St. Petersburg has its share of churches throughout the city. In the black community, you can find one on every corner, almost. Many are spin-offs from other churches, most likely due to a disagreement in theology or a personal grudge. At the heart of the black faith community, there is a group of churches that have stood the test of time. No matter the trials or tribulations, their resilience is undeniable.
First Baptist Institutional Baptist Church is one of those churches. In February 2020, the church will celebrate its 123rd church anniversary. It was established in 1897 as Mt. Teman Missionary Baptist Church (1897 - 1920), and later incorporated in 1928. Its original location was 776 Second Ave S, in the Pepper Town neighborhood of St. Petersburg, Florida.
The church’s first pastor, Rev. R. A. Brown saw the church through the construction of their first edifice. First Baptist has had several pastors including Rev. Raymond A. Cromwell, who took over in 1928, followed by:
Rev. R. Julian Smith
Rev. S. M. Carter
Rev. M. J. Sherard
Rev. Dr. C. S. Felder
Rev. William A. Smith
Rev. Raymond A. Cromwell
Rev. G. A. Langhorn
Rev. Robert C. Morse
Morse was appointed Sr. Pastor of First Baptist Institutional in 1981. A year later the City of St. Petersburg, after failing to attract a redeveloper for the Gas Plant area, decided to build a stadium in hopes of luring Major League Baseball. The shift meant that the remaining churches and homes would have to relocate. Morse was in the process of negotiating with the city when he passed away on February 4, 1983, at the young age of 31.
“There is a certain sadness in having to leave this particular facility, yet there is a great joy…in terms of planning and designing a new structure.” (Smart 1982)
– Rev. Robert C. Morse (December 9, 1982)
His successor was the Reverend Wayne G. Thompson, the longest serving and current pastor of First Baptist.
Relocation is Nothing New
First Baptist Institutional is at its third location. After undergoing a renovation in 1940 that included an addition to its original site on Seventh Street and Second Avenue South, the church relocated to 280 Sixteenth Street South. According to Thompson, the original church had to move because, “It was impacted first by Webb’s City, and then the city wanted the new location for urban development.” He adds about Webb's City, "The church had to move so they could use the land for a parking lot."
Thompson believes Gerrymandering is also in play when it comes to displacing African Americans, explaining that it isn’t coincidental that black people are constantly moved out of certain areas. In turn, voting demographics change in upcoming elections.
I was unaware that the church had a previous location before the red brick building on Sixteenth Street South. Or before Webb’s City was built there was a neighborhood east of the Gas Plant area. “Yes, that was a black neighborhood," he says, "It was called Pepper Town.”
The Origins of Pepper Town
Thompson shares that the neighborhood was called Pepper Town because it was where some of the earliest black residents of St. Petersburg settled. Historians state the area got its name because it was known for the peppers that grew there. Another story says the area was named after Florida Senator, Claude Pepper. An assertion Pepper quickly denounced because the neighborhood existed before he rose to political prominence.
When asked about Webb’s City, Thompson isn’t sure when it was built, but believes it was in the 1920s or 30s, and expanded years later. In it's prime "The original 17-by-28-foot space quickly grew into a sprawling mass that swallowed up all of Second to Fourth Avenues South, between Seventh and 10th streets. (Calise, 2019)"
“What you have to do is not think of the city as it is today. You have to see the city as it was. There was nothing across what is now Martin Luther King Street (referring to the 1890s). Everything in the old days was in that part of town. That’s why Pepper Town is there. Black people started migrating west. And white people went south and west. White people took over the rest of the area.”
On the beginning of the Gas Plant area, he reflects, “Second Avenue that’s where everything was for black people. The coldest beer place was Cozy Corner. Ms. Grayson, who was a member of First Baptist, owned that. She was a member as well as her son Freddie. That was on the corner of Second Avenue South and 10th Street.
Gerty Coker, who was a deaconess here and Doug Jamerson’s grandmother, had a café, Citizen’s Lunch Counter, on Second Avenue between ninth and tenth.” Jamerson was an educator turned politician. Doug Jamerson Elementary School at 1200 37th Street is named in his honor. “There were tenement houses and barbershops.” Thompson continue, “This was when Third Avenue South was the place to be and it became the Gas Plant area. All this was after the late 20s and 30s and it was becoming that place.
By the time we get to 1952, all this stuff was in existence. Little Egypt, was right across from the Gas Plant. There were five big ol’ houses with one water meter. I found that out when I went to work for the City. The white people had one meter for all those houses, and there must have been a million families living there.” He laughs.
