‘We weren’t wealthy. But we were rich.’ Black residents of St. Pete reflect on generational wealth

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They came together late last year, about a dozen Black residents of St. Petersburg, to talk to each other and to the Tampa Bay Times about generational wealth. Generational wealth — financial assets passed down through generations of a family — has traditionally been more difficult to accumulate for minority families. Many factors go into that, including access to education, good-paying jobs and the ability to start businesses and own real estate.

© Douglas R. Clifford/Times Esther Eugene, 45, is the new president of the St. Petersburg NAACP and the president and CEO of her own business, All Administrative Solutions, which she runs out of her home in St. Petersburg. © Ivy Ceballo/Times Lou Brown, 64, poses for a portrait outside his childhood home, which is also home to his local real estate business Lou Brown Realty, in St. Petersburg on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.

These conversations were hosted and recorded on our behalf by the nonprofit Local Voices Network, which works with the media and communities to bring underrepresented voices and perspectives into public dialogue.

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The participants, representing various ages and professional backgrounds, met online to share the stories of their families and their St. Petersburg neighborhoods and to reflect on the role civic engagement plays in the Black community’s economic future.

Among them were Lou Brown, 64, a longtime local real estate agent, and Esther Eugene, 45, who runs the consulting firm All Administrative Solutions and was recently elected president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Here are their stories, told in their own words and edited for length and clarity.

Lou Brown

Born in 1956, Lou Brown has lived most of his life in St. Petersburg. His parents, both local educators and later real estate agents, instilled in him the value of self-worth and pride in Black-owned businesses.

I think it was the early 1960s. As things were beginning to desegregate, there were people in the community who would go to the McDonald’s (restaurant). Back then, if you were African American, you had to go in the back door.

I remember being with my dad, and I said, “Dad, let’s go to McDonald’s.”

He looked at me and he said, “Well, I would have to go to the back door.”

And I said, “Well, what’s wrong with that?”

He pulled the car over, stopped, and he glared at me.

And he said, “Son, I don’t have back-door money. If I can’t go in the front door, I’m not going at all.”

It started to let me know that, even though we were protected, and we were put in a cocoon and our parents and the community cared for us and they tried to shield us from the racism that was very apparent, it was a part of life growing up. And it became one of my goals, missions, to do what we could to attempt to change it.

That first economic thought was important. There were others.

We went to Atlanta when I was right about 10 years old, and I remember we had such a hard time — we laughed about it for years — trying to get around the beltway to get into the city, because my mother wanted us to stay at Pascal’s. It was the best hotel-restaurant in the city, period, Black or white. And she was so proud of that.

After about two hours, we finally got into the city, and we found it. The food was scrumptious. And we were very glad that Mom insisted and enjoyed it and continued to understand the benefits of supporting our businesses.

You know, nothing wrong with any of the other businesses, but if you had money and it was good, you needed to go and help support it to help build it. The pride that they had, it couldn’t help but be instilled.

Throughout his childhood, Brown saw further evidence of that pride and of the way neighbors in the Black community took care of one another.

I grew up about a block or maybe a block and a half from the Manhattan Casino in the late 1950s, early 1960s. That was a financial hub, but we knew it was where my dad was working at the door.

It was a thriving night spot and was surrounded by businesses. Mr. Grogan, who ran it, was one of my father’s fraternity brothers.

My dad being a (school) principal, he had been an administrator at 16th Street Junior High School for a few years. And before that, he was an English teacher at Gibbs High School. Everybody knew him. So with him being at the door, you know, you’re not coming in here with any mess.

Back then, you wanted to impress the teachers. The teachers were really near the top of the community, because teaching was the best job they could get.

My grandmother was a midwife. The number of people that she birthed at that time, it was just amazing. You have to realize, you couldn’t go to the hospital to be born. That was just what it was, and she wasn’t the only midwife. They had a thriving business.

It was just a different time.

Nobody was hungry. If we were playing, and you were at my house, you ate. If we were playing, and I was at your house, I ate. That’s life. We would come home to the house on Seventh Avenue, and the neighbor would be in the kitchen, getting some sugar. And you could go to their house and do the same thing.

We weren’t wealthy. But we were rich.

Brown recalls how things changed in the 1960s and 1970s, with Black families moving farther south.

In the very early 1960s, Black folks were beginning to move in to the south side of St. Petersburg.

As historical as it was, they were being block-busted. And when the Black folks moved in, the white folks moved out.

At one point, most of the property being bought on the south side was being purchased by Blacks.

