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Arts / Culture

St. Petersburg African American Heritage Trail To Go Digital

A blue and yellow sign displays information about St. Petersburg's history
African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg Inc.
The trail is made up of 19 informational markers that share the story of St. Petersburg's African American influence.

Founder Gwendolyn Reese has long desired to share the city’s African American history online. The coronavirus pandemic helped put the project in motion.

The African American Heritage Trail in St. Petersburg is building a virtual tour that will include videos and narration of the city’s Black history.

The project is being made possible by a $60,000 grant from the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg and the Florida Holocaust Museum, which provided the software to create an app.

“We had this wonderful opportunity through the Florida Holocaust Museum to be able, at no cost to us, to access the app,” said Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg Inc.

“When we thought about it, everything is technology, everything is becoming more and more modern. Why not digitize our trail?”

A crowd of people gather around a person pointing to an informational sign.
Reese stopped giving in-person tours, such as the one above, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Adapting to the pandemic

The tour is made up of 19 informational markers across more than a dozen blocks in South St. Petersburg. People can walk from marker to marker and read about the city’s history unassisted or take a trolley tour with the Heritage Association.

Trolleys were provided to the Association free of charge two times per month, courtesy the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. But when the coronavirus pandemic began to intensify in March 2020, Reese stopped giving those tours.

“We were no longer willing to conduct guided in-person tours for our safety and the safety of others,” Reese said. “Many people won't get the vaccine, many people won't wear masks. So what do we do?”

The Heritage Association began developing a virtual experience that includes videos of the trail’s landmarks alongside community voices. Reese and Jon Wilson, a former St. Petersburg Times reporter, will guide online visitors through the experience as narrators.

A group of around 30 people gathers around a central speaker
The St. Petersburg African American Heritage Trail is made up of 19 informational markers across more than a dozen blocks in South St. Petersburg.

“The tour will be much, much richer through this digitization process,” Reese said.

“Not only do you hear Jon Wilson and I, you also get to hear about 13 other people that have been interviewed with videos. When you get to a certain marker, that person will come up and tell you their story as it is connected to the marker. We were never able to do that with in-person tours.”

The virtual experience will be offered on an app that is set to launch in November. There will also be a series of YouTube videos that include full interviews with community members and history lessons linked to current or historical events.

“You will actually be taking the tour sitting at your computer or your phone or whatever gadget, but it will feel as though you're walking that trail and you're hearing our voices telling you the stories,” Reese said.

“I mean, it just makes it so convenient. It opens it up to a larger audience and can also be a very good teaching tool for schools.”

The physical markers will also be updated to include QR codes that link to the digital elements, so self-guided tour-goers can access content that makes the trail “feel more alive.”

“I don't think we are ever going to go back to public guided tours,” Reese said, explaining the virtual option is much more accessible than the estimated 3-hour walking tour.

A vintage photo of a man in a cart with a horse. The cart is full of citrus.
John Donaldson, the first African American to settle in St. Petersburg, bought land on what is now 18th Ave. and 34th St.

St. Petersburg’s rich African American heritage

Former Mayor Bill Foster helped coordinate the trail’s construction in 2014 to preserve the city’s cultural history.

“He would attend the wakes and funerals of African Americans and he would hear these incredible stories, but would never hear them again,” Reese said.

“So he asked me, ‘Can we do something about capturing the stories?’ And I'm like, ‘Sure, I don't know what, but yeah, let's give it a go.’ And what we thought we were going to do was probably have a real nice brochure or something like that. And as we started collecting information, it was just amazing. It was so rich and we knew we had to do more.”

The result was the creation of two heritage trails. One, titled “Faith, Family, and Education" starts at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum along Ninth Avenue S. The other, titled “Community, Culture, and Commerce,” sits along 22nd Street S.

Together, they share the history of St. Petersburg’s cultural heritage, community leaders, landmark businesses, and the evolution of the neighborhood from the Jim Crow era through desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement.

That history includes the legacy of John Donaldson. In 1868, he became the first African American to settle in St. Petersburg as a formerly enslaved man. For two decades, Donaldson, his wife Anna Germain, and their children were the only African American family in the city.

At the time, what is now Pinellas County was considered part of Hillsborough County.

“But the people in St. Petersburg felt like Hillsborough County treated them like stepchildren,” Reese said.

