Deuces Rising: Bigger, bolder future for St. Pete’s African-American Museum

As St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman announced plans for revitalizing the city’s Deuces Live Historic Main Street, Terri Lipsey Scott, executive director of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, and Board Chairperson Dana Battle, were elated.  

“Yes, it feels like Merry Christmas for us,” says Battle, about the decision to include the Woodson Museum in efforts to redevelop and reimagine a large parcel of vacant land at the edge of what was once a vibrant African American community just south of downtown.

Surrounded by hundreds of presents donated for a children’s toy drive during the Woodson’s holiday open house, Battle expressed appreciation for the news.

“We’ve been asking and always hopeful, so it’s amazing and surprising in a good way,” says Battle.

The Woodson Museum officially opened in 2006 in the former community center for Jordan Park, St. Petersburg’s first public housing project, built in the 1940s. The Craftsman-style building is attractive but doesn’t meet standards for a museum, especially related to the security, temperature control, and space required to house larger exhibitions.

In an attempt to rectify the building’s shortcomings, the museum announced plans earlier this year to move forward on renovations that would expand the facility’s footprint, adding a second story and rooftop garden terrace. The museum hired nationally renowned architect Mario Gooden, of Huff & Gooden Architects, working in collaboration with local firm Wannemacher Jensen Architects.

Having Gooden work on the project was a major coup for the Woodson. Gooden is a professor in the Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation at Columbia University in New York. He’s also an award-winning architect whose firm was selected to design the $67 million renovations and expansion of the California African-American Museum in Los Angeles.

What's next in the process?

Now those plans for the Woodson Museum are on hold -- but for a good reason. With the city’s proposed Deuces Live Historic Main Street project, the museum’s renovation plans will jump to the next level.  

Instead of staying in its current location at 2240 9th Avenue South, the museum will move to 22nd Street South -- also known as the Deuces Live Historic Main Street District. In the days of segregation, this area was the heart of a thriving African-American community.  

It’s also the location of several historic properties, including the Royal Theatre, Mercy Hospital, and the Manhattan Casino, a renowned former music venue that once hosted jazz greats like Louie Armstrong, James Brown, and Duke Ellington.  

“This will give us so much more visibility,” says Battle, referring to the museum’s relocation. “The Deuces 22nd Street corridor is historic so why not have a museum that is connected to the history of the African American community be located in the same spot?”

The city is branding the project, “Deuces Rising.”  It calls for taking what was once known as Commerce Park and dividing it into three sections -- 5.3 acres for the new Woodson museum, 2.5 acres of affordable workforce housing and retail-office space, and 5.5 acres for private market-rate development. The goal is to bring greater economic prosperity to the Midtown area of South St. Petersburg.

As the museum’s executive director, Scott has been championing the museum’s move to the Deuces Live Historic Main Street for some time now. She says a larger, redesigned museum in a highly visible location in a historic African-American district could also be a major economic driver. 

“I would like to see us become the Smithsonian Institution of the South for African-American History and Culture,” says Lipsey Scott. “St. Pete has become a major arts and cultural destination but a missing component has been not having a proper African American museum.  With the new museum, we’ll be able to bring to our community the major exhibits that folks would otherwise have to travel to see. It’s a tremendous opportunity, and I’m excited to be in the position to do so.

Envisioning the future

Although the city council still needs to put its final stamp of approval on plans to redevelop the Commerce Park parcel, Lipsey Scott is enthusiastic and see’s the new vision for the museum happening. The next step is to assemble a leadership team to help the museum determine the new direction. “There’s a whole host of issues that need to be addressed,” she says.  

Top on the list is a review of the latest architectural rendering, which was initially created to suit the museum’s current location -- just a fraction of what the new space offers. 

“A new rendering will be needed in order to address the bigger scope of the project,” says Lipsey Scott. “We’ll need to be in discussion with regards to how we’ll adapt to our new location.”

The museum board also will be moving forward next year on a capital fundraising campaign. The city is making the land available and has pledged $1 million in “seed money, but additional philanthropy will be required.

“We’re looking for those philanthropists who have an appetite not only for arts and culture but who share our enthusiasm for our mission,” says Lipsey Scott.

She anticipates the total museum cost, along with a five-year sustainable plan, to be somewhere in the range of $15 million-to-$20 million, with funds coming from a variety of sources, including federal grants and state revenue.

“We’re also located in an opportunity zone and can take advantage of CRA dollars designated for community uplift,” says Lipsey Scott.  

Once the new museum is built, she hopes that the current Woodson facility will be maintained to preserve the heritage of the Jordan Park neighborhood.

“We are in a time in our history and our community here in St. Petersburg where it’s time to recognize the important role African-Americans have made to the [Pinellas] county,” Lipsey Scott says. “It’s time to celebrate those accomplishments.”

For more information, visit The Woodson Museum website.

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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