In 1908 real estate agent Noel Mitchell placed a couple of benches in front of his office on Central Avenue on which customers could relax after making the long trek to the corner of 4th Street. The benches became popular, so other businesses soon followed suit, and in 1917 a city ordinance mandated that all the benches be painted the same shade of hunter green. They quickly became a symbol of hospitality throughout the nation - splashed on postcards and magazines that promoted the good life in the Sunshine City.
But that hospitality only went so far.
As white residents enjoyed relaxing and socializing on St. Petersburg’s famous green benches, the city’s black population labored under the suffocating restrictions of the Jim Crow south. In St. Petersburg, Jim Crow laws were carefully fashioned to solve a peculiar dilemma – how do you exploit black labor to support your growing tourist community, while simultaneously excluding them from society as an inferior race? The solution, as historian Raymond Arsenault elegantly writes “was a comprehensive system of Jim Crow laws superimposed on a sanctified code of racial etiquette. Under the Jim Crow regime, blacks were only admitted to the white world at prescribed times for prescribed reasons.”
These admittances did not extend to the city’s famous green benches, a national symbol of hospitality for whites, but a glaring symbol of the inequity of the Sunshine City: as an accepted custom, blacks were not to sit on the green benches unless they were caring for white children. Nor could blacks enjoy the recreational opportunities offered at the city’s celebrated Pier, where blacks were not welcomed unless they were working.
Even the city’s swimming area’s were strictly segregated. For years, while whites enjoyed swimming off the Railroad Pier (where Demens Landing is today), blacks were banished from this refreshing respite. Only later, when the focus of recreation moved to the municipal pier, and the area around the railroad pier had become a veritable dump of industrial waste, were blacks allowed to swim at the area, which became known as the South Mole. Even this proved unseemly to many whites, who argued that blacks swimming at the waterfront could damage the city’s image to tourists.
In 1955 black citizens, led by Dr. Fred Alsup, sued for desegregation of Spa Beach at the foot of the Million Dollar Pier. Rather than concede to integrated swimming facilities, the city opted instead to close Spa Beach altogether. Not until 1959 was the pool and beach at the foot of the Pier opened on a truly integrated basis. The green benches were never similarly liberated, having been removed by the city in the late sixties in an effort to make the city appear more youthful.
The green benches represent much more than meets the eye, and it is important that we recognize and share all of the stories these benches can tell.
To read more on some of the topics mentioned here:
Desegregation of Spa Beach
Stay Out, The Water’s Fine: Desegregating Municipal Swimming egating Municipal Swimming Facilities In St. Petersburg, Florida Darryl Paulson University of South Florida https://scholarcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1101&context=tampabayhistory
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