalie Peck, an author of South St. Petersburg’s history who died in 2009, once wrote: “of all the readily accessible food sources of nature, mangoes are most affectionately remembered.”

And for Norton and others, hearing about one fruit – the beloved mango – can spur many memories.

Back in 1961, a young Shirley Onu said she knew she would find a sweet mango waiting for her near Rose Park hill right around school time.

“Pull ‘em off, peel them and eat them right there. That’s what we did,” Onu said. “We didn’t make no salad or nothing like that because we were kids. We didn’t know how to make no salad, we just knew how to eat them. We didn’t need to wash them. We just peel them off, and eat them right were we at it.”

Retired teacher, Alvin Porter lived on 9th Avenue South and remembers eating certain types of mango like it was yesterday.

“The ladyfinger was kind of long, but the pineapple was kind of roundish...oblong. It was firm. The ladyfinger was kind of soft and stringy. The pineapple wasn’t that stringy, but it was delicious, I liked it,” Porter explained.

Like Porter, Onu’s favorite type of mango was the pineapple. The ladyfinger was more challenging.

“The ladyfinger was stringy. But they're solid, they don't break apart, but you can get the strings on your teeth, and I can't stand that. That's why I like the pineapple the best,” she explained.

“They were all around. You could just walk around in the neighborhood and get a pole or something and knock mangoes down to the ground, and get them and eat them,” Porter described. “When development started, they started going away. Mangoes basically would grow on vacant lots and things of that nature, as a matter of fact there was one up here but it’s gone now. On 27th [Avenue] and 22nd Street, there was a mango tree over there, but some kind of way it died out.”

Midtown residents can still spot the tropical tree around St. Petersburg, like older ones near Burlington Avenue North, but they don’t grow in abundance anymore.  Historians at the University of South Florida said that development in Midtown affected the growth of mango trees, but the fruit continues being an important symbol within the African American community. It’s one that connects the past with the present. 

Near Bartlett Park on 4th Street S., Sherry Howard said she remembers helping her grandmother pick mangoes from her backyard.

“My Nana used to take the mango and bake it a little bit, with a little bit of brown sugar and butter,” she said. “I think it was because so many of them growing in the yard. When they had fallen, she’d go out and pick them up and she’d just make something out (of them), because she didn’t believe in waste.”

Alyssa Fedorovich, Andrea Perez, Joseph Conte, and Nicole Sawyer are student-journalists attending the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Journalism and Media Studies Department. This story was produced as part of the Neighborhood News Bureau class taught by Bernardo Motta in Spring 2017.  NNB Graduate Assistants Tyler Gillespie, Zenena Moguel and Indhira Suero Acosta contributed to this story.