Watson Haynes


Courtesy Pinellas County Urban League “Service is the price you pay for the space you occupy,” says Urban League CEO Watson Haynes

NNB Student Reporters

ST. PETERSBURG – It was a ritual of Watson Haynes’ boyhood.

Virtually every Saturday the minister would come to his home. They would walk to Webb’s City, a sprawling drugstore complex on the western edge of downtown. There they would sit at the lunch counter and drink milkshakes while the pastor talked about the importance of community involvement and civil rights.

Much of the talk “was over my head; I was young,” said Haynes, 61. He did not understand why the minister was interested in him or why his mother insisted that he go.

He did not know – until later — that the minister, the Rev. Enoch Davis, was an esteemed civil rights leader who had helped lead the campaign to integrate lunch counters like the one at Webb’s City.

“I never understood why he chose me out of the other kids,” said Haynes, “but I look back now and I am grateful.”

In fact, Davis was one of many people who mentored Haynes in the years that followed. And that is why, Haynes said, he has spent much of his life paying it forward in jobs that enabled him to invest in others, especially young people.

Today, as president and CEO of the Pinellas County Urban League, Haynes champions efforts to improve educational and economic opportunities for the young, help adults become self-sufficient through good jobs and home ownership, and ensure equal opportunities for everybody.

Before that, he was an education and community outreach coordinator for St. Petersburg College. And before that, a founder and CEO of a nonprofit called the Coalition for a Safe and Drug Free St. Petersburg, and before that executive vice president of a drug treatment organization called Operation PAR.

“Service is the price you pay for the space you occupy,” Haynes once told a blogger for Eckerd College. “It’s a natural part of what I do. If all you’ve got to say at the end of your life is, ‘I did everything I could for myself,’ you’ve not achieved very much.”

Haynes grew up in the Gas Plant neighborhood, where opportunities were scant and people were poor and black. In the 1980s, the neighborhood was supplanted by Tropicana Field and its parking lots. Haynes likes to joke that his boyhood home stood where third base is today.

He was one of seven children of a single mother with a third-grade education, a stern work ethic and steely determination that her children would amount to something.

Emma Haynes earned $7 a day, six days a week, her son said. She went to night class to learn how to read. At holiday time she always prepared meals for elderly neighbors as well as her family. The neighbors ate first.

The Gas Plant – so named because of two natural gas tanks that towered over the neighborhood – could be hard. Haynes remembers watching in horror as a gang that called itself the Third Avenue Maniacs “sliced up a guy who ‘didn’t have a hall pass’ right in front of me.”

But it was also a neighborhood where people looked out for each other, where children were always under the watchful eyes of elders like the Rev. Davis.

At church, Haynes said, he came under the wing of a junior college professor and coach named Frank Pierce, who persuaded him to get involved in the NAACP, politics and the Democratic Party.

At St. Petersburg High School, where he was one of the first black students to break the barriers of segregation, a teacher named Katherine Zinn persuaded him to run for class office. To his surprise, he was elected class vice president as a junior and class president as a senior.

Later, as a young man, St. Petersburg stalwarts like insurance executive and developer Ted Wittner, utility executive Andrew Hines, and city manager Don McRae offered counsel and a hand up.

Haynes said he was 13 when he got his first job, at a drugstore in his neighborhood. At 19, he was hired by the state Department of Labor, where he got nine promotions over 13 years.

Meanwhile, he was attending classes at St. Petersburg Junior College and then Eckerd College, where he earned a bachelor’s in business administration through the school’s program for experienced learners. Later, he said, he earned a master’s in management from National Louis University in Tampa and an associate degree in theology from Florida Theological Seminary in Tampa.

Haynes has remained active in politics, but not always as a Democrat. He and Charlie Crist became friends at St. Petersburg High, and Haynes has been at Crist’s elbow over the years as his friend sought office as a Republican, Independent and Democrat.

Haynes himself twice ran unsuccessfully for the St. Petersburg City Council.

Haynes also has served as associate pastor at Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, president of the Midtown Rotary Club, and board member and chairman of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

In keeping with his priorities, he is a past chairman of Concerned Citizens for Quality Education for Black Students, which monitors how blacks fare in Pinellas public schools.

But one of the young people he tried to help slipped through the cracks – his own son.

Watson Haynes III, 41, has battled the demons of bipolar disorder for years, his father said. In June 2012 the younger Haynes, a trained boxer, got into a fight with a 57-year-old man in Williams Park.

When the man died from his injuries several days later, Haynes was charged with second-degree murder. He pleaded guilty and is serving a 15-year sentence in state prison.

The elder Haynes said he should have invested more time in his son’s life. “We reconnected but not soon enough,” he said. “There are things that I really wish I could have done differently for my son. His mother and I were in constant battle over how to raise him.”

As an Urban League executive and community activist, Haynes said, he is determined to keep helping  other young people, as so many helped him when he was young.

If he needs a reminder, he need only look at the desk in his office.

Years ago, it was donated to the Urban League by Webb’s City, the place where he once got weekly milkshakes with the minister who had helped integrate its lunch counter.

NNB student reporters Chanel Williams and Hillary Terhune contributed to this report, which includes information from Eckerd College’s News and Events website and the Tampa Bay Times.


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