My Story – The Early Years
(Adapted from “A History of Florida Through Black Eyes” by Dr. Marvin Dunn)
I knew Jim Crow. I grew up in Florida under his dark, suffocating wings. I knew him intimately, as did every black person I knew growing up in Deland and Miami in the 1940s and 50s. He hovered over every aspect of the first twenty-five years of my life, sucking ambition from me. I grew up during the last vestiges of his reign. I was so used to seeing the signs that read, “Whites seat from front-Colored seat from rear” on public buses that, when they were finally removed in the 1960s, sometimes I thought I still saw them there. Even after his death, Jim Crow was, for a while, omnipresent mentally and emotionally in our lives; such had been his reach. No black person I knew escaped the impact of the Jim Crow system or the possibility of being killed for no other reason than being black. A black person in Florida, during the time I grew up, lived with a pervasive awareness of the limitations a racist society imposed and of the impact those limitations imposed upon one’s life.
The purpose of this chapter is to tell my Florida story. How did segregation and racism impact my life and that of so many other African Americans of my generation, some of whom managed not only to survive it but even to thrive under it? I was born on June 27, 1940 in DeLand, Florida. This small central Florida town, in Volusia County, is about forty miles northeast of Orlando. Around 35,000 people lived there when I was growing up. The town was founded in 1876 by northern industrialist Henry DeLand after he took a tour of the upper St. Johns area.
In 1885, Florida Baptists established DeLand College in the town; later when John B. Stetson (as in Stetson hats) donated considerable money to the college, the name of the school was changed to Stetson University. DeLand, and surrounding communities, succeeded in the citrus business because the St. Johns River flows close by, allowing fruit to be floated up river to Jacksonville for shipping to northern markets. For a time, before the Great Freeze of 1894-95, it was all good, which was probably what attracted William Dunn, my paternal grandfather, to move to Volusia County from North Carolina in the mid-1880s.
My parents, James C. Dunn and Corinne Williams, met in 1936. My mother was in her last year of high school and was a top student. My father had dropped out of school in about the seventh grade after a spat with his teacher. (Actually, he said he hit the teacher and never went back.) My father did not particularly care for white people. I was over fifty years old before he told me why. He said that one night when he was courting my mother, as he was walking her home along a dark road, they noticed a pickup truck coming up behind them. My father recognized the three white boys who were in the truck as it passed them. He heard one of them say, “That’s old J.C. Dunn! Let’s get him!” The truck made a U-turn, then roared towards them. My parents were in their “good clothes.” In order to save their lives, my father shoved his fiancée into a ditch and fell in on top of her. The truck veered back onto the road and sped off. My parents were covered with mud. My father said he could hear the white boys laughing. He never forgot it or forgave it.
My father was a fruit-picker. He and other black men in west Volusia County could count on having work in the groves during the winter and spring, but hardly any work was available to them in the summer. There was no shortage of vitamin C in our diet. My father brought home sacks of the most perfectly ripened fruit taken from the groves in which he worked. For six months in 1945, when our father was in the Navy, my four brothers, James, William, Raymond, LeVon and I lived with our paternal grandmother, Cora Dunn, out in the country in Glenwood, a tiny farming community about three miles from DeLand. We made our own ice cream. Mama put up vegetables in mason jars. She raised hogs, cows, chickens and other farm animals to eat and sell. In the cool of the late fall, people slaughtered hogs and put the meat up in smokehouses, small sheds with a perpetual, slow fire.
My grandmother had a smokehouse that sat some distance behind the house. My brothers and I were afraid to enter it despite the alluring smell of curing pork because a huge snake lived in the smokehouse and had, by all accounts, lived there for many years. I saw it once; an incredibly large black snake that must have been six feet in length and as thick as a large man’s wrist was coiled in a corner, peering out. I never entered that smokehouse again, even in later years when I was nearly grown. The adults to whom we complained never bothered the snake, saying it served the purpose of keeping the rats out. It must have worked because even though we would spot a rat here and there on the property, we never saw a rat near that smokehouse.
For most blacks of my generation in Florida, and I suspect elsewhere, the inferiority of our blackness was instilled in us by the people who were closest to us, our parents and grandparents. My grandmother Cora loved her coffee and was not disposed to share her morning cup with anyone, much less with worrisome grandchildren. “Oh, you don’t want no coffee, baby,” she would say. “Coffee make you mo black.” Of course, no self-respecting black child in Florida in 1945 would want to be mo black so my grandmother’s coffee was an abomination to us. I was serving in the Navy before I drank my first cup of coffee and discovered that Grandma Cora was wrong. I didn’t get mo black.
West Volusia County was gifted with many huge oak trees, some of them reaching over eighty-feet in height and broad enough at the base for ten children to join hands. They were laden, one might even say burdened, with Spanish moss. My grandmother made a little money in those days by pulling Spanish moss from trees, using a long pole the end of which was wrapped in barbed wire. She hung the moss out to dry on clotheslines made of barbed wire. As children, it was our job to pick out small pieces of sticks that were entangled in the moss, a painstaking task. After it cured for several weeks, she sold the moss to dealers who purchased it by the ton. Among other uses, the moss was used to stuff furniture.
Upon my father’s discharge from the Navy in December, 1945, our parents returned to retrieve us from our grandmother. They rented the house in DeLand that was next to the home of my maternal grandmother, Leona Williams. The two-bedroom, clapboard house, with an outhouse to be shared with the folks who lived in back of us, was on Julia Avenue in a hamlet called Blackberry. Water was dispensed from a faucet on the back porch. A space heater in the front room was the only source of heat, although Leona’s house had a fireplace where my brothers and I often slept on very cold nights.
Although we were expected to share the outhouse, we didn’t. Leona’s house had a toilet on the back porch, and we used that even when it was cold or raining. In 1947, we got electricity. The power company strung a single electrical cord to each room in the house; at the end of the cord dangled a hot light bulb. Our lives changed. We did not have to go to bed when it got dark. It was easier to study for school. We got a radio, a rare thing in Blackberry in 1947. Perhaps, most importantly, once we got electricity we were safer, since many children died in house fires which had been caused by kerosene lamps.
