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One of Pinellas County’s historic black neighborhoods hopes progress is kind to its past

David Baldwin inches his pickup down the road, his right hand on the steering wheel, his left pointing out the window at what used to be.

Across Pine Street, it was all orange trees, part of the network of groves that employed hundreds back when Pinellas County’s branches drooped with juicy citrus.

The church — Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist — is still there and has been for as long as the 67-year-old Baldwin can remember, on land donated by his grandfather, Dan Henry.

Around the corner from Mt. Olive, it’s hard to miss the bright lavender house.

“It was her color,” says Baldwin, as he pictures his mother on the white front porch. Ollie Mae Henry was Dan’s daughter. Years after her death in 2014, her house sits empty but for her son’s visits.

A few blocks south, drivers fly by on Wilcox Road, likely oblivious to the lavender house and the community it sits in.

Dansville is nestled north of where Ulmerton Road curves into Walsingham Road. It is home to Dan Henry’s direct descendants, distant cousins and others without lineage who called him Uncle Dan anyway.

It was once swampy woodlands and a place of opportunity in the Jim Crow South, where blacks rarely owned land. Back then, here along the Gulf Coast, blacks were born in the basement of Morton Plant Hospital and could only order a burger at the Royal Castle by the side window.

Today, Dansville is 68 acres, dotted with about 70 one-story houses, a couple of businesses and swaths of vacant land that haven’t gone unnoticed by officials in one of Florida’s most densely populated counties.

Pinellas County has spent 25 years and millions of dollars building infrastructure, purchasing land and planning for new housing and much longed-for amenities. The winding transition has led here: a community poised to change more in the next decade than it has throughout its history.

Those plans offer a chance for residents to build wealth and room for affordable housing in an increasingly tight market. They also mean an influx of people who aren’t rooted in the rich history and strong sense of community.

But this has never been a place defined by maps or welcome signs or consistency (some records leave out the “s” in the name). Dansville’s identity lives in stories and memories, and people are holding tight.

Baldwin remembers. So do his daughters, who live on property his mother left them, and many of his neighbors, and people scattered around Tampa Bay who have moved away but have not forgotten where they came from.

***

Dan Henry came south in the 1920s, from Dawson, Ga., lured like other black men by the prospect of jobs — in the orange groves, on the railroad, in the resorts. They had been tenant farmers and sharecroppers, according to a Pinellas County research paper that drew on oral histories to chronicle the founding of Dansville.

Henry had to sneak out of Georgia, Baldwin said, because there, “you never got through paying your debt.”

Henry and his wife, Ella Mae, first settled in Baskins, east of Dansville. Baskins and Dansville are two of 11 neighborhoods that make up what’s known today as the Greater Ridgecrest Area.

The Henrys and a few family members lived in “The Section,” a collection of tenements occupied by railroad workers along a train track. Henry later moved to working in J.A. Walsingham’s orange grove and living in a log cabin among the trees before he went on to acquire the land that would become Dansville.

The Henry brothers began buying land next to the citrus groves where they worked in the 1920s, according to property deeds. Over time, friends and family bought land there, too, and descendants still live in Dansville. [Times file]

Stephen Prince, an associate professor of history at the University of South Florida, said he wasn’t aware of any laws that implicitly barred blacks from owning land, but it wasn’t common or encouraged.

Florida’s land boom in the 1920s may have opened an opportunity for Henry.

“It certainly would have required luck,” Prince said. “It would have required hard work. It would have required possibly the assistance of other people.”

How much land Henry bought and when he bought it varies depending on the source.

Deeds begin showing up in his and his brother Lloyd’s name in 1928, according to the research paper. Ollie Mae Henry said she was 12 when her father bought a plot in the northwest corner of Dansville, which would have been in the late 1930s. Her brother, Moses, said it started with 10 acres for $100, payable $5 a month.

From there, Moses said, “they started cutting the lots up and letting their friends have it.”

Many residents recall that Henry would “step off” the land, measuring a plot using his feet. Baldwin says one myth claims his grandfather would throw a rock and a certain length around where it landed would become your plot.

Whether through stepping or throwing, Henry’s generosity was instrumental in the development. Residents say he sometimes gave away land or turned a blind eye when they couldn’t make payments.