Dr. Swain built his office on the corner of 15th Avenue and 22nd Street. Now across 15th Avenue from him was the doctor’s pharmacy, their office and then Mercy Hospital, which was a block down on the other side of the street. That’s about 13th, 14th Avenue. The Manhattan Casino was about Sixth Avenue, so that 10-block area of 22nd Street was the strip in St. Pete. The Double Deuces, as we used to call it.

By that time, Black folks were moving into Lakewood Estates, which means they were able to work in some of the corporations and things — not just as teachers. The income was coming in.

White flight had slowed down quite a bit by the late 1970s. The white folks were like, “If I’m running from them, now with the jobs, they can run right behind, so I can’t really get away.”

Gulfport became more prominent for whites. Blacks weren’t that prominent on the north side, simply because the south side was developed, and that was it.

As economic opportunities for the Black community expanded beyond areas such as 22nd Street, pitfalls emerged.

Twenty-second Street was the best strip, because it was the only strip. You could not go beyond that. And now, by us being able to spread out, there are other areas that have taken up and the business community has grown.

The fact that it’s not just confined to the 10-block area where it once was is really a benefit.

You know, unfortunately, just like any urban renewal, once a property like 22nd Street starts thriving, then it really cannot help but go down as people invest in other areas. And the prominence of that particular area goes down, because the properties get older.

So if you’re trying to do something new in that area and you cannot get the financing, what happens? You need to go where you can get the financing, or you have to do it on a lesser scale, because of the funds that are available.

It goes all the way down, and then somebody comes in and redoes the entire area, and the folks who used to live in that area five years ago can no longer even afford to be there.

Just living in that neighborhood and having that “S” behind your address would limit even some of the white folks. Perhaps not as much as the Black folk, because they may have other opportunities, but it is a factor that you have to figure in as you try to evaluate and see what’s going on. You knew you were dealing with something substandard in terms of property value.

For Brown’s family, investing what they had in savings and property was the key to building generational wealth. For the younger generations, he feels the key for them is to invest in their community.

The hardest thing for the kids is being able to understand that every penny I get, I ain’t got to spend. And the more I start to spend in my community with people that look like me, the more that money can go around.

For those of us who were able to spend money at our own establishments, it fueled those establishments, and it came back around to fuel the people.

Wasn’t always the case.

The one thing about desegregation that we sometimes look at as a downside is being able to spend our money where we couldn’t before, with some of the white businesses. But with the white businesses and the white people not coming into our community to spend their money on our businesses that needed the help, those businesses went down.

Brown hopes St. Petersburg’s Black residents will develop their neighborhoods, make outsiders recognize the area’s history and ensure that everyone benefits from change. He remembers the death of Tyron Lewis, a Black man killed by a police officer during a traffic stop, as a turning point.

When Tyron Lewis was (killed) on 16th Street and 18th Avenue in 1996, the community came together in ways we hadn’t before.

Organizations inside the community that were not communicating with each other began to communicate. We made so much progress in such a short time.

We can do things together, and we understand we’re not cookie cutters. We are such diverse people that we come from every place that you can come from.

We have to keep going and keep going together, so that as a community, we can get to where we need to be.

Esther Eugene

Born in Jamaica in 1975, Esther Eugene traveled between the island nation and St. Petersburg, where her parents worked. She came to Florida for good at the age of 9. In the decades before she arrived, green benches throughout St. Petersburg had become notorious as places for white people to sit, but not Black people. While many of the green benches along Central Avenue had been removed and/or painted over by the time Eugene was a little girl, the message of their history remained alive, she said.

Growing up in St. Petersburg, I remember distinctly what Central Avenue looked like. Central Avenue had at that time green benches, and it was very clear to the African American community that we were not allowed to sit on those benches.

If you sat there, potentially there was trouble that could come your way.

My mom used to go to Webb’s Plaza, and Webb’s Plaza at that time had department stores. But I remember us walking over to Central Avenue, because there was a fabric store there. I would say that I was about 6. I remember the benches, only because I went to kind of rest on it. My mom grabbed my hand and she said, no, don’t sit there.

We did not go across 49th into Gulfport. We were strongly advised not to go into Gulfport because of the way that population, which was majority Caucasian, felt about African Americans.

It was an interesting time to just see the dynamics.

I had a friend by the name of Amy. Her mom would not allow Amy to come to my house. But I was allowed to go to Amy’s house on Saturday, only between the hours of 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock. And I remember my mom had to pack my lunch. She packed utensils and cups and things for me to use because I wasn’t allowed to eat in Amy’s house.

And Amy was someone that I considered a best friend of mine.

As Eugene grew, she witnessed a change in the racial makeup of the city and the growing number of Black residents south of Central Avenue.

I can remember distinctly when it was noticed that the north property value was a little more attractive to Caucasians. And so the Caucasians began to migrate over to the north side, by default pushing the African Americans to the south side.