Blackberry was a black, working-class neighborhood of small homes, clustered in the northwest part of town beneath a virtual forest of enormous oak trees. There were also two other black neighborhoods in DeLand, Spring Hill and Red City. Blackberry covered an area of about six blocks. There were no paved streets. Just one, sandy, deeply rutted road meandered through the neighborhood, circumventing the oak trees. There were so many towering oaks that there were areas in Blackberry where sunlight never touched the ground, creating the sense that it was always afternoon. In those idyllic years, we played in cool shade even on the hottest days of August.
My earliest memories emerged in the closing years of the Second World War. The day President Franklin D. Roosevelt died at Warm Springs, Georgia in 1945 was the only time I saw my father cry. He praised Roosevelt for helping “the little man” who, he said, included us. People talked about a place called Pearl Harbor, but I had no idea of what it meant. The words “pearl harbor” resonated with me for no reason other than that it sounded like a beautiful place. People around me described the enemy as “Japs.” They said the Japs were sneaky people. I heard the word Hiroshima when I was in the first grade. I knew what happened there. Black men who had been in the war in the Philippines came around our house to visit my father. Overhearing them, I learned that I should hate “Japs.” In comic books, huge, hulking Japanese soldiers were drawn with extremely slanted eyes and two big front teeth.
Of course, they were shown fighting and losing to white, clean-shaven, blonde, muscular, handsome American soldiers. I never saw a rendering or photograph of a black man fighting a Japanese or German soldier. From what I could see, it had been only white men who had fought and died to save the world for democracy. I knew that black men had cooked and cleaned latrines; after all, such had been my father’s role. But armed black men in tanks, planes and infantry? We never saw such images. The only ad I saw that was aimed at recruiting black men into military service was one that I saw for the Navy. It was in the DeLand post office and showed black sailors as cooks and stewards.
I became aware that a lot of black people in Volusia County at that time kept their savings at the post office because banks would not open accounts for blacks. My grandmother Leona trusted neither bank nor post office. She kept her money in a jar buried deep in the sand under her house. I was about five when I caught her burying money. She made me promise not to tell, but my guess is that she found another place to keep her money.
When I was about eight, I heard of something called the Mason-Dixon Line. An uncle who had been in the army during the Second World War, came to visit. He served as a guard on a prisoner of war (POW) detail that required him to ride on a train that carried German prisoners of war from New York to a POW camp somewhere in the Deep South, probably Mississippi. He told my father that when the train crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, dividing the South from the North, the black guards had to get out of the coaches carrying German prisoners and ride the rest of the way in the “colored coach.” The German POWs stayed in the white coach with white guards. He said even German POWs had more standing in the South than black soldiers who had fought for their country.
Jim Crow ruled. We used the colored water fountain at the Volusia County Courthouse. The water was not chilled as it was in the white fountain. We used bathrooms in the basement that were marked for “colored.” I noticed that when I went downtown with my mother to shop, whites had the privilege of skipping ahead of us. Essentially, in the South at that time, a white person was not expected to wait until a black person was served, which would have been an act of subservience, or at least, respect. When my mother took me to work with her to clean white people’s homes, we always entered through the back door. I was required to use the bathroom before we left home since we could not use the bathrooms in the homes in which my mother worked. I noticed that when my mother was brought home from work in the car of some white woman for whom she worked, she was always riding alone in the back seat.
My view of the police was shaped early. It never occurred to me that the police existed to protect people. On the contrary, as I saw it, the police existed to enforce segregation and to keep blacks in line and working on their jobs. They also handled serious domestic disputes. In Blackberry in the 1940s, “the law” was epitomized in the person of the “High Sheriff.” There were deputies, of course, but the authority in the county was vested in the High Sheriff. If you were a black man in Volusia County at that time, the High Sheriff was the one person in the county who, you hoped, did not know your name. This did not necessarily mean that the High Sherriff was a bad or mean person. It just meant that he did not have to answer to anyone. He could do, more or less, whatever he wished to black people. The High Sheriff eliminated the need for a judge or jury in Blackberry.
Some white people drove into Blackberry one day. There were about four of them in a very nice car called a Packard. We had never seen these people before. They were dressed very nicely, not like the local small town hicks in Volusia County. We didn’t usually see white people on South Julia anyway, except those who were bringing laborers home. The white people stopped and got out of the car where we were playing. One of the women said, “Oh, what cute little pickaninnies!” I didn’t know what a pickaninny was, much less that I was one, but the nicely dressed ladies, who said they were from “up North,” called us that and then took pictures of us. After smiling and nodding at us, they drove away. My mother was at work and was never asked if it was all right for her little “pickaninnies” to be photographed. I felt, even as a child, that there was something not right about that situation. I felt that they had stolen something from us, but I was not sure what. I would realize much later that it was the sense of being used for someone else’s amusement that had upset me that day.
Between 1949 and 1953, we were a migrant family, traveling the migrant stream from Florida to New York’s Long Island where we worked primarily in dusty potato fields during the summer and early fall. There was no summer work in the orange groves of central Florida so the migrant season was an option that was taken by many people, primarily single men. In order to get laborers up North, often a crew leader would gather up several people in Florida, usually the same ones he had transported in previous seasons, and transport them to migrant jobs in northern states. He also provided food for them until they got their first pay check.
The crew boss would collect what was owed to him once the workers began working. At the end of the season, the workers had to pay the crew boss for their transportation home. All the crew bosses I saw were black men. When the season was over, many of the migrant workers left New York broke. Some of them asked my father for money to buy food on the way back to Florida. My father never worked under a crew boss. He had his own car, a rarity for a migrant worker, but this gave him an independence that the migrants who worked under crew bosses did not have.
The trip north took about three days. We traveled mostly on U.S. 1. There was no stopping in motels, even if we had the money to do so. Blacks were not allowed to use restroom facilities at gas stations although some had crude facilities for “colored” around the back of the station. For us, the toilet was wherever my father pulled over. Although my parents had never heard of him, Vincent H. Green, a black postal worker, tried to help black travelers by writing a guide book for traveling in the South while black. Green noted that finding lodging on the road if you were black, in particular, was a challenge, especially in the South.
