‘Our grandparents built this:’ St. Pete MLK Day Parade stirs joy, memories

Growing up in St. Petersburg, siblings Justin and Jylyah Gray would come to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade every year with their grandparents.

Their grandfather owned a construction business, and Justin Gray remembers riding on the company’s float as a kid. Now, the 31-year-old father of three — with another on the way — brings his own wife and children to the parade.

“They know all about Dr. Martin Luther King and why we’re here,” he said.

Gray was one of thousands of Tampa Bay residents to line First Avenue South on Monday for the annual parade commemorating the life of the civil rights leader.

“That’s what I like about it — to see all of us come together, no matter the race, the age, whatever,” Jylyah Gray, 25, said. “Our grandparents built this. It’s amazing for us to come out here and feel supported.”

More than 100 groups and floats made their way from Third Street to Tropicana Field. The stadium was the site of a Black neighborhood and business district that was displaced to build a baseball park in the 1990s. It is being redeveloped under the leadership of the city’s first Black mayor.

Politicians including state Rep. Michele Rayner, a St. Petersburg Democrat, and St. Petersburg City Council member Richie Floyd rode in floats. Marching bands drummed and danced. Grand Marshals Shaquem and Shaquill Griffin, the celebrated local football players, tossed Mardi Gras beads from a red sports car.

Outside the Studio@620, which he co-founded, 68-year-old Bob Devin Jones watched the parade go by with his partner, Jim Howell, 63.

As he watched the firefighters and garbage trucks pass, Jones recalled “the Courageous 12,” a group of St. Petersburg police officers who sued the city for the right to patrol all areas during segregation, and also King’s strike on behalf of sanitation workers.

“I think we’ve come a distance,” he said.

Bundled up in a fluffy purple jacket, 11-year-old Ta’Shara Davis attended the parade with her godfather, family and friends. She said she was excited to watch the bands because she plays the trumpet at school. For Ta’Shara, the holiday represents support for equal rights and racial justice.

“It doesn’t really matter what skin tone you are,” she said.

James Brand, 51, moved to Tampa Bay about 25 years ago. Though he lives in Riverview, he comes to the St. Petersburg parade every year.

“It seems like it was more of a parade than a march,” he said, comparing the celebration to Tampa’s commemoration.

Cherry Chaney, 63, has lived all over Florida, including Tallahassee and Palm Beach County. St. Petersburg has one of the biggest parades she’s seen.

“It warms my heart to see people celebrating,” she said. “It’s people from all walks of life.”