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Siblings recall bigotry, brushes with fame during 1960s St. Pete

When a cross burned on their front lawn in 1961, Ralph and Bette Wimbish probably weren’t surprised.

For years, they had battled the barriers of segregation in the courts, the streets and the marketplaces of Pinellas County. They were used to hostile stares and telephone death threats.

Inside the house on 15th Avenue South that night were the Wimbishes’ three children – Barbara, Ralph Jr. and baby Terry. But Ralph Jr., then 8, didn’t learn about the cross burning until years later.

“Our parents did their best to shield us from the ugliness,” said Ralph Wimbish Jr. “Because of my parents, we tried to be a normal family in an abnormal environment.”

Wimbish Jr., now 62, sister Barbara Wimbish Griffin, 69, and brother Terry Wimbish, who died in 1993, shared a childhood marked by extraordinary events around them. Wimbish Jr. and Griffin recently reflected on that unusual upbringing, and their parents’ accomplishments.

Their father, a physician and president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, led efforts to integrate lunch counters, theaters, hotels, golf courses and swimming areas. Their mother, C. Bette Wimbish, joined her husband at the sit-ins and picket lines and battled political barriers as well. In 1969, she became the first black person elected to the St. Petersburg City Council.

The Wimbish children have had their own notable achievements. In 1964, Wimbish Jr. and two others became the first black Little League baseball players in St. Petersburg. He graduated from the University of South Florida and had a long career in sports journalism before retiring to Calabash, N.C., in 2014.

Griffin, the first black student to attend St. Paul’s Catholic High School, graduated from Howard University and is a longtime resident of St. Petersburg. She raised two children and does volunteer work for the Sickle Cell Foundation.

Their brother, Terry Wimbish, was a lawyer.

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When speaking of their father, Griffin calls him Daddy. He died of a heart attack in 1967 at age 45, shortly after she graduated from college and married.

She remembers the pride her dad felt in integrating lunch counters that long had been off limits to blacks.

“I think one of the highlights was the day he sat at the lunch counter at Maas Bros.,” a downtown department store, his daughter said. “Back then blacks couldn’t go to the lunch counter. He was determined he was going to go anyway. He went and sat at the lunch counter (and) even though they told him to move, he sat there anyway.”

On Jan. 3, 1961, Ralph Wimbish finally was served at that lunch counter. On the same day, 14 other lunch counters in the St. Petersburg area also integrated quietly, ending weeks of sit-ins and picketing.

Even the family’s Sunday dinner served a purpose, Wimbish Jr. said.

“We used to have a Sunday thing where our dad would take us to a restaurant to … test (compliance with) the Civil Rights Act” of 1964, he said.

“I remember when I was a kid wanting to go to McDonald’s and Biff Burger,” he said. “And we couldn’t go unless you went to the back door. I would ask my mom why couldn’t we go and she would say, ‘We are not a member of the club.’ ”

In addition to her service on the city council, his mother was the first black female lawyer in Pinellas County and the third in the state. She completed law school at Florida A&M University shortly after her husband died, and in 1968 she established a law practice in her husband’s former medical office at the northwest corner of 22nd Street South and 15th Avenue.

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The Wimbishes, like other black families in the area, opened their doors to black athletes and entertainers who were barred from whites-only hotels in St. Petersburg.

“We used to have all sorts of visitors come through our house,” Wimbish Jr. said. “Three prominent ones I can remember the most (were) Elston Howard, Jesse Owens and Cab Calloway.”

Howard was the first black player on the New York Yankees. He was a catcher, and an idol to young Wimbish Jr.

Owens was a four-time gold medalist who spoiled Adolf Hitler’s propaganda show of Aryan superiority at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

“All I know is he showed up one day in our living room, and I got on the phone and called all my friends to tell them, ‘Jesse Owens is sitting in my living room!’ ” Wimbish Jr. said.

Griffin remembers notables, too: “Dizzy Gillespie, Jackie Robinson. Oh, and Cab Calloway, yeah.”

“Cab Calloway, I got in trouble because of him,” Wimbish Jr. said of famed jazz bandleader. “I went to a spring training game when I was 7 or 8 and he was staying at our house, in my room. So I see him at the ballpark and my mother told me she would pick me up after the game. But I figure when Cab Calloway tells you to come home, when he’s staying at the house, I’ll go with Cab. So my mother got all worried and all upset and she started yelling at Cab Calloway.”

Some of Wimbish Jr.’s fondest memories involve baseball. His favorite player – Howard – gave him a Yankee jersey with Howard’s No. 32. The Wimbish family once visited Robinson, the first black player allowed in Major League Baseball’s modern era. Robinson, a friend of Ralph Wimbish, at the Robinsons’ home in Stamford, Connecticut. And in 1964, Wimbish Jr. was batboy for a day when the St. Louis Cardinals played the World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers at Al Lang Field.

“I got to throw the ball around with (Cardinals pitcher) Bob Gibson,” said Wimbish Jr. “I consider that one of the greatest days of my life.”

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It was not always peaceful inside the Wimbish house. Bette Wimbish once confronted an intruder there. She struck him in the head with a hand mirror and he ran away.

More break-ins followed.

“It almost became a routine, it seemed like,” Wimbish Jr. said. “I got blamed for it, too. Mom said I left the garage door open, but I didn’t leave it open. One night I remember somebody broke in, in the middle of the night, and was standing in the bedroom. I heard a scream and he ran out of there.”

The continued break-ins eventually drove their mother to move to Tallahassee. Wimbish Jr. believes the problems came from a misconception his family was wealthy.

“There was this perception by some people that we were rich. But we were never rich, you know. We were, we were … OK. We had food on the table. But we weren’t rich. “

Wealthy or not, all black families had to contend with city-sanctioned geographic racial barriers in the community.

In the 1930s, the city took action to try to bar black people from living or opening businesses outside an area bounded by Sixth and 15th avenues South, west of 17th Street. In 1954, a family friend – dentist Robert Swain – threatened to take the city to court when it refused to issue building permits for a new office building at 1501 22nd St. S. The city backed down.

Two years later, Swain opened a small apartment building just south of the dental office to accommodate black Major League Baseball players who were barred from the hotels that housed their white teammates.

After that the city stopped enforcing the ordinance.

But it isn’t the 15th Avenue South racial barrier that Wimbish Jr. remembers most keenly. He associates the street with a more painful memory.

“My dog got killed on 15th Avenue,” he said. “I had this dog named Trout. I was 5 or 6 years old. And I loved this dog. I used to ride him horseback. Anyway, he got out of the backyard one day and just took off down 15th Avenue and next thing I knew I saw he got hit by a truck. And I was just terrified. I’m still traumatized by it.”

“That was my favorite dog of all time. I haven’t had another dog since.”

Michael S. Butler is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Information from “St. Petersburg’s Historic 22nd Street South” by Rosalie Peck and Jon Wilson was used in this report.

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