The Negro Traveler’s Green Book was published from 1936 until 1964 to give black travelers a list of places where it was safe to stay and to stop. The book was used by thousands of African Americans as they crisscrossed the United States by car. Green optimistically wrote in one edition: “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.’”[i]
My father purchased an old Dodge four-door car in 1949 and crowded the family in for the first trip to Long Island, New York. My mother packed everything we needed into that little Dodge – bedding, pots and pans, medicines, dishes, towels, clothes, a little two-burner kerosene stove, prepared food, curtains, (Yes, curtains)—all for seven people. The light, optimistic tone of the trip changed when we crossed the Florida state line into Georgia. I got the sense that my parents were relatively comfortable with Florida, especially since my father moved all over the state seeking work. But Georgia? This was another matter. My father filled up the gas tank at the state line before crossing into Georgia and then drove through the state without stopping.
On that first trip north in 1949, we stopped in Virginia to find work before pushing on to New York because the potato crop was not ready. My father found work for the family harvesting cabbage. We lived in a two-story house near Chesapeake Bay with other migrant families and single men. It was our most idyllic time of the season. But one night my parents woke us up and said we had to leave right away. It was a Saturday night; my father had gotten into a dispute with the boss man about his pay that day, and we had to get out before sunrise. We all piled into the car and left. Lynchings and beatings were commonplace in instances of money disputes of this sort. The mantra of the day was that a black man did not question the word of a white man, especially as it related to money. My father had only a seventh grade education, but he could count. He was also disinclined to be insulted by whites. We hit the road.
The next day, we entered New York City through the Holland Tunnel, which I experienced with wide-eyed excitement. We arrived in Hicksville, Long Island, later that day. We lived in a converted barn that housed our family and about ten single men. There was no toilet; the woods served the purpose. The structure was cordoned off for the single men. Our family slept on a huge bed made from burlap bags that my mother sewed together and stuffed with hay. It took up almost all of the room.
That one room we had served as our bedroom and a kitchen, defined by a little two-burner kerosene stove sitting on a crate. There was no room for anything else so my mother cooked most of our meals outside on an open fire. We must have been pretty bad off financially when we got there because the main food we had during the first two weeks, while my father looked for work, were very large pots of mashed potatoes with large gobs of margarine and a half can of Carnation milk stirred in. My mother cooked a single link of smoked sausage or some such meat, most of which our father ate. We got a little sliver, but the grease poured over the mashed potatoes almost gave one the sense that one had actually eaten meat.
The first work my father found for us was picking tomatoes. It was a God-send. We took a box of Morton Salt to the field and passed it around all day as we picked the most luscious tomatoes to eat straight from the vines. Then the potatoes started to come in. There was no more stretching for food after that. Our mother was elaborate in the huge meals she served us. I heard my father say, years later, that when we arrived in Hicksville that first summer, he had less than five dollars. The white man back in Virginia had never paid him.
About two weeks after we arrived in New York, the potatoes were ready for picking. We had to be up before sunrise, usually around 5 AM, in order to dress and drive to potato fields that were sometimes as far away as twenty miles or more. We left home without breakfast in order to be in the fields just as the sun was coming up. My mother dropped us off, then drove back to the camp to fix breakfast. At the first fall of morning light onto the fields, just enough so that we could distinguish between potatoes and rocks, we were on our knees crawling up and down the long, long, rows of potatoes.
Pickers started at one end and crawled the distance with a straw basket in front of them in which the potatoes were gathered. The baskets were emptied into burlap bags that had been dropped every few feet along the row. A single row could take an adult half a day. To protect our knees from the sharp rocks, my mother folded burlap sacks into fourths and sewed them onto our jeans at the knees. This worked fairly well until it rained, resulting in pants that weighed what seemed like a ton.
After the first couple of hours of work, mom would arrive with hot breakfast. Nothing was spared in feeding us. The smell of bacon and eggs and hot-buttered grits and toast wafted over the field. The single men, who had no support domestically, looked on and sniffed at the wind. After breakfast, my mother took to her knees with the rest of the family for the remainder of the day. At the end of the day, she still had a lot to do. Florida historian Dr. Maxine D. Jones, herself an African American woman, provides this perfect description of my mother’s life as I was growing up. “Black women undertook ‘a man’s share in the field, and a woman’s part at home,’ working alongside their husbands as farmers and sharecroppers or as domestics, cooks, and personal servants for whites. After an exhausting day, whether working in the field or in someone else’s house, they returned to do the washing, sewing, cooking, cleaning, and nurturing in their own homes.”[ii] That was my mom’s life on the migrant trail and long after.
There was no protection, or even concern, about being poisoned by the pesticides the farmers sprayed on their plants. The tractors spraying chemicals came right by us time and again, releasing a mist that settled over the fields. The spray left a metallic aftertaste in our mouths. I just don’t think people thought of these things as potentially harmful; otherwise, I know that our parents would not have exposed us to it. Another hazard was breathing in the thick dust, day after day. In order for pickers to harvest potatoes, a tractor pulled a beater, a piece of equipment that had rotating belts that beat the tops off the plants, stirring up bellowing clouds of dust in the process. Another piece of equipment called a digger, which was really a series of plows, came along after the beater and opened up the earth, exposing the potatoes. Together, this equipment created a dust storm that rolled across the fields all day. At night we sometimes coughed up dirt.
We took two-hour lunch breaks in the heat of the day. It was just too hot to work. There was always a huge lunch waiting for us that sometimes had been purchased from a “delicatessen,” a term we had never heard in Florida. In the corner of his enormous barn where the potatoes were washed and bagged, the farmer kept a stack of thousands of burlap bags which were used to ship the potatoes. They were stacked almost to the ceiling. Adults and children alike splayed ourselves out across the brown softness and sank into peaceful oblivion, each body creating its own snug nest. And then, just as the first dream rolled into view, squeeeeeeak, squeeeeeeak squeeeeeak, that awful sound of the digger uncovering more rows of potatoes for the afternoon work. It was a sound capable of penetrating the deepest dream. (Sometimes, years later, when I found myself complaining about the burdens of being a college professor, the sound of that digger crept back into my memory, and the complaint, whatever it was, faded away.)
We usually worked until it was almost dark. Sometimes when the farmer urgently needed to get his crop in, we worked past dark. The farmer would line up his trucks and whatever cars were available and shine their headlights onto the field so that we could keep working.
