The ink was barely dry on the armistice that ended World War I when St. Petersburg geared up for the 1918/19 winter season. Not wanting to take any chances, the city enlisted a charmingly aggressive young newspaperman, John Lodwick, as the first municipal public relations director ever employed in the United States. Lodwick went gangbusters at his new job, and the smiling faces of St. Petersburg visitors could soon be seen beaming from newspapers and magazines across the country, beckoning others to the Sunshine City. And people weren’t just visiting – they wanted to stay. During the decade of the 1920s, St. Petersburg’s population increased from 14,000 to 40,000.
As if God wanted to aid the St. Petersburg boom, a devastating Gulf hurricane pummeled the waterfront in 1921, virtually destroying both the Railroad Pier and the popular Municipal Pier. Lew Brown, editor of the Evening Independent newspaper challenged the city to build a “Million Dollar Pier” and began a fundraising campaign to that end. He quickly raised $300,000 dollars, goading the city into issuing a bond for the remaining portion.
The Million Dollar Pier opened to great fanfare on Thanksgiving Day, 1926. Ten thousand jubilant spectators celebrated the opening of the 1400-foot long pier and its spectacular Mediterranean Revival style Casino. The Pier boasted a swimming area called Spa Beach, a solarium in which to sunbathe in private, a bait-house for fishermen (which quickly became popular with pelicans as well!) a streetcar line, and a glorious casino with a ballroom, observation deck, and the studios of the popular radio station, WSUN. It was an instant success and quickly became the most recognizable landmark in the city.
For the next 46 years, the Million Dollar Pier drew visitors by the millions. Host to dances, speedboat races, regattas, water-skiing demonstrations, fishing competitions, and general merriment, the Pier was the focal point of the city’s social life. But as St. Petersburg’s fortunes began to wane in the 1960s, lack of maintenance and a growing perception of the city as a haven for old people doomed the once-popular landmark. In 1967 the iconic Million Dollar Pier was demolished.
A Pier for Everyone – except Blacks
As white residents enjoyed relaxation and recreation at the sun-bathed Million Dollar Pier, the city’s black population labored under the suffocating restrictions of the Jim Crow south. In St. Petersburg, Jim Crow laws were carefully fashioned to solve a peculiar dilemma – how do you exploit black labor to support your growing tourist community, while simultaneously excluding them from society as an inferior race? The solution as historian Raymond Arsenault elegantly writes “was a comprehensive system of Jim Crow laws superimposed on a sanctified code of racial etiquette. Under the Jim Crow regime, blacks were only admitted to the white world at prescribed times for prescribed reasons.”
These admittances did not extend to the recreation opportunities offered at the Pier, where blacks were not welcomed unless they were working. These same restrictions extended to the city’s famous green benches, a national sybmol of hospitality for whites, but a glaring symbol of the inequity of the Sunshine City – as an accepted custom, blacks were not to sit on the green benches unless they were caring for white children.
Even the city’s swimming area’s were strictly segregated. For years, while whites enjoyed swimming off the Railroad Pier, blacks were banished from this refreshing respite. Only later, when the focus of recreation moved to the municipal pier, and the area around the railroad pier had become a veritable dump of industrial waste, were blacks allowed to swim at the area, which became known as the South Mole. Even this proved unseemly to many whites, who argued that blacks swimming at the waterfront could damage the city’s image to tourists. In 1955 black citizens, led by Dr. Fred Alsup, sued for desgregation of Spa Beach at the foot of the Million Dollar Pier. Rather than concede to integrated swimming facilities, the city opted instead to close Spa Beach altogether. Not until 1959 was the pool and beach at the foot of the Pier opened on a truly integrated basis.