“Three Story big buildings were down there. Behind them were the railroad tracks that ran straight down First Avenue South. You’ll see it now if you go down there. You’ll see the tracks still in the ground running by the Tropicana field all the way to 22nd Street. That’s where the train station was. The train station is now a restaurant, art deco, event space, and all of that.
But in that day McCabe United Methodist Church was on Fourth Avenue South and Ninth Street (Later renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Street) across from Grant Motor Co. The parking lot now by the interstate was Grant Ford...the end of that parking lot. And McCabe United Methodist was right there.”
Making of Methodist Town
Pastor Thompson continues to recall sites from memory. I ask him about Cooper’s Quarters, a neighborhood that was on the southeast quadrant of the Gas Plant area. He is unfamiliar with the neighborhood but shifts to a second community that became popular as more black people migrated to the area.
“Tenth Street South and Third Avenue was Bethel Metropolitan. Across from that was Davis Elementary. It was a white school but then they built another school on Fourth Street North (North Ward Elementary). The buildings were the same. And they had one on Euclid off of Ninth Avenue (St. Paul’s Catholic School). So they made Davis a school for coloreds.
Kids from the north side and Methodist town came to Davis. Methodist Town is where it is now, but we call it Jamestown…Third Avenue North where Jamestown housing is. All of that is still Methodist Town.
People migrated here from Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, and when they came here they resided in Methodist Town. Bethel AME was there and St. Mark was there, but came along later.”
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church is located on Third Avenue North and Tenth Street. They recently celebrated their 125th Anniversary. It is the oldest African American Church in St. Petersburg.
Part of the Gas Plant area was demolished for an extension of Interstate 275 that would become I-175, and later an industrial park that promised jobs, housing, and new infrastructure. Before all of that Methodist Town, which was home to 1300 residents, was considered one of the worst slums in the city. In the 70s, word came that the interstate was coming to Pinellas County. It would weave its way pass Methodist Town, through the Gas Plant area, The Deuces, a prominent black business district, and surrounding residential neighborhoods.
The city decided to take advantage of the opportunity, believing “redevelopment was an ideal way to get rid of an embarrassing eyesore. (White 1979)” The plan moved out 1300 residents, along with rooming houses, community businesses, and the area's nightlife. In its place the area received “55 carpeted air-conditioned townhouses and a renovated 17 unit apartment building.”
One thing residents learned, whether it was Methodist Town or the Gas Plant area, once you relocate, the city is not held accountable for the promises they make. Residents complained of the mistreatment by relocation specialists sent by the city. Most did not feel they were adequately compensated for their property.
Despite their concerns, the city contended that “Most of the residents that were moved out of Methodist Town are happy in their new homes and that most of them have settled in other predominately black neighborhoods. (White 1979)”
What the Gas Plant area residents and businesses learned was:
Relocation assistance would not be enough to reopen elsewhere.
Although business owners in Methodist Town asked the city for a strip of land to reopen, it never happened, they would do the same to Gas Plant businesses.
Replacement housing in the redeveloped areas was not a priority for the city.
Eddie Burney, speaking on behalf of the residents stated, “…the thing that hurts us is that they used the condition of our housing as a pretext to get it,” referring to government money from HUD. He went on to say, “Building better housing for us is not the main thrust of the plan. That’s why they are going to build the housing after we’ve all been relocated elsewhere. (White 1979)”
Will it Ever Be Home?
The history shared by Pastor Thompson is a forgotten part of St. Petersburg’s history. When the first black families arrived in the area, St. Petersburg wasn’t a city. Once incorporated, plans were made for the future of the town. That methodology is still present today. Unfortunately, growth often comes at the expense of its black residents.
Click here to read about the impact the relocation had on First Baptist Institutional and the black faith community.
Calise, Gabrielle. “Webb's City Closed 40 Years Ago. What Happened to the 'World's Most Unusual Drug Store'?” Tampa Bay Times, Tampa Bay Times, 11 Oct. 2019, https://www.tampabay.com/news/florida/2019/08/18/webbs-city-closed-40-years-ago-today-what-happened-to-the-worlds-most-unusual-drug-store/.
Smart, Christopher. “Stadium Plans Will Uproot Churches in Gas Plant Area.” St. Petersburg Times, 9 Dec. 1982, pp. 1–11.
White, Theresa. “Did Jamestown Teach the City About Urban Renewal?” St. Petersburg Times, 20 Sept. 1979, p. 1.