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Juneteenth celebration remembers good times at Rogers Garden Park (with photo gallery and audio)

BRADENTON — Clarence Love remembers having hot and cold running water, a refrigerator and stove for the first time.

Dorothy Simmons remembers shopping for grits while another housewife shopped for meal so they could share.

Joe Grissett remembers feeling safe as a boy in the neighborhood.

They remember Rogers Garden Park Apartments — aka Rogers Project — a segregated public housing project built in 1953 on 13th Avenue West between First Street and Ninth Street West that thrived for nearly a half century until flooding, crime and drugs eventually led to its demolition a few years ago.

“It was heaven,” said Love, 81, Bradenton’s first black city councilman from 1976 to 1980.

On Saturday, Rogers Project Hope Inc., hosts a Juneteenth celebration at G.D. Rogers Garden Elementary School on the site of the old projects. It commemorates the day the slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19, 1865.

But the purpose of the event is to honor the memory of Rogers Project, where the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” was a way of life.

Named after Garfield Devoe Rogers Sr., an entrepreneur and revered community leader, the project was the city’s first public housing where residents were mostly cooks, maids and field workers, and churches and teachers held sway.

Nearby Ninth Avenue West was a corridor of black businesses.

The Palms of Bradenton across First Street was a destination of black entertainers like James Brown and Etta James.

And Edd Roush Field was home to the Bradenton Nine Devils.

Robert Dunlap, president of Rogers Project Hope Inc., grew up in Rogers Project.

“Looking back over a lot of our lives, it was that village that raised us,” said the retired 61-year-old nurse. “The whole village was family. Neighbors used to look out for each other. If your parents had to work, they didn’t have to worry about the children. It gave me a sense of being secure. It was a great time to live there.”

Rogers Project was 180 units with one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, according to Dunlap, a marked improvement from the living conditions of many blacks.

Clarence Love, a Terra Ceia native, moved into the projects in 1953 with wife Edith and two little children.

“We had shacks in those days so this was like dying and going to heaven,” he said. “This was quite the place to be and we appreciated how much it meant to us — working the tomato fields, raggedy houses, freezing. Hot and cold water, a refrigerator, stove. Quite a move.”

Love paid $22 a month, typical of the low rents.

Everybody was poor, said Dorothy Simmons, who raised five children in Rogers Project with first husband, Alfonso Anderson, after they arrived in 1954.

“Some of us would go shopping and one would say, ‘I’m going to buy some grits and you buy some meal,’ because we borrowed from each other,” said the 74-year-old matriarch. “We were all on the same economic level. That in itself made you respect and love a man because he’s the same as you.”

And if you were a child and another adult spoke, you listened.

“An adult speaks, you respected them. It was a way of life,” said Joe Grissett, 65. “If an adult told you to do something, you did it without question.

“You didn’t throw garbage in the street or the yard. The projects were well kept. Grass was cut. Beautiful flowers.”

It was safe, too.

“You never thought of getting mugged,” the retired teacher said.

“You never locked your door. Never thought of somebody breaking into your house. Drugs? When I graduated (from Lincoln Memorial High School) in 1963, I had no idea what drugs were.

“Rogers Project wasn’t Camelot, but it was great.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.

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