ST. PETERSBURG — When Carolyn Brayboy went for her annual physical in 2007, she told her doctor she had been feeling a little nauseous.
The doctor referred her to a specialist for tests that led to a dreaded diagnosis: cancer.
For months, Brayboy underwent chemotherapy, which left her weak, exhausted and bedridden. But it worked. More than a year after the diagnosis, she was cancer free.
Shaken by her brush with death, Brayboy and her husband, Elihu, decided to take a risk. They invested $800,000 in real estate in the Midtown area of St. Petersburg.
Where some saw rundown old buildings and empty lots, the Brayboys saw opportunity. When some lamented what integration, urban renewal, an interstate highway and crack cocaine had done to a once-thriving neighborhood, the Brayboys remembered the good times of their youth and the values that a close-knit community instilled in them.
Now the Brayboys, both 65, are at work restoring four buildings along 22nd Street South, which in its heyday in the ’50s and ’60s was the main street of a community that its black residents and business owners called “The Deuces.”
In one building, at 909-913 22nd St. S., the Brayboys have installed an art gallery, a consignment shop and an ice cream parlor.
At 901-903 22nd St. S., they will have Chief’s Creole Cafe, featuring recipes of Elihu Brayboy’s mother. It is scheduled to open in a few weeks.
At 951-963 22nd St. S. is the historic Merriwether building. The Brayboys plan to put more shops on the ground floor of the two-story, 1925 structure, and low-cost housing on the second floor.
The fourth building, at 1025 22nd St. S., is where daughter Ramona Brayboy-Reio and her husband have a hair salon and fitness center.
The Brayboys say they knew they were taking a risk by investing here. But the experience has been positive.
“We know that we have to remain prudent of our surroundings no matter where we are, but in the six years we have been here, not once have we had a break-in, a single item stolen, or a broken window,” Elihu Brayboy said.
To outward appearances, the Brayboys are an odd couple. He is outgoing and talkative. She is reserved, reticent. He favors leopard-print jackets and silk shirts with initials monogrammed on the cuff. She is more likely to be in jeans, clambering up a ladder to help the roof repair guys. She’s good with her hands and watches expenditures closely — a good thing, Elihu says with a chuckle, since budgeting is not his strength.
They both grew up in Midtown. “My mother was a nurse at Mercy (Hospital) and my father worked at Clark Funeral Home, which was one of the only black funeral homes at that time,” Elihu said.
The Brayboys, who have known each other since childhood, began dating when Carolyn was at 16th Street Junior High and Elihu at the Immaculate Conception Catholic School.
“It wasn’t love at first sight,” she said. “He was cute, but at that time boys were the furthest thing from my mind.”
Her calling was to become a businesswoman, she said. “My mother wanted me to become a teacher, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I changed my major from math education to finance.”
She was one of the first black students to attend St. Petersburg Junior College. She then earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s in business administration from Florida State University and landed a job at IBM, where she worked for 39 years.
The Brayboys lost track of each other for about a decade. But when Elihu returned from New Orleans, they reconnected and married. They have three children: Gus, Lynae and Ramona.
The Brayboys said they are determined to make their mark on Midtown.
“I want people to know that they have options,” Elihu said. “They have the option to spend or the option to invest. When I am gone, let it be said that I chose to invest so that others could have a better life.”