On Saturday afternoons, we were washed and dressed smartly to be taken to the movie theater in Hicksville. It was our first exposure to air conditioning. Relishing the dark coolness and being away from the camp, we watched movies two or three times. Nearing the end of the summer, as it came close to the time to start school, my parents took us to Hicksville and bought us loads of new clothes and toys or new gadgets that the kids back home did not yet have. When we got back to DeLand, some of our schoolmates called us the “bean boys,” mistakenly thinking we were picking beans during the season. It was a hard label to wear, but we had some of the best school clothes in town.
The migrant camp provided me with my first exposure to prostitution, although I didn’t realize at first what it was. Every Saturday morning, which was pay day, our little camp would be visited by two black women whom the men called “the mule sisters.” They were large women who were overdressed for the potato fields. Of course, they were not there to pick potatoes. We were made to play well away from the converted little barn where we all lived while the mule sisters accepted clients on the men’s side of the quarters. There must have been some understanding with my parents because these women were not allowed to be there at night when we had to sleep, but they would be back Sunday mornings.
On Mondays, after work, when my mother would be cooking up steaks or some such, the men would be sitting around looking hungry. My father would ask them jokingly, “What’s the matter, boys? The mule sisters got your money?” Ultimately, my mother shared our leftovers with the men who thanked her profusely. But, the next Monday, they would be sitting around again with what my father called “the white mouth,” looking hungry—and the mule sisters would be gone. By late summer, my brothers and I knew why the mule sisters were around the camp.
My father was no angel. He liked to party, too. On pay days, my mother gave him an allowance for entertainment. (He always turned all our earnings over to her.) On Saturday nights, he went hopping from migrant camp to migrant camp, gambling and drinking. Sometimes he would be out until nearly dawn. But, at whichever gambling dive he was in, my mother and the five of us kids would be parked outside, snug in that little Dodge devouring hot fish sandwiches and ice-cold cans of Dr. Brown’s soda and listening to stories on the radio until we fell asleep.
When school started, we attended a school in New York until near the end of October, and then we returned to Florida. Every day that my parents sent us to school instead of keeping us in the fields to work, they lost money. Yet, there was never a single day in which we were told not to go to school. My older brother James and I were the only black children in the school we attended on Long Island. I was in the third grade.
The white children were from privileged families with strange sounding names, many of which ended with “ski.” I knew that many of them were from rich families because when the school bus dropped them off, I never actually saw their houses. I could only see long, tree-lined driveways leading into the woods. Of course, in reality, they were not all from rich families, but to an alienated migrant child, any observable sign of ease and privilege beyond our own dusty reality suggested wealth beyond what our minds could imagine for ourselves.
All my teachers were white. I was made aware very early on that my education in Florida was in no way comparable to that of the white students on Long Island. I struggled to make passing grades; yet, when we returned to our segregated school in Florida, my brother and I were ahead of the students at home. Upon reflection, years later, I realized that even a white child from Florida, where much more money was spent on white schools than on black schools, would have had difficulty keeping up with New York students. I was cowered by the classroom and resorted to trying to disappear for fear of being called upon by the teacher.
One day during music class, in an effort to make me feel included, my teacher, a young woman, asked, “Marvin, why don’t you lead us in a song?” “I can’t sing,” I replied. “Oh, sure you can. Don’t you know some gospel songs? How about “Swing Low Sweet Chariot?” I was embarrassed. For some reason, at that moment when nobody said anything, and everyone was looking at me, I felt that I was poor, different, and inept. After way- too-long a moment, she moved on to another student. Years later, I realized that she had meant well but she was pandering to a stereotype. (Thank goodness, she didn’t ask me to tap dance!)
The arrival of the first frost signaled it was time to return to Florida. We piled into the little Dodge and headed south. We always traveled at night, a practice I did not fully appreciate until I was a grown man and asked my father why. “Fewer Crackers to deal with,” he replied, not even looking up at me. But one night as we were returning home, suddenly there were a lot of Crackers to deal with. We were on a dark road, probably U.S. 1, when we noticed many, many cars parked bumper to bumper on either side of the road for a long stretch of the highway. There were no people in them. There were state troopers, silently directing traffic using huge flashlights. My father fell silent.
As we rounded a curve, we saw hundreds of white people out in a field around a big fire. They were burning a tree, our father told his wide-eyed boys. I was not inclined to dispute my father, but to me it did not look like a tree. It appeared to be a cross. For the first time in my life, I thought I detected fear in my father’s voice and demeanor. I don’t recall sensing that in him at any other time. Much later, I realized that we had come upon a KKK rally.
(to be continued)
The Move to Miami
In June 1951, we moved to Miami, staying for a short time in Overtown. The Howdy Doody Show was the first television program I saw. A neighbor lady gave my brothers and me and a dozen other little neighborhood waifs the privilege of watching the program from the stoop of her house. We stayed in Overtown for only a few weeks with my father’s sister, Elnora. Then we moved north of the city to our new home in Opa-Locka.
My parents were able to save enough money to make the down payment on a small home in an area for black veterans called Bunche Park. It was segregated housing, built by the government in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and was one of the last vestiges of Jim Crow. Bunche Park was a blue-collar community. My father first worked as a truck driver for a feed store, but eventually he obtained a union card as a longshoreman, and our arrival into blue-collar status was assured. We were not rich, of course, but it meant there was financial stability in our lives.
That first day in our new home was the first time that I took a bath in a bathtub. Unlike the shotgun house we had occupied on South Julia Avenue in DeLand, we now had a home built with concrete blocks that had hot and cold running water and a bathroom. And the yard had grass! We got our first little black and white television set in 1951. There was only one television station, WTVJ, and it signed off at 11:00 at night after which there was no television until the next morning at about 7:00.
In the 1950s, the little 12-inch black and white television set was opening new worlds for me and my family. We watched, with the rest of the world, the young, seemingly timorous and delicate Princess Elizabeth ascend the British throne in 1952. Milton Berle had a comedy show which we kids liked, but our father disparaged because he thought Berle was gay. But the whole family gathered around the television set to watch the “I Love Lucy Show.” The only black that I saw on television, other than prize fighters, was a buffoonish character called Rochester on the “Jack Benny Show.” The only really famous black person we saw in the media was Joe Luis Louis, the World Heavyweight Champion, who actually came to Bunche Park once and I got to see him.
