“…four rows of two-story apartments that stretched about a block. The units on the front row had a sidewalk. The ones on the two back rows had dirt roads. The Neck was a muddy hell when it rained…”
Archie Boston, 66, professor emeritus at California State University Long Beach, reads aloud from his newest book, Lil’ Colored Rascals in the Sunshine City.
“I grew up in Saint Petersburg, Florida on the south side of town in the colored section. My family lived in Robinson Court. We called in “The Neck.”
Boston’s book is about a mischievous group of friends nicknamed Flea Parrot, Stitches, and Billy-Billy-Goat-Goat. He recounts the tales of all children, including playing hooky from church and sneaking into movie theaters. But, set in the time period of 1948-1958, the book also chronicles his growing up in a segregated city before the Civil Rights era.
Boston’s story includes adventures like swimming in the polluted Booker Creek. “It carried the polluted run-off from the large, natural gas tanks, the lumberyard, the crematorium, trash incinerator and the cement mixing company.” Boston explains that the gas plant was located in the middle of “The Neck” in the opening pages of his book. If swimming in the polluted creek wasn’t bad enough, the other option was the beach reserved for African-Americans. “South Mole beach was as polluted as the creek. Raw city sewage flowed into the bay less than a mile from where we were allowed to swim.” A recent resolution passed by the Florida State Senate seeks to apologize for this and all the other inequalities that Boston and his community faced.
The passage of Senate Resolution No. 26 on June 18 brought state Sen. Anthony Hill of Tallahassee to tears. The resolution apologizes for the enslavement and racial segregation of African-Americans. Florida joins Virginia, New Jersey, Alabama, Maryland, and North Carolina as states that have officially expressed remorse for slavery. However, Archie Boston thinks an apology is not enough.
“Reparations—40 acres and a mule…we were slaves, we helped build the country, so why not? Help the people that helped build the country.” Boston believes that reparations would help ease the pain of the Jim Crow era. Even in the time of America’s first African-American president, Archie Boston doesn’t think President Obama will attempt to address the issue of reparations. “ I don’t think he would touch it with a 10 foot pole.” But, Boston believes that the reparations movement will gain momentum. “…Keep putting pressure on the legislature and things will happen.”
The adoption of a new state anthem and the deletion of offensive words from Florida’s state song, Old Folks at Home, is also a sign of progress. The state song originally contained lyrics such as “darkies,” referring to African-Americans who longed for the days of plantations. Just last year, the Florida legislature adopted Florida (Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky) as the state anthem in addition to excluding words like “darkies” from the state song.
Archie Boston learned to play the harmonica to the tune of Old Folks at Home or Swanee River as some may know it. Boston believes in the old adage of “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me,” and that the adoption of a state anthem will not do anything but appease certain groups.
The Florida legislature had also proposed a bill that would have banned the public display of a noose or swastika that has the intention to intimidate another person. However, the bill, supported by the ACLU, died in committee in May 2008.
Boston was constantly reminded to stay in his place as an African-American while growing up. In his book, he recounts a tale of being scolded for attempting to drink from a “Whites Only” water fountain in the segregated south. Boston also battled an inner conflict of whether he should include a picture of a lynching that occurred in his neighborhood. “I was torn between, do I show this lynching or not show the lynching. But this happened in that area, where I grew up, in 1912…And I could’ve left it out but my conscience said show it, because it’s real, it happened, and I was reminded of that lynching as I grew up. So, I thought it was important that we had to deal with that.”
Lil’ Colored Rascals in the Sunshine City is Boston’s second book. His first book, Fly in the buttermilk, recounts his career as a graphic designer and educator. Boston believes that much progress has occurred in the past 60 years in St. Petersburg. He points to the renovated Manhattan Casino, now Arts Center, where entertainers like Little Richard, Cab Calloway, and Louis Armstrong performed; the new James Weldon Johnson Library where Boston says he was first “enlightened”; and the once “Coloreds Only” Mercy Hospital, which is now Mercy Health Center, as signs of progress. Boston believes that there is still a lot to be done when it comes to reversing the wrongs of racism and segregation but he is optimistic about the future and the Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg area.