Sunday, July 23, 2006

St. Petersburg Florida 1967-68

My Father (r) was the first African American city executive in St. Pete Florida
In 1967 we moved to St. Petersburg Florida and remained there through most of 1968. During that time my father was the director of human relations. It was a turbulent time; one memory that stands out is that the sanitation workers in the city went on strike. The situation was not unlike that in Memphis, when Martin Luther King was murdered. The sanitation workers in St. Pete were mostly black and poor; they were demanding a better contract.

At one point there was a large rally in support of the workers. The protest had galvanized much of the African American community, as well as progressive whites. Even though the protest was non-violent, there were arrests. I was glad my mother was willing to take my brother and me to the protest, even though my father held a sensitive job at city hall and journalists from the local newspaper made note of our presence. I seem to recall that my father was not too thrilled about our presence there – it put him in an awkward position.

My father taught us to identify with the "underdog"

But the earliest lesson I learned from my father was a few years earlier – when I asked him why our family was supporting a candidate for governor of Pennsylvania who was behind in the polls and seemed destined to lose – I asked him, why don’t we just support the winner instead? And my father replied, “In this family we always back the underdog.”

It was a defining moment for me; it was a point that clarified my values that set me apart from the other kids at school. What he said has stayed with me and helped to give me a sense of my own identity and that of my family.

Although my father was busy during the week, he would take time on weekends to take my brother and me to professional wrestling matches which were held in Tampa, Florida. These trips were often accompanied by stops in the Cuban section of the city to eat “Cuban Sandwiches,” which were large sandwiches on French bread with different kinds of deli meat, hot peppers, onions, and cheese. Two evenings out of the week, my mother would take us to Judo lessons – since St. Petersburg was still racially segregated when we lived there the Judo lessons were on the “white” side of town, and we were the only African Americans in the class.

Andy Walker lived across the street
and was like a brother to us when we
lived in Florida. He went to wrestling
matches with us.

On Sundays, we initially attended the AME church in St. Petersburg but the Sunday services seemed to go on forever. I recall my parents agreeing that the pastor was “long winded.” Being a good AME minister himself, and a public figure, my father had to continue to attend the church, but my mother was free to take my brother and me to other churches. We visited a Lutheran church, but settled on Florida Presbyterian. This church was somewhat integrated, the services ran about an hour, and emotions were comparatively subdued. It was my first time attending a non-African American church on a regular basis, but I didn’t feel out of place and it didn’t require much of an adjustment.

During my experiences in the AME Church in Pittsburgh I had grown accustomed to my father’s services, which ran about an hour and a half. His sermons were always focused and he would quiz us on their content on the way home. While he had a rhythmic cadence to his delivery, he was strong on content rather than relying mostly on emotion. His favorite theme was the “Prodigal Son”, which he reminded us was essentially about a forgiving father.
My mother made the best of being in St. Pete, but she missed
her own mother, who still lived in Pittsburgh. She also missed
Pittsburgh's topography and four seasons.

On the right is a  picture of my mother in a fancy restaurant in St. Petersburg. Although she missed her own mother, who was still living in Pittsburgh, and the topography and four seasons of Western Pennsylvania -- she also didn't like being in the fishbowl of local media -- she made the best of our stay in St. Pete.

Below is a picture of the Solomons, a family that was progressive and politically active during the time. Our two families were very close in St. Petersburg. My grandmother is also in that picture, in the middle of the back row – this picture was taken during her visit – when we moved to Florida she remained in Pittsburgh.
One of many frequent visits with the Solomon family in St.
Petersburg in 1967-68. Such close interracial friendship
between families was rare, as the city was, de facto, still
largely segregated. 

My brother and me with the Solomon boys,
Richard and Robert (I’m second from the left).

The bottom picture shows me practicing my trumpet. I took trumpet lessons in Florida and played in the elementary school band. A highlight was the experience of marching with the band in a parade.

When I first tried out a trumpet during a music education class, the trumpet I was allowed to use, temporarily, was a shiny new instrument. But when my parents actually bought a trumpet for me to keep, it was smaller and was very dull. I was disappointed. The band was to play that evening for our first public performance, but I was too embarrassed to want to participate; although I went to practice, I did not want to debut with that dull instrument.

My grandmother, however, was visiting us at the time, and she found some silverware polish and went to work on the horn. By the time she was through it looked as shiny as the new instrument I used to have. I remember thinking that she had worked some kind of magic.

Naturally, I was proud to participate in the performance that evening. When the other kids saw the brightly polished horn, they were astonished at the transformation and asked, “what happened to your trumpet?” I told them a lie that best captured what seemed like the essence of the magic of what had occurred, “Oh, it fell in a bucket of water and came out with this shine.”

It seemed to me that the only thing that could make a horn shine like that was a good washing. Although I knew that was not what happened, the notion of metal polish was something I couldn’t quite grasp.

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