The Deuces St. Petersburg Times Interactive Special Report
Story
Map & timeline
22nd Streetscape
Businesses
Geech's Bar-B-Q
The Manhattan
The music
Mr. & Mrs. Wiggins
Yate's Barber shop
Linset Family Tree
Religion
Youth
Moving away
Multimedia requires the free Flash Player 5+ and QuickTime Player 5+.
photo
[Times art]

As early as 1906, when St. Petersburg was still a village struggling to rise above its dirt streets, vigilantes chased blacks out of a building where they were living at Central Avenue and Ninth Street.

Then in 1921, someone dynamited the Dream, a Ninth Street S movie theater African-Americans used. Two explosions caused no injuries, but the message was clear, as a newspaper account explained: "The theater was blown up because white residents of the section ... objected to the Negroes congregating in the place."

If blacks were to congregate at all, whites wanted them somewhere else. Such themes drove the way the city grew and echo through its psyche to this day. (See "Decades on the deuces")

"It's underlying" periodic racial tension here, said Lou Brown, 46, a Realtor whose office is a few blocks from 22nd Street.

The Ku Klux Klan maintained a grip of its own. The group considered St. Petersburg a stronghold in the 1920s. Prominent residents belonged.


The Deuces:
Page 1
Page 2
Page 3
Page 4
Page 5
Page 6
Page 7

Klansmen helped finance the first YMCA downtown, entered floats in festival parades and initiated boys into a junior auxiliary. They marched, burned crosses and flogged people who violated their racial and moral codes.

But in the 1930s, when the Klan marched into the black community's own neighborhood, that was finally too much. A man named Charlie Williams stood up to them.

A strapping fellow with a hearty way, he was a porter on Seaboard railroad trains like the Orange Blossom Special, which carried tourists from the Atlantic Coast.

Williams also was a businessman in the black community. Sometimes people who wanted to start businesses, including a few on The Deuces, touched him for money. Williams was said to make plenty of his own through an illegal numbers game called bolita.

Based on the Cuban lottery, it was a version of today's Lotto. People bought numbers from couriers and hoped to win a weekly jackpot. Various mob figures, including Tampa's Trafficante crime family, took turns running the lucrative racket on Florida's west coast.

Newspapers regularly referred to Williams as St. Petersburg's "bolita king." The city was considered his territory.

A prominent member of a state Elks organization, Williams also was a political activist. Politicians courted him, believing he could deliver black votes. In 1937, he urged African-Americans to register to vote and back the police chief in a civil service referendum that might have paved the way for recruitment of black officers.

On election eve, more than 200 Klansmen marched in hoods, masks and robes to scare African-American voters. They gathered at Ninth Street S and Fourth Avenue, where they burned a cross. Newspaper reports didn't identify the Grand Cyclops, the Klansman leading the march. They did record his comments:

"This demonstration is in protest of the recent (black) registrations to kill the white vote, and of the rumored close connections of some of our high police officials with the (black) gambling element. This is a white man's city. Let's keep it that way."

The marchers went through black neighborhoods, stalking south on 16th Street to Ninth Avenue S, then west to 22nd Street. Ira Harding Wilson, then in his teens, said he sicced a dog on them. Eventually, the Klansmen made their way to Williams' house at 1242 First Ave. S, near the railroad tracks. They set a second cross ablaze.

According to enduring lore, Williams came out with a weapon. Some versions say it was a shotgun; others claim a machine gun. Some say he blasted apart the flaming cross, others that he merely faced down the Klansmen and turned them around.

Newspapers of the day don't mention the confrontation.

The next day, black voters turned out in force. They were outvoted, but it was the last time hooded Klansmen marched en masse in St. Petersburg.

* * *

Page 1   Page 3
 
  © Copyright 2002 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.