My brother James and I were bused past several white schools to attend a black school in Liberty City, over twelve miles away. This was done even though the Brown v Board of Education decision, which overturned segregation in public schools, had been handed down by the United States Supreme Court. Dade County (later renamed Miami-Dade County), like almost all southern counties, delayed integration of schools for as long as it could be delayed. The ride to school from where we lived took nearly an hour each way. The white schools were within walking distance. Sometimes as we passed the schools, some of the white boys would throw rocks at our school bus.
The largest department store in downtown Miami was the Burdines Store. My mother shopped there but she was not allowed to try on clothes or to return clothes. Blacks were not allowed to use the elevator or eat at the lunch counter. All the white stores were similar in this regard. The Greyhound Bus station had separate waiting rooms and toilets for blacks and whites. Blacks could not eat at the counter in the bus station. The first black police officers for the city had been hired in 1947, just five years before we moved to Miami, but they could not arrest white people. My parents were registered as Republicans until the 1950s because they were not allowed to join the Democrat Party before 1947. Soon after we moved to Miami, my parents registered as Democrats and they always voted.
Glimpses of anti-black violence in Florida, and elsewhere, began to seep into my consciousness despite the best efforts of the grown folks around me to keep such things from children. But, once registered in my brain, the stories never left. At Christmastime in 1951, folks were talking about a bombing back in Brevard County in Mims where my father had often picked fruit. The bombing had killed a black man and his wife. The name of the victim stuck in my mind. It was “Professor Moore.” Of course, I did not know who he was or why he had been killed.
Around this time, I was also made aware, through Jet and Ebony magazines, of the case of Ruby McCollum. I was fascinated by the photograph of their child, Loretta, the first person I had seen who was racially mixed. This was also the first time I heard of a white person and a black person having sex and it was the first time that I had heard of a black person killing a white person.
In June, 1953, our family again went on the migrant trail, this time from Miami direct to Long Island. The little Dodge was gone. My father *had gotten a job as a delivery truck driver and had purchased a 1952 black Buick Road Master. Yes, we were going to the potato fields, but we rode to them in style. During June of that stay, the longest funeral procession I had ever seen passed by the field in which we were working. First, there was a phalanx of state police cars clearing the highway.
Then, with no other cars on the road for a mile or so, out of utter silence came a large number of official-looking cars, almost all of them black, driving at a very fast speed. We all stopped and looked. I heard my father say that these were the hearses that were carrying the bodies of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the husband and wife who had been executed for spying for the Soviet Union. Their trial had captured the attention of the world. Even I knew of it. Ethel Rosenberg was only the second woman to die by electrocution in the history of the country. I recall people saying over and over that night that they were spies and that they were Jews. I didn’t know what Jews were except that whenever people talked about the Rosenbergs, they made the point that they were both spies and Jews.
During this migrant season, I attended a junior high school in Huntington, Long Island. My brothers and I were the only black students at the school. By this time in our lives, our heads had been filled with racial stereotypes, a huge number of which emanated from our dad. My father had a tendency to simply make declarations, rather than to place matters up for discussion—much less, for debate. Among his oft- repeated declarations was “any black man can whip any three Crackers.” Now, perhaps I found this declaration to be questionable; however, as it was being expressed by my father, I found it to be somehow reassuring. But, like all stereotypes, it did not stand up to reality as I found out the hard way.
I wasn’t old enough to really like girls but I liked Claire, a shy, quiet girl whose desk was in front of mine. All during the school day, I stared at her beautiful, long brown hair. It would actually shine. Since she sat in front of me, I could smell it all day. Her eyes were the clearest blue I had ever seen. They somehow reminded me of lakes in Florida, seen from a distance on a clear day. She was pretty, with a small delicate face. I have not seen her in sixty years, never even spoke to her, and I still remember the clean, just-washed smell of her hair. Of course, I never breathed a word about my feelings to her. I just liked looking at her all day without her noticing. The problem was that our classmate, Fred, noticed; he liked looking at Claire, too. Over the course of a few days, Fred and I sparred with words and finally agreed to settle the matter on the playground after school.
As these things go, word spread quickly that Fred and I were going to have a fight over Claire. Kids gathered around, urging us on. Given what my father had told me, I was not in the least worried about Fred. I was concerned that two or three of his buddies would jump in, and together they would take me down. But once the fight began, I realized, shockingly, that my father had been wrong. Not only was I not kicking Fred’s ass, it could have been argued that Fred was actually kicking my ass. Saved by a teacher, the whole thing was over in two minutes. Of course, Fred is not here to present his case, but I would say the match ended in a draw. My father immediately noticed my dirty school clothes when I got off the school bus. I told him I slipped and fell on the grass—twice. True, I had been rolling in the grass, but I thought it best to leave Fred out of the telling.
When we returned to Miami that fall, my mother got a job working as a maid for a Jewish family on Miami Beach. I noticed that Jews seemed different from other white folks with whom I had come in contact. For one thing, although they called my mother by her first name, they called my father “Mr. Dunn.” Then, the Jews were always sending stuff home to us by my mother, especially food. On holidays, they sent presents. By this time, our father had bought an old lawn mower and a small truck. He sent my brothers and me out to cut yards on Miami Beach.
Our customers were all Jewish. They would leave cold water out for us to drink. When my brother James graduated from high school, one of the families attended the graduation. White folks in DeLand and on Long Island didn’t do things like that. Still, when Jewish women drove my mother home, she would always be riding in the back seat. The contact I had with Jews on Miami Beach contradicted the prejudice I was exposed to about Jews, following the execution of the Rosenbergs. Over time, I concluded that Jews wanted to be decent and even helpful to black people, but they did not want to be too public about it. I did not yet know that Jews were significantly involved in the burgeoning civil rights activities that were occurring in Miami.
In 1954, my father took the unprecedented step of going to the movies with my brothers and me. We went to the Bunche Park Movie Theatre to see Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones. Dandridge was a black film star and was probably seen as the most beautiful black woman in film at that time. A new appreciation entered my mind. Voluptuousness. Claire, back on Long Island, was cute but this was different. I fell in love with Dorothy Dandridge, and it was not platonic.
