Renaming the St. Pete library main branch: A letter to President Barack Obama

We can't ignore our history in St. Petersburg, but we can start to overcome it.

click to enlarge St. Petersburg Main Library conceptual - City of St. Pete via Flickr/CC
City of St. Pete via Flickr/CC
St. Petersburg Main Library conceptual

"...A library is not just a reference service: it is also a place for the vulnerable. From the elderly gentleman whose only remaining human interaction is with library staff, to the isolated young mother who relishes the support and friendship that grows from a Baby Rhyme Time session, to a slow moving 30-something woman collecting her CDs, libraries are a haven in a world where community services are being ground down to nothing. I've always known libraries are vital, but now I understand that their worth cannot be measured in books alone." —Angela Clarke

Dear President Obama,

Hey, how's it going? Well, I still miss the crap out of you, but you knew that already, didn't you? Anyway, that's not why I'm writing. I'm writing because a city down here will rename one of its libraries in your honor.

I'm pretty sure this isn't a new thing for you. I mean, come on, you and Michelle have a fish named after you both — that's pretty cool, you know? — and you have an extinct lizard named after you. I guess, with the way our nation seems determined to steer itself, well, that has a desperate sort of poetry to it, doesn't it? So compared to that, what's the big deal about a library that — and people are whispering about this kind of crap alreadyisn't even in a black neighborhood? After all, it's popular knowledge that most streets named after Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. run through historically black neighborhoods, a backhanded compliment intended to assuage our collective white guilt. 

But Mayor Rick Kriseman — he's a good egg, you'd probably like him — could have named the Childs Park Library after you. Childs Park, in case you didn't know, is one of those black neighborhoods created by segregation. Kriseman didn't choose to do that, probably because, despite appearances as a normal white guy, he really isn't. See, he's Jewish, and, well, Jewish people have a history of shit going bad when governments try in any way, shape or form to get them not to leave their own insular communities. Plus, you were everyone's president, right? And libraries are for all the people, right?

Let's go back. Before we had books, we had libraries. Ninevah — Iraq — was the site of the first library, reportedly stuffed with about 30,000 clay tablets, including the Epic of Gilgamesh. That was around 7th century BCE. The library had mostly religious writings and scholarly papers, and rather than a house for all people, it was built for Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian leader at the time. Next, we had Alexandria, a place for people to learn through reading its more than 500,000 works on papyrus. Archimedes and Euclid, the Stephen Hawkings and Neil Tyson DeGrasse of the 4th century BCE, had offices there. Baghdad also had a pretty expansive library — the House of Wisdom. Kick ass, right? I mean, yeah, it's no Barack Obama Library, but a nice alternative name. 

And then there's our little library in St. Petersburg. Except it's not so little — St. Pete has seven branches, including the James Weldon Johnson Library, named for the civil rights activist and poet.

That doesn't mean we have a great history of race relations in St. Pete, Mr. President.

Peyton Jones, a civil rights scholar in St. Pete who also teaches at USF St. Petersburg, describes the city's attitude thusly:

"From its earliest years, St. Petersburg's economy depended heavily on tourism and a black labor force to service that industry. The city's black underclass lived at the lowest civic stratum, confined by rigid Jim Crow laws. While the white seasonal residents and snowbirds enjoyed socializing on the city's famous green benches, listening to concerts in downtown Williams Park, or enjoying friendly competition at the Shuffleboard Club, an army of African Americans swarmed into their hotel rooms to make beds, or into their homes to cook meals, clean the dishes and tend to the landscaping. To most visitors, however, these workers remained invisible and their contribution to the region's economic development seemed irrelevant."

Invisible. That's how we saw (or, rather, didn't see) black people in St. Pete. It didn't get better as we drew closer to the pinnacle of the civil rights movement: In 1955, black people wanting to use Spa Beach and pool had to sue to enforce the integration laws — and the city of St. Pete responded by simply closing the pool when black people showed up to use it. In 1959, the city gave up the ignorant fight to keep black people off the beach and Spa Beach was finally integrated. A few years later, in 1964, the main branch of the library opened, but it was a long way from bearing a black man's name on it. 

In 1966, a black man named Joe Waller, tired of looking at a grotesquely racist George Snow Hill mural in city hall, tore it down. The mural depicted cartoonish, large-lipped African Americans eating watermelon and playing the banjo on the beach. For his act of civil disobedience, Waller spent two and a half years in jail. Today we know him as Omali Yeshitela, and I wouldn't hesitate to say we managed to radicalize this man by our severe treatment of him.

In 1968, St. Pete sanitation workers — who were mostly black — went on strike for better pay. That strike led to race riots. We were not, it seemed, evolving on par with the rest of the South. 

It would be nice to think we'd evolved, Mr. President, but it's been a long time coming.

In 2007, then-mayor Rick Baker boasted "crime is down in St. Petersburg," ignoring that the Uniform Crime Rate for the city overall was down 10%, but in historically black neighborhoods, it was up as much as 18%. We'd gone from active racism to a more passive sort.

And then you were elected. Polling places in the south side of St. Pete had lines around the building. For the first time in forever, African Americans had hope.

Today, St. Pete's making progress, millimeter by millimeter. In the last election, voters told the city they didn't want to go backwards. Forward, their votes shouted. And Kriseman's been working at it; I challenged him on this point when he first took office and I've seen firsthand his commitment. He created "Not My Son," part of his "My Brother and Sister's Keeper," based on your "My Brother's Keeper" program. He hired a new police chief who actually gets out of his office and — gasp — out of his car to walk into local businesses. He has his officers knocking on doors, too, to let residents know they're there to help, not harass. And the mayor himself is no stranger to the south side of the city — on a recent bike ride with him, a lot of people seemed to know him on a personal basis. 

Without sounding too gushy — because his administration, like yours, hasn't been without issues — he's walking the walk. Naming the main branch of the city's library after you isn't lip service; it's a tribute to how much you, sir, have helped usher in a new day in our city, with help from the current administration.

And while it can't erase our history, it's a step in the right direction: Forward.  

Contact Cathy Salustri here

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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