ABOUT THIS PROJECT
Every American city has a beginning, a present, and a future. Among its histories are events that inadvertently design its destiny. Depending on who is telling the story, the reality may seem different because perspective often crafts our realities. I have lived in St. Petersburg, Florida my entire life. When I decided to do my Masters of Liberal Arts project on displaced churches in the Gas Plant District, I had an image of how the story would unfold. As I began to do research and talk to people that are also from St. Petersburg, stories began to evolve and the project I thought I would have, shifted.
Gas plant area the late 1970s - Credit: City of St. Petersburg
The Gas Plant District as it was recently rebranded was once the gas plant area, a section of town known for its large gas towers. Stories about its origins and history have helped shape the identity of the black community as a whole. However, it wasn’t just the Gas Plant area, which was previously known as the Coppers Quarters. It was also communities like Pepper Town, Methodist Town, and The Deuces. Listening to history and putting together the pieces was like a cultural work of art. Each story is intricately woven into another. Once completed, there are both perfect and flawed patterns, when bound together, form a unique, rich, unfinished tapestry.
What the city refers to as Phase One, was the purchase of land for a redevelopment project with the intention of creating a multi-purpose industrial park. Phase Two required the purchase of remaining property in the gas plant area to build Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team. The original plans changed after the city receive little to no interest from developers for the industrial park.
The gas plant area was once home to some of the oldest black churches in the city. By the time Phase Two hit, the last vestiges of churches, were Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, First Baptist Institutional Church, and Prayer Tower Church of God In Christ. I spoke with the pastors of these churches, along with members to get a perspective of what the relocations meant to them.
The focus of the project was to tie together the relationship between the black community, black churches, and the legacy of land grabs that have placed black residents into a perpetual fight to survive and to exist. The original questions I wanted to answer at the close of my research were:
What did losing the gas plant area means to the black community?
How did the displacement of black churches impact the faith community?
Now that baseball may be leaving the city, what if anything does the city owe the black community for the loss of a community and the failure to make good on its promises?
Have black pastors lost their level of influence and respect?
After numerous discussions with pastors, church members, and people that lived through the displacements, what I was left with was a new question. Will the black community of St. Petersburg and its black churches exist in St. Petersburg’s "generational endeavor” called Vision 2050 plan?
Enoch D. Davis, the “fourth pastor of Second Bethel Baptist Church” (Reese 2017) which was later renamed Bethel Community Baptist Church, served from 1932 to 1984. At the time he had “the longest-serving period by any pastor in St. Pete’s history” (Reese 2017). He wrote in his book On the Bethel Trail:
No minority church ever started out with greater handicaps and made more significant progress in as short a period of time than the black race. When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, not more than 5 percent of black Americans could read and write. American blacks have been handicapped with regard to education, religion, recreation, employment, travel, hospitalization, and security.
Central to black achievement has been the church. The black church came into being because there were needs that only a free church could meet—spiritual, social and humanitarian needs had been neglected both within and outside the church. The organized church put up a strong resistance to the acceptance of blacks into their membership on an equal basis (Davis 1979 56).
Enoch D. Davis
The first black people, John Donaldson and his wife Anna Germain, settled in St. Petersburg in 1868. Laborers, that came to the area to build the rails for Orange Belt Railways arrived in 1888. This is where St. Petersburg’s African American history begins (2019). The workers typically journeyed from town to town in the direction of the rails. When they reached the area, a small group decided to make it home. The first settlement was called Pepper Town.
In 1894 the first and oldest black church in the city is Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The black community known as Methodist Town was named for the church. As the black population continued to grow other communities formed. In the midst of this expansion, the city itself was also developing and officially became an incorporated city in 1903 (2019).
Progress has always made its way through the black community. This is not something that is unique to St. Petersburg. Cities throughout the United States have
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church
St. Petersburg, Florida
Credit: The Weekly Challenger Newspaper
their own stories. For St. Petersburg, Interstate 275 and Major League Baseball are the main culprits.
“City of St. Petersburg.” The City of St. Petersburg Florida, 28 June 2019, http://www.stpete.org/history_and_preservation/index.php.
Davis, Enoch Douglas. On the Bethel Trail. Valkyrie Press, 1979.
Reese, Gwen. “I AM: Rev. Enoch Davis.” –The Weekly Channel, 10 Nov. 2017, http://theweeklychallenger.com/i am-rev-enoch-davis/.