It’s unlikely government officials knew of his significance when they came to grant him an alcohol license. But when they learned the area didn’t have a name, a requirement for the paperwork, they asked Henry what his was. “Dan Henry,” he told them.

It’s been Dansville ever since.

Deacon J. W. Williams' grocery store and Dansville residents in an undated photograph. The store was adjacent to Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church. [Times file]

***

The barbershop is strangely quiet on a recent Saturday.

Solomon Davis is usually there by 9:30 a.m., but today he pushes his way into the Hair Authority close to 3 p.m., wearing a brown suit and cranberry tie. He walks straight to the back while his associate — “Now TWO barbers to serve you” the sign outside brags — trims a boy’s hair into clean edges.

Baldwin bursts through the door soon after, just to chat.

“I saw a lot of your classmates there, David,” the barber says, having changed into a smock and now sitting beside Baldwin in the waiting area.

The suit, the late entrance — Davis had been at a funeral for a former colleague at Pinellas High School, which served black students from North Pinellas before the county started integrating in the late 1960s.

Davis, 83, taught art there. Baldwin had been one of his students. The barbershop came later, in 1989, but even before that, Davis was cutting hair at his home in Ridgecrest. Moses was one of his customers. These days, Baldwin and his grandson Rafael Oriano are regulars.

Baldwin says Davis was a good teacher, and there were no problems, as long as you did the work. “Right?”

“Right, and if you didn’t do the work?” says Davis, now sharpening a razor on a strip of leather.

Swish swish.

“We had problems,” Baldwin says.

Solomon Davis opened his barbershop in 1989, but he'd been cutting hair for years. One of his former clients was Moses Henry. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD/Times]

Pastor Jerry Booker of Mt. Olive stops in later for the second time, having missed Davis that morning. Davis snaps on a cape decorated in hundred dollar bills, then lathers Booker’s face as his eyes flutter shut.

The shop is quiet but for the golf, Davis’ favorite, playing on a couple of TVs.

Baldwin picks up a copy of the Tampa Bay Times, reading over the obituaries. A name startles him: “HENRY, Ella M.”

But no, it couldn’t be his grandma. She died in 1994, having lived just long enough to see Dansville change.

***

As a young man in the 1940s, Moses Henry and his friends would hunt raccoons and gopher tortoises and sell huckleberries at Indian Rocks Beach. For fun, they’d gather for fish fries or mix juice and yeast, a cocktail called grapefruit buck.

Dansville comes to life in Henry’s cavernous voice, preserved at the Heritage Village living history museum near Largo.

Roads weren’t roads then but dirt paths. No running water meant wells and outhouses. Hogs and chickens snorted and pecked in back yards.

The kids went to Williams Elementary, an all-black school in Clearwater, until Ridgecrest Elementary opened nearby. Next was Pinellas High starting in seventh grade. After school, they’d hang out at a filling station or a teen club with a dance floor and snacks, or Davis’ Moon Stop Sandwich Shop, with a “Full Moon” burger the size of a Whopper. Adults hung out in places like Dewey’s Musical Bar.

Around 1958, the average worker in the area made $700 a year (equal to about $6,000 now), according to a Times article. Black men worked as pickers or mechanics, and black women cleaned houses or cooked.

“None of the industries which have moved recently into the county employ Negroes to any extent,” the article said while, in the same breath, referring to Dansville as a negro slum.

“This was a survival place,” the Rev. Leroy Campbell told the Times in 1996. “There was no other place a black man could buy a home.”

Dan Henry, a sharecropper from Georgia, moved to Florida for better opportunities. [Photo courtesy of David Baldwin]

Life was tough, but many remember a close community, with unlocked doors and people looking out for each other.

“If that mama didn’t get you, the next one will,” said Linda Diane Haynes, granddaughter of one of Dan Henry’s nephews.

And with that came pride. Residents once formed a fire department, raising money through a fish fry for a fire truck. When construction on Ridgecrest Elementary School finished in the late 1950s, residents brought plants from their yards for landscaping.

Water and sewer lines were laid when Baldwin was a teenager. His mom’s house had one faucet he’d use for everything.