My early teens is when I really began to notice the shift.

Growing up in the Childs Park neighborhood, I didn’t see very many Caucasians. And if you saw a white person in our neighborhood, they were dating a Black person, and they probably had biracial children and they were accepted in because of that.

On Saturdays, we would go to yard sales. The ones Mommy went to were in Snell Island and on St. Pete Beach, or anywhere north of Fifth Avenue. You knew the difference between north and south by how they kept the property, how they kept their homes. There was space in between the homes. So you couldn’t walk out through your back door and walk a couple steps and talk to the next house. They had yards. They had fences. It just seemed to be a different world.

As you begin to see the shift in the growth of development come further into south St. Petersburg, you begin to see the shift in the homes and the faces that live in those homes. As the downtown area and Bayfront and All Children’s and all of that began to build up … it became more of people purchasing properties and renting them to African Americans, as opposed to African Americans owning the property.

Beyond owning real estate, Eugene views employment as a key factor in building generational wealth. She runs a consulting firm, All Administrative Solutions, but success has not come without challenges.

I think of economic opportunity in the eyes of a Black female, recognizing that my skin color will dictate whether I am given the golden ticket for economic prosperity as opposed to my Caucasian counterpart.

I tell my daughters this all the time, I have to work 10 times harder than my Caucasian counterpart. There have been so many times where I have been passed up for a promotion, and someone was brought in to be my supervisor that I’ve had to train.

I’ve achieved my bachelor’s degree. I’ve achieved my master’s degree. But before I open my mouth and before you hear how I speak, you see a 6-foot-tall African American woman with natural hair, and you make an automatic determination on who I am.

I don’t wear high heels in meetings because if I wear high heels, and I tower over a Caucasian man, I’m deemed as a threat. Over the years, I have worn a weave or something that didn’t necessarily show my natural texture because if I show that then I’m perceived as being the militant, Black angry woman.

I have learned to speak slower and talk lower and in a steady tone to draw people in, because if I speak fast and I speak with too much excitement, I’m perceived as being domineering or dominating.

Then there’s Black entrepreneurship, where Eugene also says she has seen uneven access to opportunity.

I think of the little business owner who has been in business for 15-plus years, deposits their money, hasn’t really needed a loan because what they bring in has been able to carry them, and they haven’t really needed to be on a first-name basis with their banker.

Those small-business loans, those things that are now tied to COVID-19, they will be generated by the bank. And the banker or the representative of the bank is going to lean toward those individuals or those businesses that they have the most solid relationships with.

They just had to release another round of Paycheck Protection Program funding and specifically say that the initial release of it is only for small minority businesses, because in the first round, the larger organizations snatched up all of the funding. When it came time for the minority businesses to get something, they didn’t have the relationships with the banks, and there was nothing for them.

That’s a prime example of what we go through on an everyday basis. They say there are these opportunities. But when you’re ready, and you’ve lined yourself up and made yourself a contender for the opportunity, someone else comes in, and you’re no longer viable.

Eugene helps educate small-business owners on ways they can overcome obstacles to growth. Financial education is another key for individuals and a way to help whole communities rise up, she said. It’s also part of her family’s legacy.

I think of my great-grandmother. I remember at 7 years old, she gave me a little piggy bank. And I remember her always saying, “Whenever you get a little change” — and back then 5 cents was big money — “you put it in there. And then when it gets full, you cash it out. But you don’t cash it out to spend it. You cash it out to go put into your bank.”

And when Mom had the conversations, it was, “Now you’re going to a checking account.”

And I remember having the conversations with my girls, and it’s no longer just a checking and a savings. Now it’s an IRA, and we’re looking at bonds. We have to have those conversations, but not just have the conversations. We have to have the actionable moments where we’re showing them what you need to do.

The desire to help her community’s political and economic power grow led Eugene to become president last year of St. Petersburg’s chapter of the NAACP.

I made a decision to run, because what I saw were so many silos and so many people saying that they were fighting the same fight and wanting to move the economic needle in the same direction, but operating as individuals or individual organizations. I came in the door, and I said, I’m going to operate from a place of collaboration, and that means that everybody deserves a seat at the table.

That’s the benefit of me never having held a political position before, never having these preconceived ideas or misconstrued ideas of individuals. I can operate in a place of true transparency, and of “I take you at face value.” That’s why I wanted to be president, and I was elected. And that’s truly my mantra, the three R’s: re-energize, reclaim and recruit.

Going along just to get along — those days are done.

It’s we’re going along, and we’re making this thing happen. And y’all either get on the train or go on and jump off. But the train does keep on going.

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