David T. Welch: Father of a Mayor and a Life of Service
This year, St. Petersburg welcomes new Mayor Ken Welch, but he’s not the first member of the Welch family to play a starring role in this city’s government. David T. Welch was Mayor Welch’s father and a three-time city council member. Welch was first elected to the city council in 1981, making him the second African American council member in the city’s history. (The first was C. Bette Wimbish in 1969.) As an accountant, he owned Welch Tax Services and Accounting on 16th Street South and served as assistant director of fiscal affairs at St. Petersburg Vocational Technical Institute. He sang in the choir and taught Sunday school at Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ where his brother, Clarence, was pastor.
His obituary by Andrew Meacham in the Tampa Bay Times (2013) noted that “Welch was known for arguing unpopular positions forcefully.” After fighting for assurances of jobs and fair value for displaced homes and businesses, “He backed redevelopment of the Gas Plant area where he had grown up, resulting in Tropicana Field. He spearheaded interest-free loans by the city to renovate crumbling housing, and he served as co-chair of the Community Alliance which took on substandard housing and lax code enforcement.” Welch backed every major city redevelopment project to come before council. Mayor Welch reflected on his father at the time of his passing: “He always said you need to move beyond your comfort zone, talk to folks you never talked to, and try to build relationships.”
David Welch grew up in St. Petersburg’s Gas Plant neighborhood. His father, Flagmon Welch, operated a wood yard. His mother, Gussie Welch, recalled, “We were very, very poor. We had to work hard. We didn’t know anything to do but work.” David and his brothers pumped and hauled water for drinking, bathing, and washing from a communal pump that was used by five families. He graduated from Gibbs High School, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Florida A&M University, and later, a doctorate from Nova University. He was also a veteran who fought in an Army Airborne Division during the Korean War.
After election to council in 1981, Welch was reelected in 1984, and won a third term in 1993. In the interval between his second and third terms, he ran for mayor. In 1989, he started a mayoral campaign, but withdrew his name when Mayor Ulrich decided to run for a second term. In 1991, he placed fourth in the primary in an election that David Fischer ultimately won. In 1997, Welch was defeated in a bid for a fourth term on council.
Politics was a family affair for the Welches. David and his wife, Alletha McKenzie, engaged their four children in family decision-making. A “family council” voted on vacation destinations, buying a car, and house remodeling. As a Sunday school teacher, Welch was not reluctant to include current events in his classes. He said, “We’re building character. We’re building a whole lot of things. We talk about government. My kids right now… can tell you, hey, just about anything. You know we talked about the presidential race going on. They can tell you more about it than the average adult, because I say to them, ‘When you come next Sunday, tell me who’s running for vice president in the Democratic, in the Republican, you know, tell me all about them’… We teach them, ‘Hey, it’s okay to be different. It’s ok to disagree. It’s an individual right to disagree.’”
Like most council members, Welch was deeply involved in city issues prior to running for office. He served as the first co-chair of the Community Alliance, which was established at the suggestion of then-Mayor Don Jones to help heal the community near the end of the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike. The Alliance was a bi-racial group whose specific mission was to address poor job opportunities for African Americans, renovate slum housing, and expand and improve educational opportunities. Early accomplishments included getting city council to pass a fair-housing ordinance; helping the school system implement desegregation; sponsoring job fairs and minority business seminars to increase African American involvement; and lobbying for the city’s minority business enterprise ordinance, which generated $5 million in contracts for minority businesses.
Welch and other members also implemented a program of on-site response to community conflicts. In the 1970s and ’80s, he monitored a police radio scanner so that he and other volunteers could rapidly respond to incidents in the community that might lead to violence. Welch would arrive on the scene, sometimes still in a three-piece suit, to talk the situation down. Later, after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old TyRon Lewis by a white police officer in 1996 and the riots that followed, he again sought to play a peacekeeping role.
Welch’s Nova doctoral dissertation was on reducing crime in St. Petersburg. He recommended government offer more job training; Black ministers to ride with police officers; officers getting out of their cars and talking to people; and police and community leaders spreading the word that the “police department is not just there to arrest you, but to assist you.”
