Paul Congemi insists that he doesn’t want all black people to go back to Africa; just a specific group of black people who have been trying to make reparations a political issue in St. Petersburg — and who, he said, heckled him at a mayoral forum in the Florida city.
Congemi, 60, a Republican long-shot in St. Petersburg’s mayoral race, seized headlines at Tuesday’s forum with his invective, which was laced with Barack Obama references and suggestions about Florida-to-Africa flight plans.
“Mr. Nevel, you and your people talk about reparations,” he said, mentioning Jesse Nevel, a white campaign opponent who heads a group calling for reparations for African Americans. “The reparations that you talk about, Mr. Nevel, your people already got your reparations. Your reparations came in the form of a man named Barack Obama.”
He added: “My advice to you, if you don’t like it here in America, planes leave every hour from Tampa airport. Go back to Africa. Go back to Africa. Go back!”
Nevel’s campaign is backed by the Uhuru Solidarity Movement, which believes reparations can begin to mend racial inequality. Nevel has also highlighted other racially tinged issues, including gentrification and police violence against minorities. His campaign slogan: “Unity Through Reparations.”
But Congemi, who is also white, told The Washington Post that Nevel and the group that backs him lack real solutions and are “unhappy about the whole system in America.”
Conversely, he said, he has “nothing against African Americans who are doing their best here in America.”
“I had never met Jesse Nevel until last night,” Congemi said on Wednesday. “It’s obvious he is a self-hating white man.”
While Nevel conceded that he is indeed white, he told The Post that he sees paying reparations and rectifying other race-based disparities as the first steps to healing many class and social issues.
It is not, he said, frivolous complaining.
As The Post’s Max Ehrenfreund reported, a United Nations panel last year declared that the United States owed African Americans reparations for the country’s history of “enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality.”
The nonbinding declaration added fuel to the debate about what the United States can do to make up for racial inequalities that are a legacy of the nation’s racist past.
Congemi’s acerbic comment, Nevel said, “reflects a segment of my community. I’ve met plenty of other people who feel that way. That’s why I feel that it’s important for those of us in the white community to take a public stand with reparations.”
Congemi told The Post he was a lifelong Democrat who switched allegiances after then-President Barack Obama came out in favor of same-sex marriage.
Now, he’s a Republican and a Trump supporter.
He said he believes homosexuality is immoral and criticized incumbent mayor Rick Kriseman, a Democrat, for taking part in St. Petersburg’s gay pride parade and flying the pride flag over city hall.
“I’m not politically correct,” Congemi said.
Whether blacks should “go back” to Africa has been an undercurrent of American racial politics for almost as long as there have been black people in the United States. As The Post previously reported, supporters of the idea have argued for more than a century that returning to Africa is the best way to escape economic and social oppression. Others question whether blacks in the U.S. can “go back” to a continent they have never seen and to which they don’t have a cultural connection.
The Journal of Negro History, in a 1917 article, traces the origins of the back-to-Africa movement as far back as 1714. The article quotes a letter from Thomas Jefferson, who said that sending free blacks to Africa was “the most desirable measure which could be adopted for gradually drawing off” the black population.
In the 20th century, back-to-Africa proponents including Marcus Garvey, an early advocate of pan-Africanism, felt that the best way for blacks to escape economic and social oppression in the United States was to return to the lands of their forefathers. Garvey even started a shipping line that he hoped would ferry American blacks across the Atlantic.
Thousands of African Americans saw “returning” to Africa as a worthwhile plan, according to Fodei Batty, an assistant professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, who wrote in The Post:
Over the past 150 years, tens of thousands of African Americans have resettled in Africa. The United States has seen numerous “back-to-Africa” movements from the 1800s to contemporary times. For instance, Paul Cuffe, a prosperous former slave and businessman in post-colonial Massachusetts spearheaded one of the first back-to-Africa movements and helped return settlers to Sierra Leone in 1815.
Beginning in 1822, the white-led American Colonization Society (ACS) resettled thousands of freeborn blacks and freed slaves in a region in West Africa, next to Sierra Leone, that became Liberia.
It’s unclear when the phrase shifted from a cultural what-if to an insult. According to Atlanta Black Star, a news magazine that focuses on African and African American issues, the insult is steeped in “the assumption among whites … that Black folks should be happy to be in America, which, through its kindness and generosity, has rendered African Americans the most fortunate Black people around. There is a perverse, outlandish assertion that Black people … should leave if they cannot appreciate all that white people have done for them.”
Congemi, the aspiring Florida politician, admitted his mouth has gotten him in trouble in the past, especially as he sought to fulfill his political ambitions. This is his third run for the mayor’s office; he also campaigned to become the Pinellas County sheriff before dropping out of the race in 2016.
During a trip to a St. Petersburg KFC during his 2009 bid for mayor, Congemi got angry that his food was taking too long to prepare and got into a shouting match with employees, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
According to a police report, he told the officers who came to the restaurant: “Don’t touch me. I am running for mayor, and once I get elected you will be fired.”
He wasn’t arrested, but he is permanently banned from the KFC on 34th Street North.
Later, at a political forum, someone asked him about the incident. He said firing the officers wouldn’t have been an abuse of power, but “justice.”
And in January, Congemi was charged with felony elder abuse after his 87-year-old mother ended up in intensive care for bed sores, the Tampa Bay Times reported. The woman, who lived with Congemi, had sores so bad that doctors could see bone, according to a police report obtained by the newspaper.
The charges were ultimately dropped, the newspaper reported.
Interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times about the arrest, he defended his actions, saying his mother had only been without home health care for a day and a half as he switched providers.
After posting his $10,000 bail, he told the newspaper his political ambitions were still alive.
“I want the people of St. Petersburg to know that I’m not dropping out,” Congemi said at the time.
On Wednesday, he repeated that he has no plans to drop out of the mayoral race, despite this most recent controversy, saying anyone who thinks he is racist misunderstood the focus of his tirade.
And if he loses, he said, this won’t be his last election.
“I’ll run again in 2019 and, God willing, if I’m alive in 2021, I’ll run then too,” he said. “I intend to keep running and running and running.”