ST. ST. PETERSBURG, Florida (AP) – Thirty years ago, Ken Welch’s father tried unsuccessfully to become the first black mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida. Welch donned his father’s campaign button on Tuesday as he took a resounding victory in top office in the once isolated city.
Welch acknowledged his milestone in his speech to supporters following an easy victory over Republican Robert Blackmon in a city where nearly 70 percent of the population is white. But he said that his victory is only the beginning.
“For me, making history without having a positive impact is an empty achievement,” Welch said. “Our electoral victory must be accompanied by a focused agenda of accountability and deliberate equality for our entire community.”
Beneath its sunny façade and tourist-friendly beaches, the St. Petersburg area has a complicated history of segregation, including racial riots in 1996 after police shot and killed an unarmed black man during a traffic stop.
Tuesday’s Victory Party was held at the Florida Woodson African American Museum and celebrated events in St. Petersburg’s racial history, such as the eventual successful attempt by eight blacks in 1958 to gain access to the spa pool and spa beach, which was only admitted to whites. patrons.
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Until the late 1960s, black police in St. Petersburg could only patrol black neighborhoods and were not allowed to arrest whites. That changed when the Brave 12, a group of black officers, successfully sued to gain the same powers as their white counterparts.
The green benches that once graced the city’s sidewalks were popular but were out of reach for blacks until St. Petersburg’s leaders removed them in the 1960s, not for racial reasons, but because they wanted to look younger. than the older people sitting there.
“Green benches meant racism to me. That meant, “You’re not good enough,” said Yula Mae Mitchell Perry, assistant professor at the Woodson Museum.
Welch also said that his father, David, was subjected to death threats and racial abuse when he ran for mayor in 1991. Welch said his father’s experience “taught me what real strength and courage look like, and the value of perseverance.”
Speaking to a diverse audience Tuesday night, Welch said, “This is what progress looks like. History is important because we must fully understand where we are from as a community in order to determine where we want to go. “
Welch, 57, is familiar with local politics, having served five terms on the Pinellas County Commission. He was the second black elected to this group.
Co-panelist Janet Long said Welch is thoughtful, based on facts and science, and is working to defuse tensions on controversial topics such as the response to the Black Lives Matter movement and whether fluoride should be in urban drinking water.
“I really appreciated how he was able to bring the temperature down in the room and get us all moving forward,” said Long, a white Democrat. “In this place and this time in the history of St. Petersburg, he is ideally suited for this job.”
Prior to politics, Welch earned a degree in accounting from Florida A&M University and worked in the field for several years, including at his father’s firm. On January 6, he will replace Rick Chrisman, who is stepping down due to a term limit.
Welch received just over 60 percent of the vote on Tuesday, beating Blackmon with over 14,000 votes in full but unofficial results.
Blackmon, a 32-year-old member of the St. Petersburg City Council, called Welch a “good guy” after admitting defeat in a modest and rather benevolent competition.
“I hope all my supporters give (Welch) a good chance and shake things up,” Blackmon told the Tampa Bay Times.
Democrats have won at least three out of four races for the St. Petersburg City Council and may win another one that came very close on Wednesday. In this race, Richie Floyd, who calls himself a Democratic Socialist, could become the first black to win a district that has been dominated by whites in the past.
According to Long, Welch does not view public service solely through the lens of race.
“It will not depend on a person’s skin color, where he comes from, or how much money he has. He will take care of everyone because he is who he is, ”she said.