By NANCY McCANN
NNB Student Reporter
ST. PETERSBURG – Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy have opened a new Creole restaurant on St. Petersburg’s historic 22nd Street S. Although they are busy being entrepreneurs, it is just as important for them to welcome people to the neighborhood and share its history.
“I’m Mr. B and this is Mrs. B,” Elihu Brayboy likes to say when introducing himself and his wife.
The Brayboys, both 65, are investing $800,000 to buy and restore four buildings along the street that was known as “The Deuces” when it was the main corridor of black St. Petersburg during decades of segregation and discrimination.
The restaurant is at the intersection of 22nd Street S and Ninth Avenue, a five-minute drive from downtown St. Petersburg.
The Brayboys are proud that the entryway and open-style kitchen of Chief’s Creole Café used to be Sidney Harden’s grocery, which served black customers from 1942 until 1992.
“It breaks my heart when people see an old building and think they’re seeing just an old building,” said Mr. B. “Harden’s grocery was a cultural market with things like chitterlings, rabbit and possum. We feel so blessed to be saving this building. This building meant a lot to a lot of people.”
When they were tearing down Harden’s old meat locker, Mrs. B said, they found two aprons that once belonged to the butcher. The butcher’s family shed tears when the aprons were returned to them.
Chitterlings and possum are not on the menu of the new restaurant, where entrees like red beans and rice with sausage, Creole gumbos, jambalaya and other Louisiana favorites range in price from $9 to $15.
Every week there is a “Soulful Sunday Supper,” including baked ham, fried or baked chicken, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, corn bread, seasonal vegetables, and bread pudding or ice cream.
The “chief” in the restaurant’s name refers to Elihu Brayboy’s late mother, Mary Brayboy Jones, whose specialty was the Creole cooking of her native Louisiana. She got her nickname from her take-charge personality. Some of the dishes on the menu are prepared from her recipes.
“Chief was raised around great cooking by her mother and other relatives,” said Mr. B. “After she moved to St. Petersburg with my father, she ran a small catering business serving famous entertainers and their crews who came to town.”
He said that his mother and father divorced and she later married Norman E. Jones Sr.
“Our dessert, ‘Down on Central Jones’ ice cream, is named for my stepfather’s radio program, broadcast from Tampa in the 1950s,” said Mr. B.
Jones’ program was “for and about African Americans locally and nationally” and “helped introduce jazz to the Tampa Bay area,” according to the website Radio Years.
“Something people find interesting about my stepfather is that he was chairman of the National Black Citizens Committee for (Alabama Gov. and presidential candidate) George Wallace (in 1972), because he believed many of the governor’s policies supported blacks and helped them flourish,” Mr. B said.
Many people remember Chief through her work as a nurse at Mercy Hospital, Bayfront Medical Center and Eckerd College’s student medical clinic, Mr. B said.
The Brayboys’ restaurant is two blocks south of Sylvia’s – a soul food restaurant that opened last year in a restored building where Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie performed during the Jim Crow era – and seven blocks south of 3 Daughters Brewing, a popular night spot.
Memories of the people who lived, worked, survived and thrived in segregated African-American neighborhoods are important to the Brayboys. They want it known that amid the tough conditions of segregation, there were many positive experiences.
The Brayboys grew up and dated as teenagers in the neighborhood – now called Midtown – that developed along 22nd Street S. They remember their community as a place where people were deeply connected, pulled together, and treasured their close, personal ties.
In their book, St. Petersburg’s Historic African American Neighborhoods, Rosalie Peck and Jon Wilson say that 22nd Street between Fifth and 15th avenues S was at one time the lively hub of a black neighborhood that sprang up in the 1920s and thrived until the middle 1960s. Peck and Wilson call 22nd Street S “the most important thoroughfare for the city’s African American residents, a ten-block strip . . . brimmed with businesses, professional offices, grocery stores, a movie theater, a hotel, funeral homes, a hospital and bars and nightclubs.”
Now the Brayboys are working to preserve some of the original architecture and structures along the Deuces.
Many of the businesses closed when segregation ended in the 1960s because black residents could now live, attend school, and shop in once-forbidden places.
About the same time, the drug culture and violence “showed up on 22nd” and greatly contributed to the neighborhood’s downfall, Wilson wrote in the St. Petersburg Times in a 2002 article titled “To Know This City – First Know This Street.” Then in the 1970s, the construction of Interstate 275 displaced numerous businesses and homes in what some old-timers call the death blow to the community, Wilson wrote.
One of the biggest hindrances to the restoration and historic preservation of African-American neighborhoods is that “banking has not embraced the black community,” said Mr. B. “Financial institutions generally don’t see Midtown as a good investment market, but eventually this will change—it will happen.”
The new St. Petersburg College Midtown Center on 22nd Street S, scheduled to open in 2015, will boost nearby commercial redevelopment, he said, because students will shop near campus.
In the meantime, the Brayboys are among those opening up channels for more investment and restoration in Midtown. In addition to their new restaurant, they have started an art gallery, a consignment store, and an ice cream parlor. Their daughter, Ramona Reio, owns a hair salon and their son-in-law, Damon Reio, owns a fitness center in one of their buildings.
The Brayboys are happy with the neighborhood.
“We purchased our first building on the 22nd Street S corridor in 2008,” said Mr. B. “In six years, we have not had a single incident . . . no break-ins, robberies, vandalism, or graffiti.”
On Sept. 30, Sidney Harden’s granddaughters, B.J. Harden and Shirley Newsome, were among the Brayboys’ special guests at a dinner to celebrate the past and the imminent opening of the new restaurant. They worked at Harden’s grocery when they were teenagers, sometimes until midnight because “Big Daddy” – their affectionate name for their grandfather – kept the door open until there were no more customers, they said.
“It’s very good – I know real Creole cooking and the gumbo hit the mark with just the right amount of spice-kick,” said April Drayton, 45, a local fashion designer who attended the dinner. “I usually don’t eat anyone’s potato salad but my mom’s, and I liked this. And the décor is unexpectedly nice.”
Chief’s Creole Café has two lead chefs – Craig Blanding and Rodney Rayford – and five other employees. Mr. B said that “all seven people are paid a living wage” with no one at minimum wage.
“It’s like having a newborn baby,” Mr. B said when asked what was hardest about the restaurant venture after 30 years in the rental house business. “Now that it’s ‘live,’ it takes a lot of physical and mental stamina . . . 10 to 12 hours on-site and it’s still on you mentally when off-site . . . Hopefully, we will soon have a life again.”
In addition to regular operating hours – Wednesday through Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. – the Brayboys hope to host special events and private parties, Mrs. B said.
On election night, 12 visiting African journalists were at the restaurant for re-election victory parties for Pinellas County School Board member Rene Flowers and State Rep. Darryl Rouson.
“There was dancing and a lot of fun,” said Mrs. B. “We hope to have more of these special occasions.”