In his 1981 campaign for the council, he defeated the incumbent white council member in the citywide general election with the support of white voters throughout the city. The council district in which he ran included much of south St. Petersburg east of 34th Street and north of Lake Maggoire. While the district was predominantly African American, even without the support of voters in the district he would have won by a margin of 100 votes. His campaign strategy was to stress his qualities as a person, not as an African American. He said he wanted to represent the whole city, not just his district. He was endorsed by the Times, which noted that, “He earned the respect of all city residents for his role as peacemaker in helping to ease racial tensions during the 1968 garbage strike and during the desegregation of Pinellas County schools in the early 1970s.” Immediately after Welch learned that he won, he and his wife went to his church to pray. Only then did they go to the campaign victory celebration.
County Urban League President Watson Haynes described Welch as a “political godfather.” “If you wanted the vote in this community, you needed to see David,” he said. “David was what we called our mayor. If there was an issue, [you] called David.” Over the years, Welch helped many African American businesses in his district get started with help from his Tax and Accounting service. Former city councilmember and county commissioner Bob Stewart described Welch as the “voice of reason” during his time on the council. “When the debate would get emotional, he would straighten out the council pretty quickly with at least his opinion, and many times carried the day.”
During Welch’s first term on council, a major focus was on facilitating decent affordable housing. He described this as a “moral commitment,” and was instrumental in getting rent subsidies for rehabilitation of rental property and increasing funding and staffing for code enforcement. In his second term, he focused on replacing slum housing with affordable new housing. He served as chair of the council’s housing subcommittee, which declared a severe shortage of affordable housing and made addressing that issue its priority. Welch said the city had historically ignored bad housing conditions in predominantly African American neighborhoods where housing was demolished rather than rehabilitated. “We are aware of what’s happening, this is nothing new to me,” Welch said. “I’ve seen it for the last 30 years, the neglect of code enforcement in certain areas… Houses are beyond repair and we let them get into those conditions by not enforcing the codes.”
Welch supported virtually every economic development, jobs, and business growth program that came before the council. These included Pier Park, a $72 million 1980s proposal for renovation of the downtown pier that was ultimately voted down in a city referendum, and the failed Bay Plaza redevelopment project, which preceded BayWalk and the Sundial. Welch, who served on the Pinellas County Sports Authority, also supported the stadium – built largely by demolishing homes and businesses in the Gas Plant neighborhood – believing it would bring quality jobs and benefit minority business. He later acknowledged that these expectations were a failure.
Initially, he did not support the location of the stadium at the Gas Plant site. He noted that site was being prepared for redevelopment as an industrial park and low-rent housing complex, and said, “When you went into this area and moved out all the people, you said you were going to rehabilitate and create light industry and create jobs. You have a moral obligation to those individuals who were moved out for what you have told them.” Two Black churches on the site would need to be razed, including the church he attended, where his brother was pastor. Welch noted that churches are the strongest institutions in the Black community and that their relocation was especially disturbing to residents, many of whom also had to move their homes or businesses upon the destruction of their neighborhood. The area also was the site of the Manhattan Casino, an important African American entertainment and cultural venue. Welch initiated action to save the Casino and designate it a city historic landmark. Still, reflecting on the building of the stadium in 2007, he stated, “In all, it was a plus.”
After leaving the council in his final term, Welch continued to be active in civic life with much of his energy devoted to his former council district. He had chaired a city management oversight committee to help formulate a comprehensive plan for Midtown development and to make recommendations on allocating a federal grant. He chaired the “Front Porch” Council for the area, which was charged with allocation of state grant funds used to renovate homes, provide small business loans, and support job training. He remained active in the local chapter of the NAACP and, in 2001, he was appointed a board member of USF-St. Petersburg.
It is said that the more things change, the more they are the same. That seems true of the issues David Welch advocated for and struggled with over his many years of public and civic service: decent affordable housing, economic development, jobs, quality neighborhoods, a new stadium for baseball, and prevention of crime and violence. These sound very much like many of the same issues being addressed by his son as he assumes his duties as mayor. But some things do change. Now we also are grappling with preemption of local government, a pandemic, and the effects of climate change and sea-level rise. And Ken Welch is the city’s first African American mayor, an office his father twice aspired to attain. Mayor Welch reflects, “My father loved St. Petersburg and was committed to progress for all. I could not have asked for a better mentor, role model, and father. I’m honored to carry his legacy forward.”
Will Michaels is the former Director of the St. Petersburg Museum of History and the author of The Making of St. Petersburg and The Hidden History of St. Petersburg. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727-420-9195.