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Living in a small world of white people


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 8, 2000

The Fourth of July came and went with more attention paid to barbecue and fireworks than to the holiday's meaning -- freedom -- which we take for granted. And why not? We've had it all our lives. But something happened recently that made me think twice about being free.

I was teaching a graduate fiction workshop at USF. In one class, while discussing a story that took place in a gated community, I mentioned Culbreath Isles, the upscale neighborhood on the water in South Tampa.

"That's where George Steinbrenner lives," a student said.

"And where they don't want me to live," quipped the only student in the class who was black.

I don't know if that's true. And Steinbrenner doesn't live there. But I do know that Culbreath Isles is in South Tampa, and all of South Tampa is very white.

In the neighborhood's privately owned restaurants and small specialty stores, at the cleaners, the gas station, the library, among the runners and walkers and bikers on Bayshore -- just about anywhere below Kennedy and above Gandy, really -- it is very rare to see someone who is black.

I moved to South Tampa from integrated south St. Petersburg almost 10 years ago. It took me a couple of days to realize what felt strange: Everyone was white.

It felt strange only briefly, then it felt like the usual. After all, I grew up in a totally white suburb of Chicago, Park Ridge, incidentally, the same town Hillary Clinton -- who will need the black vote to get elected senator in New York -- grew up in. It never occurred to me then to wonder why blacks didn't live there.

I'm not sure why they don't live in South Tampa, either, but I can take a guess. The white power structure of the town grew up here in big houses on Bayshore Boulevard and in Hyde Park. I'm guessing that black people weren't welcome. Unless they were servants.

I saw an old copy of Town and Country -- from the '60s, I think -- that included an article about Tampa society. One of the photographs was of a wealthy family -- you would know the name -- sitting, all dressed up for Sunday lunch on their expansive lawn in South Tampa. Their butler stood in serving clothes nearby, and his wife, the maid, stood in the background at the door to the house.

Still, sometimes I see a black maid sitting at a bus stop here, but even that is rare.

It would be easy growing up in South Tampa, as I grew up in that Chicago suburb, to never know a black person.

My daughter went to court-ordered integrated schools in St. Petersburg. We would sit in the audience for those cornball parents' programs with the little kids singing together or some such and feel that indeed the world was a changed place. I think it was an important part of her education. When she went on to college, a small women's school in Virginia, she talked about her new friends, particularly her Big Sister, K.C. It wasn't until I went to visit her for parents' weekend that I learned K.C. was black.

What I realized with a shock from my USF student's comment is that if he knew where I live, he would assume the same thing about me that he assumes about the anonymous residents of Culbreath Isles: that I do not want him living in my neighborhood.

He would be wrong.

A couple of weeks ago my husband and I went to the Red Lobster in Rocky Point out near the Courtney Campbell. There was a table with a black family -- mom and dad and two small girls, their hair filled with colorful beads. A table with a black man and white woman and two lovely black college-age women. A table with a white mom and dad and their two black pre-schoolers.

I was in a different place: 21st-century America.

- Sandra Thompson is a writer who lives in Tampa.

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