About this time, our sex education talk from our father was given to all five of us at once. We ranged in age from about nine to sixteen. I was fourteen. Our father called us into his bedroom and closed the door. “I am not going through this five times,” he said. “You little niggers better keep your pants zipped up. If you git one of these lil gals pregnant, you go marry her.” He concluded with this scary line, “I don’t care if she is the ugliest one they got out there at that school; if you get her pregnant, you go marry her.” That was the end of the lesson. The message resonated so well with me that, although I cannot speak for the others who were present, when I graduated from Morehouse College at age twenty, I was still a virgin.
In the summer of 1955, I was fifteen years old and working as a bus boy at a Jewish restaurant in North Miami called Corky’s. The job put me in close contact with Jews. I learned about matzah ball soup, chopped liver, and lox and bagels. One of the waitresses, a Jewish woman of about fifty years old named Thelma, was extraordinarily nice to me. She was adamant about me meeting her daughter and son- in-law and her grandson who was about four years old.
One very busy Saturday night, Thelma’s family came in. Thelma was beside herself with excitement. I was holding a tray of dirty dishes when she led me over to their table. But before anyone could say anything, the little four-year old looked at me with surprise on his face and said, in a very loud voice, “A nigger!”
The dining room got quiet. People were looking but were trying not to look as if they were looking. The child’s mother tried to cover the boy’s mouth as I stood there, not sure of what I should do. But the child moved her hand away and yelled, “But mommy, it’s a nig.” My eyes were fixed on the child’s parents for a quick second, then on Thelma. I left the dining room without saying anything. All eyes were on this scene. Thelma was right behind me, fully engulfed in tears as soon as she entered the kitchen out of the view of diners. The owner, Seymour Paley, a wonderful and kind man, was consoling and gave both Thelma and me the rest of the night off. The next day I was back at work, and everyone went on as if nothing had happened.
In 1955, I saw a black girl on national television! I was glued to the television set, as were millions of Americans, watching a twelve-year-old black girl who was competing on one of the country’s first nationally televised quiz programs called the 64,000 Dollar Question. Her name was Gloria Lockerman. She was a speller, and she was blowing America away by beating every white competitor she faced each week. Lockerman won $48,000 before following her grandmother’s advice to stop before going to the final level. What I found fascinating about Gloria Lockerman was that she was beating white kids! Badly! She earned the $48,000 by spelling antidisestablishmentarianism. Another area of competition on the show was history. I knew my spelling was nothing to brag about (still isn’t), but I was drawn to history for the first time.
I started memorizing American history books, convinced that I could make it to that show. I didn’t, of course, but then, that was not the point. Gloria Lockerman showed me, and millions of black youngsters like me, that it could be done! And it hooked me on history. The point here is that role models are critical to a child’s ambitions. Our role models in the 40s and 50s were teachers, preachers and prize fighters. When we looked into our futures, except for them, there was emptiness, a void created by Jim Crow himself.
Except for an occasional phenomenon, like Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson or Gloria Lockerman, we saw little that was worth emulating. Adding insult to injury, this was by design, and Florida itself was complicit in it by subjecting us to a segregated education system that intentionally depicted African Americans primarily as laborers. My education in Florida schools skipped over slavery with a few drawings of slaves picking cotton and appearing happy to be doing it. They had neat little cabins with little black children playing in the background.
Florida was complicit because it imposed upon us a racist educational system that denied us our heroes, heroines and fighters. It was an effective, intentional and insipid way of milking ambition from generations of black Floridians. For example, Charles P. Bailey, of Punta Gorda, owned a funeral home in DeLand. As a fighter pilot with the all-black 99th fighter squadron, he won the Distinguished Flying Cross after flying 133 combat missions over Europe. He shot down three enemy airplanes.
This squadron became known as the famed Tuskegee Airmen.[i] I knew Mr. Bailey as I grew up in DeLand. He should have been a celebrated hero for us to look up to, but as it was for many black men in the South, once they left the military, no matter how heroic their service, their accomplishments had to be forgotten or at least suppressed. I was a grown man before I learned that Charles P. Bailey was anything other than an undertaker. Even today, race enters into the equation as schools determine which black heroes survive in history. Black schools are often named for Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, but not for Malcolm X or Marcus Garvey.
In 1955, when I was in the tenth grade, I heard about the lynching of a fourteen-year-old black boy named Emmett Till in Mississippi. He was practically my age! The Till lynching was a defining moment in American history. America, with the exception of many whites in the South, was appalled. The boy had been kidnapped by three white men and murdered for having made a pass at a white woman at a small store in Money, Mississippi. The woman’s husband, and two other men, were believed to have committed the crime.
Till’s body was tossed into a river where it was discovered several days later in a severely decomposed state. His mother refused to have his casket closed at his funeral, and the photograph of his grotesquely disfigured face was printed in Jet magazine and elsewhere. The impact was sensational. I saw it, and I was fascinated by the image. Particularly after the Till lynching, I became even more aware of my own vulnerability as a black male in the South. There has never been a time after that, including today, when I was not aware of that vulnerability.
In the fall of 1955, I returned alone to DeLand to live with my grandmother Leona and to complete high school at Euclid Senior High School, the black school that my mother had attended. My other grandmother, Cora, had died by this time. My education in both Dade and Volusia County schools was seriously lacking in black history. I did, however, get to see Mary McLeod Bethune a short time before her death in 1955. A group of students, including me, was taken over to Bethune-Cookman College to hear her speak. Her main message that day was that we should be proud that we are black. She told us that, with study and self-discipline, we could accomplish anything we wished. She was one of three black personages whom we were allowed to study in school. The other two were George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. Carver was stressed more than the other two. The school systems in both counties made certain we knew all about Carver and his research with peanuts, while hiding other heroes from us.
When I returned to DeLand to finish high school, I met my first mentor, other than my father. Mr. Chisolm was always there. He was a black man, small in size and bald. He was a soft-spoken man, even in a big room with dozens of kids. He was a World War One veteran who must have been in his late 60s when he came into our lives. He ran the recreation center which was in an old barracks-like building on South Clara Avenue. Someone let him put in a juke box, a Wurlitzer, that played for free! The Platters singing The Great Pretender, The Dells with Oh, What A Night, and Maybellene by Chuck Berry played over, and over again.
I don’t know who paid Mr. Chisolm, or indeed, if he even was paid, but he was always at that rec center. I did not need Mr. Chisolm because I had enough paternal guidance and structure from my father, but some boys did need him, and he was always there. Having a reliable, helpful, encouraging father figure and a safe place for kids to go for fun, saved at least some of my playmates from desperate ends. In the mid-1950s, the city of DeLand built a swimming pool behind the recreation center.
