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Politics / Issues

Ken Welch is more than St. Petersburg's first Black mayor

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Octavio Jones
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WUSF Public Media
Ken Welch was raised in the city's thriving, predominately Black Gas Plant neighborhood, which was torn down to build Tropicana Field.

The moment is also significant because the incoming mayor was born and raised here and has witnessed the city's growth during his lifetime.

St. Petersburg will enter a new era of government when Ken Welch is sworn in as mayor.

On Jan. 6, Welch becomes the city’s first African American mayor. It holds enormous historical weight for a city that has long dealt with racism — from the disappearance of prominent black neighborhoods to residential segregation.

Ray Arsenault is a longtime resident of St. Pete and the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History emeritus at the University of South Florida.

"The election of Ken Welch as St. Petersburg's first Black mayor is a real milestone in the city's history,” Arsenault said. “For generations, since the beginning of the city as a town back in 1892, it wasn't even conceivable that a Black person could run for mayor let alone win."

Arsenault said the city has made advancements when it comes to race relations, but Welch's election is a sign of the progress that is coming in the near future.

The moment is also significant because the incoming mayor was born and raised here and has witnessed the city's growth during his lifetime.

The Welch family has had a “long and distinguished kind of tenure in the city,” Arsenault said. Ken’s father, the late David Welch, was a teacher, school administrator, and longtime city councilman.

“The Welch family is one of the most prominent African American families in St. Petersburg, which is saying something because one of the strange demographic facts about St. Petersburg is that the average Black resident has been here longer than the average white resident,” he said.

Welch was raised in the city's thriving, predominately Black Gas Plant neighborhood, which was torn down to build Tropicana Field. Speaking to a crowd at an event last month, he said growing up in that community had a tremendous influence on him.

"Perhaps one of the most impactful things in my mind as a child as the deputy mayor said ... how the Gas Plant and Deuces community nurtured and protected me in the midst of systemic racism and poverty," Welch said.

Though Arsenault said the city has a rocky path in terms of race relations, it has come a long way. And, he added, Welch will be a mayor that will represent all of St. Petersburg.

“I think it's a convergence of a family tradition, of a sterling reputation of being not only an effective politician and government leader. but many people just find him a wonderful human being," Arsenault said."

Arsenault said Welch's election "signals all of that possible progress that we will make in the next few years."

The historical significance of having a Black person in the role is important, said Veatrice Farrell, executive director of The Deuces Live, Inc. But, she adds, she’s excited to have the incoming mayor in office because he is a “dedicated public servant.”

And the coming years will be important for the city, said Mhariel Summers, spokeswoman for the Saturday Morning Shoppe and Affordable Care Act Navigator for the Pinellas County Urban League. She said Welch has a tough job ahead of him in terms of creating affordable housing. Summers hopes he will continue moving the city’s economy forward.

Carl Lavender Jr. has known Welch for 21 years. The chief equity officer for the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg said he's ready to see what Welch will do as mayor.

"His legacy, there are five generations here," Lavender Jr. said. "His legacy has prepared him for this moment, as it had when he went to county commission and won."

Welch’s background living in the city will be important as the mayor assumes his role, Lavender Jr. said.

“It’s important right now because so much of the seven to nine square miles we refer to as Black St. Petersburg needs a leader with a lens that is very close to the historic roots — consequences, if you will — of the community,” Lavender Jr. said.

Having a Black mayor will also give the city more credibility, he added.

In addition, Lavender Jr. said, having Welch at the helm of the city will serve as an inspiration to motivate the city's young Black residents.

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