Baldwin ultimately graduated from Largo High, in one of the first integrated classes. After a few odd jobs, he went on to work for Sperry Microwave Electronics Company, where he spent 36 years.

Over time, original residents passed away, including Dan Henry in 1982 and Moses Henry in 2003, while younger residents moved on.

John Campbell, whose father, Curtis, was an early landowner, left town after graduation to join the Air Force. For 20 years, his family traveled around the world, from Montana to Japan to the Philippines.

When he retired, his wife, Sonjia, at first didn’t want to go back to Dansville, because it had largely stayed the same: no sidewalks, few roads, “crackerbox” homes. But they wanted their kids to grow up around family, so they moved into a house his father built.

“It had some improvements,” Campbell, 68 and a deacon at Mt. Olive, said recently, while sitting in the house he now plans to leave to his oldest son.

“Well …,” he paused. “No, it didn’t.”

Nothing much changed until a Saturday morning in October 1992. A tornado roared through Pinellas Park and Largo. It sucked in Dansville and spit it out, destroying 26 houses and damaging many more.

As help lagged — first responders flooded the flattened mobile home park south of them, according to several residents, but didn’t bother to look over the fence — the community came together as it had so many times before, even digging out an 84-year-old man buried in the rubble.

County officials soon started cleaning up the neighborhood, which residents from all over Pinellas had been using as a dumping ground. They moved out about 12,000 cubic yards of trash and debris, enough to fill about 3 ½ Olympic swimming pools, and more than 15,000 junk tires.

Then more ambitious plans were floated. Sonjia Campbell, 62, remembered some older folks were skeptical. They’d been burned by the government before.

“But little did they know,” she said, “God had a plan.”

***

Eunice Collins, left, and Mary Ann Johnson greet each other on a Sunday at Mt. Olive.

On a Sunday morning, the air smells of barbecue, cooked in a smoker big enough for its own trailer hitch. Nearby, a resident is skipping church to run errands, heading out through his backyard garden, full of collards, mustard greens and peppers.

Inside Mt. Olive’s sanctuary, tinted a soft red by stained glass windows, Pastor Booker is launching into an opening prayer to a chorus of yeses.

“Father, we come right now in the midst of this place, Lord, that you help set this place aside for us …”

A duo on drums and a double-decker keyboard start playing underneath him as one woman stands up with a microphone.

“I need you to sing with uplifting voices,” she says. “Give it all you got. This is your filling station.”

And as she starts the verse a cappella — “I been lied on, cheated, talked about, mistreated” — they do.

The worship builds, eyes closed, heels rocking back and forth, arms raised, until most of the congregation is in a circle at the front of the sanctuary, hands clasped, faces glistening.

When it is time for the reading, everyone pulls out his or her own Bible. Baldwin, also a deacon, brings his mom’s.

Booker stands at the altar and tells the story of Jesus and his disciples on a boat, with the wind howling and the waves slopping over the deck. Jesus slept through it until his disciples woke him, afraid they would drown.

The Bible says he asked them, “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?”

“Guess what?” Booker says. “The water laid down like a baby because Jesus got power.”

Amens rise to the ceiling and down the aisles to the altar.

This place has weathered some storms.

***

After the tornado, Sonjia Campbell welcomed the conversations about a revitalization plan, which included expanding and paving roads, digging a retention pond, adding streetlights and sidewalks, and upgrading utility lines.

Her son, 5 or 6 at the time, had recently asked her why they couldn’t live in a place with sidewalks where he could ride his bike.

But county officials had to start by tackling an unprecedented roadblock.

Most of Dansville hadn’t been platted, meaning there was no legal map showing divisions of the land. Some property titles were unclear or had defects. Vacant land — about a third of Dansville’s 162 parcels at the time — had little value because of the issues.

The county hired consultants to help work out lot lines and figure out where the infrastructure needed to go. Most roads went over private property.

Then began the long process of educating residents and, more importantly, gaining their trust. Not surprisingly, explaining to people whose land had been in their families for generations that their property wasn’t where they thought it was, or that the government needs it for a road, didn’t go over well with everyone.

Along with the acquisitions for infrastructure, the county started buying up vacant land from those willing to sell.