The construction of that black swimming pool was not the result of sudden enlightenment on the part of the city fathers. The whites already had a swimming pool. Our pool was an appeasement, put in to keep us from going to the white pool. Being fourteen or fifteen, I had no idea where that pool came from. For us kids, the swimming pool just appeared. We did not know that it took black voices to get it, and, of course, we did not know whose voices were raised. At that time, in terms of civil rights, it was not so much that blacks were demanding to be integrated with whites. They were demanding the same public facilities that whites had.
Since I was considered a “smart” student, I was used by teachers to assist the school in various ways such as being sent across town to the white high school, Deland High School, to collect their used textbooks and old science equipment for our school. New books and lab equipment went first to white schools. Doing this task made segregation real for me. Given the place I lived and the age in which I was living, I had accommodated myself to Jim Crow, but this felt different. It hurt. I felt like a beggar going to the white school for their used junk. It also undercut some of my admiration for my teachers who sent me to do it. But what I did not realize at the time was that they had no choice..
Black public education stressed mechanical and agricultural skills for black boys, and home economics for black girls. Given these were the educational goals for black children, used textbooks and broken test tubes should suffice. John Glover graduated from Miami’s Booker T. Washington Senior High School in 1957, the same year I finished at Euclid. He went on to become a teacher in the all-black Miami Northwestern Senior High School. He noted the same practice in Dade County schools that I experienced in Volusia County. He said in a recent newspaper interview that when he attended Booker T. Washington, the textbooks were used and his championship football team played in hand-me-down leather cleats with spikes that poked through the soles.[ii]
The Morehouse College Years (1957-61)
I was sixteen years old in 1957 and in the eleventh grade at Euclid High School when I was offered a full scholarship to attend Atlanta’s all-black, all-male Morehouse College. It was, and remains, one of the most prestigious black colleges in the country. The Ford Foundation Early Admission to College Scholarship program set out to identify bright black students in the South and offer them early admission and scholarships based upon their performance on an exam that was administered locally.
I took the exam at Bethune Cookman College in Daytona, but only because my school principal insisted. I had never heard of Morehouse College, but he had. Weeks later, a letter from Morehouse College arrived. I had almost forgotten about the test. I was granted a full scholarship. I returned to Miami to work cutting yards that summer, before heading off to college.
On a warm Sunday evening in September, my parents took me to the Greyhound Bus station in downtown Miami to board the bus to Atlanta. I had never traveled alone. My mother gave me a bag lunch that included four pieces of fried chicken, two baloney sandwiches, a pack of crackers, and, of course, a sweet potato pie. They seated me on the very back seat of the bus and told me not to move until the bus arrived in Atlanta the next afternoon.
But, by the time the bus reached Fort Lauderdale about an hour after departure, I had moved up to the middle of the bus where I rode through the night. During the night and following morning, white people boarded the bus, some of them taking seats behind me. But no one said anything. As the bus approached Waycross, Georgia that Monday morning, several white high school students boarded the bus, chatting and laughing. One girl sat down next to me and continued talking to her friends. I had never been that close to a white person. Suddenly you could hear a pin drop.
After long moment of silence, a white man seated behind me said, “Nigger, get up. You know you don’t have no business up here.” Others nodded in agreement. I felt afraid. What had I gotten myself into? Why didn’t I listen to my parents? People were peering over their seats at me. A handful of black passengers sat quietly on the rear seats. A young white Marine in uniform finally spoke up. “Why don’t you all leave him alone?” From that moment on, the white passengers forgot about me. The Marine’s comment elicited a barrage of reactions from whites including “nigger lover,” “You must be from up North,” “We don’t allow this down here,” and so forth.
The driver pulled the bus off the road and walked back to where I was sitting. “You are creating a disturbance,” he said to me. “I am putting you off this bus.” With that, I was escorted from the bus, given my cardboard suitcase and left by the side of the highway to wait for the next bus to Atlanta. That bus came several hours later. When I boarded this time, I seated myself in the rear where my parents had told me to sit in the first place (No, I never related the incident to my parents.)
Morehouse College was founded in 1867, right after the Civil War on the highest hilltop overlooking the city of Atlanta. Morehouse, even now, caters to the black elite. Many of its students are descendants of successful black families, extending back to Reconstruction. Except for that Ford Foundation scholarship, I really had no business being there. Morehouse was overwhelmingly beautiful. Storied, red brick buildings, grassy expansive lawns, tree-lined sidewalks, all of these bespoke that I had moved to another phase in my life. It was not so much the buildings, and the lawns and the trees that made the deepest impression on me. It was my transformation from country boy to gentleman and this began the second day I was on campus.
Early that first week, the freshman class was addressed by the dean of students. He was a tall, light-skinned man with the hulking presence of a former athlete and a total absence of a sense of humor (at least, none that we freshmen could discern). The weekly orientation sessions with the dean were the beginning of our transformation from boys to Morehouse Men. The dean ticked off some of the standards that the college expected of us: Never spit on the sidewalk; Unless your life is at stake, never hit a woman: Never use power just because you can; Don’t laugh at racial jokes; Have a vision for your life; Be generous, anonymously; Never brag; Be aware that there is always someone who is at least as smart as you, if not smarter; Reach back and help others; Lead; Rise to the top of whatever you do; Read; Embrace the classics; Question everything (except me).
I began to grow beyond DeLand, but I was homesick. I wrote to my English teacher, Mae Vesta, a beautiful, swan-like young woman who had a neck like Audrey Hepburn. I told her that college was hard and that all the other students were smarter than I was. I complained that I didn’t have clothes that were as good as some of my rich classmates. My deepest hurt was that the girls at Spelman College, the all-girls school across the street from Morehouse, wouldn’t talk to me because I was too young, although I was seventeen by then. Some days later, her empathetic response arrived. It was soothing. She reaffirmed my worth. She told me the mood would pass and that I was prepared for what lay ahead of me. Always the teacher, in her postscript she penned, “Marvin, never write to anyone again in pencil.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., studied at Morehouse College having left in 1949, eight years before I arrived. During my time at the college, Dr. King and other black ministers were invited regularly to address the men of Morehouse at chapel services, which we were required to attend several times a week. We were inundated with black preachers. King, who at that time had not begun his bus boycott in Alabama, was just one among them. To most of us, he was just another young, jackleg preacher called in to help build our character. His father (Daddy King), the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr., was the pastor of one of the city’s largest black churches, and his presence carried a lot more weight than his son’s. When Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at Morehouse College chapel services, many of the men of Morehouse, including me, nodded off. I have not the faintest recollection of anything he said.
