It was not until the events in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, when I was inspired by what looked like the next phase of the civil rights movement to research my former county sheriff, that I understood just exactly what I had moved into when my family moved from Miami to Groveland. The police shooting of unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, followed by days of protest, had reminded me of the little I knew about the shooting of young black men in my former county. I followed events in Ferguson very closely—the protests, the tanks and the police. At some point during this déjà vu experience I thought about the first time that I looked racial hatred directly in the face, aside from Uncle John, and that it had been in Groveland.
During my first semester, I competed in the Future Farmers of America Sweetheart Contest. I knew I was no competition in the physical beauty portion of the contest but I had so enjoyed performing at a talent show at my junior high school in Miami that I expected to enjoy participating in the talent part of the contest. Auditions were held in Tavares. A handful of us girls were to be driven there by volunteer parents but, at the last minute, the other girls dropped out and I ended up alone in the car with two FFA mothers. One of them was the wife of the owner of the bank in Groveland, someone who had probably been close to the Groveland Four riots, in one way or another.
The two women, in the front seat, carried on their own conversation while I pretended not to be there but listened carefully. When the wife of the owner of the bank made a reference to “the quarters,” it was something I had never heard before and I was not sure I understood her meaning, which is to say I could hardly believe my ears. When she said it again, I piped up from the backseat and said “quarters?” Without missing a beat, she turned around, fully aware that I had just arrived from Miami that semester, and said, “Yes, of course, the quarters. You know, where the Nigras live,” then smiled at me with lifted eyebrows.
I had instantly connected the word “quarters” to Gone With the Wind and the slave quarters, the first time she had said it, but had let it slide. Having not let it slide the second time, I now had only a second or two to plan my response. I visualized myself pursuing this line of conversation but I had only just turned 14 and was brand-spanking new in town. I knew that whatever I did, if it were in any way unusual, would be known to the judges at the audition within five minutes of our arrival there and then by the entire high school within a day and would no doubt reach my mother the following Sunday at church. I can’t be sure that what conversation we did have was not so reported, though if my mother heard of it, she never mentioned it.
The expression on the woman’s face said, “Go ahead, little new big city girl, make my day.” I had time to process just how arrogant and stupid one would have to be to refer to the colored part of town as “the quarters” and to colored people as ‘Nigras,” another word I had never heard but understood immediately as a way to not quite use the N-word, and I knew that this woman represented the ruling elite in Groveland, Florida. I was looking at racism, looking at it in the face from two feet away, though racism was not a word I believe I had ever heard at that point in time. It was a mixture of ignorance, stupidity and smug hatred I did not know then that I would see again many times in the years to come. I shut my mouth and was runner-up in the FFA Sweetheart Talent Contest. If Groveland High School did know of my sympathies when I attended there, it could well have started there.
I have another memory of an incident in Groveland that gained an extra layer of meaning after I learned the “Groveland Four” story and it also relates to my singing performances. There was, at some time during my high school years, a student talent contest. I had higher hopes of success in this pursuit than I had had in the FFA Sweetheart contest, since it was billed as a talent contest, exclusively. I sang a pop song with a Latin beat, still insufficiently hip to the provinciality of Groveland culture to realize that just the unusual beat and the fact that I sang a verse in Spanish would insure my resounding defeat. I was also dumb enough to think that talent would play some role in the judging.
Who won the contest was a quartet of girls from my class who lip-synched a black song in blackface. The quartet included the daughter of Flowers Cockcroft, leader of the lynch mob. I think the song may have been “Yakety Yak” by The Coasters. There was no talent involved, nor any pretense to talent. All it involved was the confidence to make absurd gestures while made up absurdly, some limited practice time, a thorough knowledge of audience preferences and some deep-seated racism. I won third place.
My mother tried to comfort me by saying, “Oh, well, these country people, what do you expect.” But, it was less my disappointment in not winning first prize than my complete astonishment that such inanity could even take place that had me floored. Now that I know the depth of the spring that fed the inanity, I wonder at my naivete in expecting a talent contest to be a talent contest rather than a venue for bigotry displays.
