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'Black Gym' a red flag for officials

The city-financed project will be called Uhuru Black Gym of Our Own, the group says. But the city says that violates their contract. A lawsuit may result.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 17, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- When it got a $177,155 grant last year to outfit a community gymnasium, the African People's Education and Defense Fund agreed not to call the gym "Black Gym of Our Own," as it originally proposed.

It was a compromise that overcame the objections of several St. Petersburg City Council members, who worried that calling it a "Black Gym" would make people of other races feel uncomfortable or excluded.

Now the money has been spent. White paint gleams on new and refurbished weight machines in a freshly painted and newly air-conditioned building at 1327 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. S, and the gym is set to open June 6.

And APEDF leaders say they still plan to name the gym "Uhuru Black Gym of Our Own," no matter what their contract with the city says.

The group has retained local First Amendment attorney George Rahdert, who says he will sue the city unless it drops the restrictions. He has met with the city's lawyers, who asked for time to research the city's legal position.

"In my opinion we could spring a very expensive lawsuit on the city," said Rahdert, who also represents the St. Petersburg Times on constitutional issues. "This is a constitutional law school final exam for all the variety of constitutional law violations."

The city must require the APEDF not to discriminate in the membership of the gym, he said. But it has no business telling the group what to call it. He said the city is infringing First Amendment rights of political and religious speech.

Besides that, Rahdert said, the city regularly finances organizations with racial references in the name, such as the Asian Family and Community Empowerment Center. To act differently with a black organization is racial discrimination, he says.

But many City Council members feel betrayed. They thought the city had reached an agreement with APEDF, and they expected the organization to honor it. Member Bill Foster is the most vocal.

"I think it's extreme bad faith to try to renege on a deal and cite the First Amendment," Foster said, adding that naming a gym paid for with public money something inclusive seems only right.

" 'A Black Gym of Our Own' offends me," he said. "It's exclusive. It's as bad as a 'White Gym,' a 'Man's gym,' a 'Baptist gym' or a 'Catholic gym.' "

Council member Richard Kriseman agrees, and he draws a distinction between programs like Asian FACE, where the city has given only supplemental funding to a group that conducts cultural programs and offers English lessons, and the gym project, which the city paid for almost entirely.

"It should be community-friendly," he said. "A Black Gym of Our Own isn't."

The gym building, which also will house a food market, will replace the current Uhuru Black Gym of Our Own at the Uhuru House on 18th Avenue S.

Council member Earnest Williams, who represents the district that includes the gym, is upset enough to wage a legal battle over the point.

"My recommendation is not only that we take them to court but request any money that has been expended be returned in full," he said.

APEDF administrator Janice Kant said her group agreed to the contract terms in September despite objecting to them instead of trying to negotiate a more favorable contract.

"I think that it was clear from the council at the time that that wasn't going to happen, and it was also clear that these things could be resolved in another way, when it was clear that they were unconstitutional and illegal," Kant said.

Despite the name, anyone will be welcome to join the gym, said Ironiff Ifoma, the APEDF board member who has coordinated the project.

"We are a 501(c)3" federally recognized non-profit corporation, she said. "We follow the federal rules like you wouldn't believe. One thing that is in the rules is that we not discriminate and we don't."

Council Chairwoman Rene Flowers regrets the controversy. She says the council should drop the naming and political speech restrictions to avoid a legal fight the city might lose -- one that could be acrimonious and lengthy.

"I don't know how we will fare when it relates to the First Amendment issue," she said. "I don't want this to become a platform issue for someone or something that takes our focus away from the positive things we are trying to accomplish."

The City Attorney's Office has not decided what action to recommend to the council.

"We are doing some research now and hope to come to a conclusion by the council meeting (today)," said Chief Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn.

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