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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Keeping People in Their Place

I’ve been reading Half Century of Struggle for Freedom in Florida, a fairly obscure book that was published (essentially self-published) in 1981. It is by Edward Daniel Davis, one of the less well-known figures of the civil rights movement. He may be little known because he didn’t talk much about himself. I expected an autobiography, but he limited that to a few pages at the front. Instead, the book is a collection of documents that otherwise might not have been preserved.

Organized more or less chronologically, it first covers the Great Depression of the 1930s and the status of people that respectful people called “Negroes.” The depression began because regulation-free Republican administrations during the Roaring Twenties encouraged a number of bad business practices. Chief of those in Florida were fraudulent “investment” schemes that sold swampland to unsuspecting Yankees at inflated prices. Indeed, my old Webster’s Guide to American History (1971) called the Florida land boom of the 1920s “the greatest business stampede in U.S. history.”

Tampa’s Franklin Street Citizens Bank & Trust Company abruptly closed on July 17, 1929, never to reopen. Thousands of individuals had their life savings in that bank, and within hours, long lines of people withdrew their money from other Tampa banks. Many people lost fortunes within days, and it took almost a decade to untangle the mess. Most of these depositors were white, but the result was that black people lost their jobs. In that era, those jobs were largely limited to “yard work” for men and domestic service for women. The financial collapse meant that white women had to lay off maids and do their own housework.

Davis presented several pages of statistics showing the disproportionate effect of unemployment on blacks in the 1930s, but the most salient information is in a footnote. In talking about unemployment, he spoke of “normal times” and then footnoted: “During normal times, periodic [police] raids are made on Negro sections of the city. These raids are often sponsored by employers… The object is to frighten the Negroes and compel them to work for the wages paid. They are often freed [from jail] if they promise to work for these concerns. The sugar cane farms near Clewiston, Florida, and the strawberry section of this county are the most persistent offenders in this respect.”

Beginning to Move Forward

From a shortage of jobs in the 1930s, the nation switched in the 1940s to recruiting every available worker for World War II. Millions of former maids moved to towns where they could get dangerous but well-paid work in munitions factories – and the federal government insisted that defense industries with federal contracts pay the races (but not the sexes) equally. Millions of black men also joined the military, where they learned new skills, lived in new cultures, and came home determined to change the semi-slave status that had characterized the South for decades.

Because of the wartime labor shortage, schools for both blacks and whites were short of teachers, as both men and women left the schoolroom for better-paid jobs elsewhere. Black teachers had even more reason for this, as they routinely were paid about half of what white teachers got. In Florida in 1941, the average annual salary for whites was $1,133, while it was $569 for blacks.

This rate was true despite educational credentials or the number of students. I came across the most egregious case of this while researching a book several decades ago: I could hardly believe my eyes when I found a white South Carolina teacher who earned twice as much as her black counterpart -- even though the black woman had over a hundred kids to teach, while the white woman had three. Yes, three. And got twice as much money.

A half-dozen Florida teachers took advantage of the wartime shortage to sue for equal pay. Davis led them and soon was fired from his job as a principal in Ocala. Tampa’s plaintiff was Hilda Turner: she had particular courage because she had no spouse to help out, as was the case with most of the male educators. She was nearly blind when I had lunch with her many years ago. She wouldn’t say that she moved to Chicago because she was fearful, but she loved Tampa enough that she returned here for retirement. An elementary school in north Tampa now is named for Hilda Turner.


Such actions in the 1940s and early 1950s revitalized the NAACP – and the reaction in several Southern legislatures was to ban that organization as “communist.” Davis’ book added to my knowledge of that with praise of Ruby Hurley. She is under-appreciated today, and I’d like to again use his words:

“As Regional Head of the NAACP in the hard core Southern states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi, her job was difficult and perilous. Confronted by the KKK, white citizens’ councils, reactionary and prejudiced state and local officials, Ruby Hurley never wavered. Although she had to flee Birmingham by night, after the Alabama legislature outlawed the NAACP, with no time to gather up her personal belongings, Ruby joked about the incident and carried on in her usual effective way in the new Regional Headquarters in Atlanta.”

Here in Florida, we earned the distinction of the first assassination of civil rights activists: Brevard County educators Harry and Harriet Moore were killed by racists who planted a bomb under their bed on the night of Christmas, 1951. Undeterred, the NAACP established a state headquarters in Tampa in 1952, and Davis moved back here to work in it. His book also gives generous credit to longtime Tampans and NAACP employees Bob and Helen Saunders for the slow but eventual success in integrating schools.

Their son, called Bobby, was the first black student in a traditionally white school – but that school was in West Tampa and its student population was largely Latino. And it was in 1962 – almost a decade after the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that students could attend their neighborhood school without regard to race.

Even so, integration still was an issue when Hubby and I moved here in 1972. Julian Lane was mayor of Tampa then, and Davis credits him with a new approach to policing. Instead of serving as the tools of right-wingers like they had in the 1920s, Lane demanded that police be fair. When demonstrations were planned, Davis quoted the mayor as telling policemen: “You are to protect these people in the exercise of their rights as American citizens. If you have any reservations in this matter, please step aside.”

Quotes That Say It All

And now for the fun (and easy) part. Near the end of his book, Davis included several paragraphs that can (and should) stand their own. Here goes:

“Florida politicians are skilled in evading or side-stepping hot issues. Back in the 30’s, I had a conference with the State Superintendent of Public Instruction… He let me have it squarely: ‘You may be right on all grounds, but if I were to make any move in that direction, it would be political suicide, and frankly, some redneck would blow my head off... I think the only way you will gain your objectives is through the Federal Courts. Those judges are appointed for life.”

“Under segregation, statements were frequently made in regard to the ‘Negro’s Place.’ The late Jesse Thomas…said, ‘In the theater, his place was in the balcony; traveling on a ship, his place was on the lower deck; on the ‘Jim Crow’ trains, his place was up front, next to the baggage, and on the ‘Jim Crow’ bus, his place was in the rear. There seemed to be confusion in this matter.’”

“Who owned the country was also a confused issue. In normal times, it was a ‘white man’s country;’ when war clouds approached, it was ‘our’ country. When bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, it was ‘your’ country.”

“On a St. Petersburg Beach, Noah Griffin, the principal of black Gibbs [High School], was assaulted by a policeman while he was talking with white friends who were enjoying the beach. A little white girl who witnessed the event asked the officer if it was o.k. for her black pet pup to remain on the beach. It was o.k.”

“When traveling from Lake City to Tampa on US 41 in the 30’s, many portions of the route were narrowly paved to the extent that two meeting cars had to leave a portion of the paved area to pass. Many whites would not leave the paved portion if they discovered the approaching car was driven by a black person.”

“A Tampa black doctor, who traded his new Cadillac every year, would don a chauffeur cap when driving through many small towns… Some of those areas made a practice of arresting large and expensive cars owned by Negroes.”

“Black citizens were often faced with this remark, ‘We don’t serve Colored People.’ The retort was, ‘We don’t want to order Colored people; we are interested in steaks.’”


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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