Letters from the front
It was during my senior year in high school that I first heard the phrase “sit-in” and learned of the civil rights movement. This happened through my correspondence with my friend, Roy, the boy I had met in New Port Richey who was then a student at Florida State University. Much of my knowledge of the world outside Groveland was coming from Roy at that point, from his letters, books he sent me and books he recommended to me, if I could find them. In addition to nurturing me intellectually, Roy was a participant in what would go down in civil rights history as the “lunch counter sit-ins”:
We were both, with four others, nearly thrown out last week. Instead, we are on indefinite probation for participating in the downtown “sit-in” March 12 and being convicted in city court on two counts of what amounts to disturbing the peace and illegal assembly. Which is one of the reasons I’ve been sort of too busy to write. The 24 hours I spent in jail were about the most moving of my life. I must tell you about that experience another time. May 1960, Tallahassee
Roy was one of 240 FSU and Florida A&M students, black and white, who were arrested on March 5th and March 12 for occupying segregated lunch counters in Woolworths and McRory’s department stores. Those sit-ins were follow-ups to earlier such sit-ins in February. Since I had no access to newspapers, did not watch the news on TV—in order to avoid my father—and only listened to music on the radio, I would never have known about the sit-ins without Roy. I was shocked that he would risk his college career and earn himself a rap sheet, but I was proud to know a civil rights activist, personally. It was a piece of information I certainly had to keep secret, but it was a secret that gave me immense satisfaction and a tiny glimmering of hope that things could get better in the world.
There is no doubt that the fact of Roy’s bust affected my decisions related to race relations for the rest of my life and that it was a standard he set me for honorable behavior and a cautionary example of the dilemmas faced by student demonstrators. He continued to keep me posted on ongoing student political activities in Tallahassee and the progress of legal actions against both the lunch counter demonstrators and the earlier Tallahassee freedom ride demonstrators:
Guess you heard about our freedom riders here in Tally: what a tremendous group! My old buddy Judge Rudd found them very guilty and gave them 30 days or $500 something very like that—the old bastard, telling that to 10 clergyman!! What a GODDAM Christian he is. He hasn’t heard the end of this yet. Especially since one of the two rabbis has a congressman in his congregation and the other has a friend high on the staff of one of J. Kennedy’s advisers and when he was allowed his one phone call from jail, he made a collect call to the White House. Don’t you know these local bastards are worried? 1961, Tallahassee
Things have been fairly quiet around FSU this semester, but I hear this one just starting will be different. Just hope I can continue to stay just on the safe side of the thin line dividing those who get thrown out from those who don’t. Spring 1961, Tallahassee
This time I stayed out of the demonstrations because I really have to stay in school to get my degree and would get thrown out for even saying demonstration too loud (being on perpetual probation from the last time). August 15, 1963, Tallahassee
Years after his bust, Roy followed through on his promise to describe the jail experience to me someday, writing from the deep South, where he was then employed as adjunct geography faculty at Sam Houston State College:
As for jail itself, even for a mere day the experience was great. I mean it was very valuable. I think, like they say, never throw reformers in jail because they’ll come out even more eager to reform what they had wanted to reform and the penal system, as well. I had no suspicion that experiencing it would be that much more vivid then just knowing intellectually— JAILS ARE BAD. But still, I’m what my left-socialist friends call a social democrat, a conservative, and I would not have been or now get arrested for deliberately doing something that I, myself, thought violated a law. What I did in Tallahassee, I would do again. But I did not and do not think I violated any legitimate law. November 1964, Huntsville, Texas
Roy’s career survived the bust and the rap sheet and the probation, but he had acquired, we learned later, not only a rap sheet but an FBI file. Years later, under the Freedom of Information Act, he paid the money and got the file. It was so ridiculously redacted that it was nearly impossible to make any sense of it, but it did cause me to wonder if my own FBI file might have been started before my arrest in the Free Speech Movement, the point at which I had always assumed it started.
If the FBI had its eye on Roy from the time he was busted, given that it was the time of HUAC and guilt-by-association, and that anytime any of us were in the presence of a dean we were always asked for a list of our friends, it does not seem unreasonable to me that they were monitoring Roy’s friends, as well. I could never imagine any of my Tally friends naming me but I was a frequent correspondent and was myself expelled from FSU. I was certainly on the Dean of Women’s radar screen early on and who knows how much communication took place between government organizations, like state universities and the FBI.
It is a matter of mere curiosity only, some historical fluff, but if my file did start with my association with Roy, not with my Peace Core application or my Free Speech bust, it would be something we would have a good laugh about, were he still alive. I never tried to get my own file, after seeing how little information could be gleaned from Roy’s, but if the earliest date on it is March, 1961, then Roy, in a sense, tapped me for membership in the only kind of elite group either of us could have tolerated.
© Jentri Anders, 2016