To keep the community involved and up-to-date, residents and county officials formed the Dansville Neighborhood Development Corp. With a community-led Board of Directors and an executive director paid by the county, they worked out of a house on Orange Street. A newsletter called “Generations” offered project updates, lawn care and home-buying tips, and a slogan: “Preserving what’s important for future generations.”

It went on like this for years. The county finished platting, aside from a portion in the northwest corner, paving the way for housing. The project costs have reached about $7.4 million, and counting, largely from federal block grants set aside for neighborhood revitalization. Countless hours were spent coordinating with residents.

“We still to this day haven’t been able to find a community in the country where it was done on this massive of a scale over this large of an acreage,” said Cheryl Coller Reed, the former county project manager.

But in the mid-2000s, the project stalled. Money got tight, and the corporation disbanded. A plan to build houses sputtered with the Great Recession.

Much of Dansville sat empty, including space around the retention pond that was envisioned as a park. It’s now fenced off.

Movement came in the last two years. The county started donating and selling property to Habitat for Humanity, which has so far built 13 houses. It plans to sell Habitat six more lots. The bulk of public property — 41 lots — will likely be put out to bid, with a vision born from the partnership with residents: a mixed income, multicultural neighborhood with houses spacious enough to raise a family. Forty percent of the housing would go to families making less than 80 percent area median income, $47,850 for a family of four.

This year, the county had entered into negotiations with Bright Community Trust, whose proposal checked many of the boxes.

But the developer backed out in March, the CEO and president, Anthony Jones, citing “public/private partnership issues.” He declined to elaborate.

Bright’s withdrawal came as a surprise - and a fresh disappointment. But the plan for the land remains the same.

Sonjia Campbell has taken to calling the whole effort “a grand experiment.” There are the variables: the developer, the houses, the new people, county politics and, looming, the city of Largo with an annexation plan that includes the entire Greater Ridgecrest Area.

But there are the controls, too. Mt. Olive overflowing on a Sunday with music so loud it’ll make your ears ring. The voices of residents etched into a collection of CDs in a building dedicated to Pinellas County history. David Baldwin, driving past his mom’s house, making a mental note to trim her trees.

See Photo Gallery Here: The community grew so quietly and was so hedged by citrus grove that it was virtually unknown.

***

Baldwin pulls his truck into his own driveway, the slanting sun splashing his amber home in warm light. His grandfather built this house, he says, and later, his mom gave him and his wife, Annie Ruth, the down payment as a wedding gift.

That was 1973. These days, he sits inside in his mother’s favorite red chair, positioned just so across the living room from a black and white portrait of her, with hair coiffed, hands clasped in her lap.

“I just want to sit around and enjoy my life and my home here as long as the good Lord lets me,” he says.

His two daughters — Therese and Tameka — live just a few blocks away, side by side.

Ollie Mae Henry knew how important the land was, that it would give generations of her family “something to start out,” Therese Baldwin, 41, says.

She and her sister talk about their grandmother with the same reverence their father uses — about her strength, her hard work, her unrivaled pound cake. They’d shell peas and snap green beans in her bright green kitchen and listen to her tell story after story.

So even as childhood friends moved away, and even as Tameka became a nurse and Therese a vice president of quality control at an energy company, they’ve stayed, just a rock’s throw from that lavender home.

“She came out of nothing,” says Tameka Baldwin, 37. “She was a foundation.”

Like their grandma, they’re both single moms raising sons. Around Tameka’s house, built in 2013 off Pine Street next to the church, photos of 15-year-old Rafael sit in rows on a bookshelf next to his basketball trophies. When the time comes, she’ll leave him the land, and Therese will do the same for her sons, 22 and 20 now.

They say it’s what their grandma would have wanted.

Tameka Baldwin shares a homemade stew with her son, Rafael Oriano. Baldwin's grandmother gave her the land where the home sits. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD/Times]

Senior staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

About this story:

This story is based on research done in the mid-1990s by Sue Searcy Goldman, a volunteer with the Heritage Village living history museum; oral histories from current and former residents of the Greater Ridgecrest Area; newspaper archives; county records; and interviews with about two dozen current and former residents and county officials.

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