A worn-out map shows a train line between northern Orlando and St. Petersburg.
Donald R. Hensley, Jr.
The 152-mile Orange Belt Railway (shown in red) was completed in 1888 and helped bring tourists to St. Petersburg.

“They petitioned the legislature to create Pinellas County. Donaldson signed that petition. So we're talking about from the beginning of the history of Pinellas County, an African American was a part of that. How much more important a role can someone play than being a part of that?”

As St. Petersburg started to develop as a city, it needed a way to transport citrus, vegetables, and passengers across the state.

“St. Pete was nothing but sand spurs and rattlesnakes. That's all it was! How were we going to get people here? There was no way to get people here,” Reese said.

In 1885, construction began on the Orange Belt Railway. The 152-mile mainline from Sanford to St. Petersburg was completed three years later. At the time, it was one of the longest narrow-gauge railroads in the U.S.

It also interchanged with two other railway lines: the Jacksonville, Tampa, and Key West Railway and the Florida Central and Peninsular Railroad. That made the city more accessible to travelers.

“The Orange Belt Railway is what was the mechanism for getting people from the north to Pinellas County. African Americans built that Orange Belt Railway,” Reese said.

“Laborers were recruited from North Florida, Central Florida, South Georgia, South Alabama, to come and complete the railway. Well, without that Railway, St. Pete would be nothing to this day. So Black folk actually helped to clear the sand spurs and build the roads.”

St. Petersburg grew substantially in the 1920s due to tourism. In 1924, after the Gandy Bridge opened, travel times across the bay were cut, helping the city increase its visitor numbers and grow to become the largest municipality in Pinellas County.

“When we talk about a tourist economy, who do you think were the ones providing service to the tourists via the maids in the hotels, or the waiters in the restaurant?” Reese asked.

“We can just go on and on and on about the important role that African Americans played in St. Petersburg being what it is today.”

A woman in a patterned dress and cool shades sits at the front of a trolley and gestures with her hands as she gives a tour of a city
Gwendolyn Reese, founder of the trail, hopes digitization helps expand access to St. Petersburg's African American history.

“Our stories must be told”

According to the Tampa Bay Times, the trail, which was largely celebrated upon its opening, has declined in popularity in recent years. Many people are unaware of its existence, while some of the landmarks have been broken or vandalized.

Reese hopes digitization will help revitalize the trail and grow the number of people who engage with St. Petersburg’s history.

“History is important. And we don't know our history,” she said.

“As we're learning, so much of it has been left out by omission, white-washing, whatever terms we want to use. And we are just beginning now to learn so many things we did not know before, whether from Nikole Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Projects, or even before that when we learned about Jefferson and Washington and the founding fathers saying 'all men are created equal,' but owning enslaved people.”

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis recently outlined what he thought were acceptable topics to be taught in civics curriculum that would get a $106 million boost through the federal CARES Act.

A woman with a printed cardigan and sunglasses stands with her hands on a coffee mug
Reese said that now is more important than ever, given the current political climate across the country and the state, to share "the African American presence and contribution" to history.

He was specific that the curriculum would not include critical race theory, which examines the way race and racism influences politics, culture, and the law.

“Our schools are supposed to give people a foundation of knowledge, not supposed to be indoctrination centers, where you’re trying to push specific ideologies,” DeSantis said during a March press conference in Naples.

“Let me be clear, there’s no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.”

Reese said those sentiments miss the point when it comes to sharing the history of African Americans in the country, the state, and the local community.

“The rhetoric and all of the negativity that frequently surrounds Black, Indigenous, and other people of color has surfaced, we're seeing more and more of that,” Reese said.

“And I base a lot of that on ignorance of not knowing the truth. I sometimes struggle with this whole thing about critical race theory. It’s polarizing. But what we've been talking about all along is inclusivity. Part of that is to play a role in opening up the full history of this country, including the African American presence and contribution.”

Reese’s goal is to expand access to St. Petersburg’s cultural heritage and to share her community’s history. She hopes the digital tour will help people understand the role African Americans have played in making the city what it is today.

“There's a quote that is anonymous. It says ‘our stories are beautiful, complicated, and messy, but they must be told,’ and our stories are usually not told,” Reese said. “So it's very important to me that our story be told.”

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