The Silverbergs remember civil rights struggle in St. Petersburg

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Fifty years ago, St. Petersburg was a segregated city.  In Pinellas County the school board funded the separate black schools for six months.  Students were prepared to work with their hands.  White schools, funded for none months, offered college preparatory courses.

The success of the Freedom Riders motivated people of good will throughout the country to work to end segregation.  Jane and Don Silverberg were among the whites who sought out black friends and worked for integration locally.

When the Silverbergs attended Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 inauguration in Washington, D.C., there were two Americas.  Their friends Bette Wimbish, an attorney and the first black on the St. Petersburg city council, and her husband, Dr. Ralph Wimbish, M.D., president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP, stayed at the same hotel for LBJ’s inaugural celebrations.

One evening Dr. Wimbash tried to make dinner reservations at the hotel‘s restaurant, The Jockey Club.  The head waiter claimed the restaurant was full.  Mr. Silverberg then made reservations for four himself.  When the couples came in together, The Jockey Club was obliged  to serve them.

Back in St. Petersburg, going out together was more complicated.  Waiters often denied service to the Wimbishes until the Silverbergs explained that federal law required it.  “A lot of waiters didn’t know the law or didn’t want to know it,” Mrs. Silverberg said.

“With firm explanations, restaurants learned to accept the law of the land,” Mr. Silverberg said.

In 1966, Coretta Scott King, the wife of Civil Rights Movement leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a Freedom Concert in St. Petersburg at the Pasadena Community Church titled “The Story of the Freedom Movement in Narration, Song, and Poetry.”

“It was a wonderful concert,” Mrs. Silverberg remembered.

Afterward, the Silverbergs hosted a reception for Mrs. King in their home.  “Coretta Scott King was a very gracious woman,” Mrs. Silverberg remembers, a good match for Dr. King.  “Attractive, warm, and charming, she was a woman of strength in her own right.”

Mrs. King later wrote the Silverbergs thanking them for their hospitality and inviting them to her home in Atlanta to meet her husband and children.  The Silverbergs were never able to go; Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

A week after King’s assassination, St. Petersburg sanitation department workers staged a strike for better working conditions and wages.  The strike included marches, picketing, and economic boycotts.

Faculty and friends of Eckerd College, known then as Florida Presbyterian College, marched in solidarity with the workers for several evenings.  “St. Petersburg had never seen anything like it,” Silverberg said.

At St. Petersburg city hall one evening, an angry young man, not a sanitation worker, spoke to the gathered.
Mrs. Silverberg wanted a peaceful protest, “Stop!  Stop!” she said.  “You’re wrong, and you’re a rabble rouser.”

In response, the radical leader’s troops moved in, threatening Mrs. Silverberg.  The striking garbage workers quickly formed a protective flank around her, resolving the confrontation.

The sanitation department workers’ strike continued for four months, not always peacefully.  There were four nights of riots.  Although the workers’ conditions were not met, the strike marked the beginning of change for the community, in Mrs. Silverberg‘s opinion.  “We’ve made strides in the past fifty years,” Mrs. Silverberg said.

During the civil rights movement, Mrs. Silverberg teamed up with Bette Wimbish, and Mrs. Silverberg’s brother Sanford Goldman paired with attorney James Sanderlin to register black voters.  “We helped many people vote for the first time,” Mrs. Silverberg said.

A graduate of the University of Michigan and a retired teacher, Mrs. Silverberg continues to be a community activist and a Florida Holocaust Museum docent.

— Wendy Risk, SaintPetersBlog correspondent.  She may be reached at risk.wendy@gmail.com.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.