Within a month of arriving at Morehouse College, I heard Malcolm X speak, and I do remember what he said. The custodian of our dormitory, a Black Muslim, was excited about a young minister from New York who was traveling the country saying that black people should rise up and resist not only white dominance, but also integration. He said this man was warning white America that Black Muslims will resist white violence “by any means necessary.” This was a new message for me! A small group of us went over to the mosque on Auburn Avenue where Malcolm X was to speak. The mosque was packed. After passing through security, we got seats close to the front of the room. Then, Malcolm, be-speckled, thin and focused, mounted the stage, alone.
He waited for quiet, and then asked the transfixed crowd, “Why do you want to integrate with the beast?” He said that there was nothing wrong with separate but equal as long as blacks got their fair share. But, he said, the white man is never going to give us our share. We have to take it by any means necessary. Malcolm said racial integration was overrated, that it dilutes the black masses of their energy and power just as cream dilutes the heat and power of black coffee. He said that we are stronger being separate from whites, and even those involved in the civil rights movement should be expelled. Blacks must share our wealth among ourselves, he intoned. He compared whites to the devil, saying that no whites can be trusted. Much to the amusement of the audience, he said (seriously, I think) that whites are the descendants of monkeys and that a close anatomical examination of their lower spine shows the remnants of a prehensile tail and that no such feature is present among blacks.
Malcolm trashed interracial marriages, saying that white women were ugly and aged too fast. He urged black men to take black women for our wives advising, “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice,” which elicited an outburst of laughter, especially from the women in the packed hall. Near the end of his speech, he bellowed, “We teach our people to be kind. Respect everyone. Obey the law. But if someone puts his hands on you, send them to the cemetery”.
Then he sat down suddenly. The room erupted. It was pure showmanship. It brought the audience of several hundred people to their feet. It was at that point that I thought his message was scary. But almost everyone around me was applauding loudly. Some of them were even screaming out and yelling in agreement. At that point, I realized that I needed to wake up the next time Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at Morehouse College.
There was no call for black power on our campus. It was not necessary. At Morehouse College, black power was an assumed state of mind and did not require exhortation. However, some Morehouse students became involved in civil rights efforts off campus. My classmate, Julian Bond was one of the most active students. He would later become the first black to be elected to the Georgia House of Representatives since Reconstruction, and eventually would become the head of the national NAACP. He also served in congress. I participated in only one civil rights demonstration while I was at Morehouse College. It was a march from the Morehouse and Spelman College campuses to the Georgia state capitol building downtown. I don’t recall the specific purpose of this demonstration as marches were common throughout the black college community in Atlanta at that time.
I admired what Julian Bond and other more active students were doing so I went, with some reluctance. I hesitated to join civil rights marches because I appreciated the fact that I was Leona Bryant Williams’s grandson. If someone spat on me, I was going to strike back. Civil rights demonstrators were sworn not to strike back. I reasoned that I could take the licks. I could take kicks. I could take being called a “nigger” but, if some tobacco-spitting, overalls-wearing, stringy-haired white son-of- a bitch spat on me, it was going to be war. Fortunately, that day no tobacco-spitting, overalls-wearing, stringy-haired white son-of- a bitch spat on me, but that was the extent of my marching for civil rights. Julian Bond, who died in 2015, kept on marching for decades.
It was a heady time at Morehouse. In addition to Julian, jovial Maynard Jackson, who became the Mayor of Atlanta, was there at that time. The Hartfield\Jackson International Airport in Atlanta is named for him. David Satcher, who became a United States Surgeon General, was also a classmate. Donald Hopkins, from Miami, who may have weighed a hundred pounds when he was admitted early to college from the tenth grade, went on to become a leading expert on tropical diseases at the Center for Disease Control. Martin Luther King’s younger brother, A.D. King, was around, too. He would later drown accidentally after leaving college.
Another classmate was Aretha Franklin’s brother, Cecil, who had arrived on campus from Detroit the same day that I arrived, after my frightening bus trip from Miami. As other freshmen watched with mouths agape, he alighted from a canary-yellow Eldorado Cadillac convertible driven by his sister, Aretha, who was still singing in her father’s big church at the time. Another sister followed in another canary- yellow Eldorado. One of the cars was to be left at Morehouse for Cecil, who was sporting a slicked-back hairstyle and a mohair suit.
They had driven down from Detroit where their father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, was a nationally known preacher. He sold records of his sermons that were broadcast nationwide. On some Sunday evenings back in DeLand, my grandmother and her sister, listened to his sermons on the radio. Cecil and his sisters went into the band room, in a separate building, and we could hear them singing around the piano. After his sisters left, Cecil took his Cadillac across the street to Spelman College. His arrival became well-known all over both campuses.
The next day, Dr. Benjamin E. Mayes, the legendary president of Morehouse College, who became the first black superintendent of the Atlanta public school system, called Cecil to his office. He told Cecil to send the car back to Detroit, get rid of the processed hairdo and ditch the mohair suits. Aretha came back the following weekend, and the car was gone the next day.
In 1959, my father became a card-carrying member of the Longshoreman’s union and was earning enough money to buy himself a new car. He bought a 1959 Cadillac, the style that had very high fins on the back. It was blue and white with a white interior. It was a beautiful car, but my parents did not want the white people my mother worked for to see it. They both feared that if the white folks knew that the help had a better car than the boss man or boss lady, she might lose her job. My mother never drove the Cadillac to work, even to the homes of Jews she worked for. She drove my brother’s old jalopy. When her boss lady was to drive her home, we had to park the Cadillac across the street. “You can’t let white folks know what you have,” my father would say. “They don’t like to be ‘round niggers who have more than dem.”
Farewell to a Classmate (written in 2015)
My classmate at Morehouse College, Julian Bond died this past Saturday. We met at Morehouse when we were both seventeen years old. We were from totally different backgrounds. My dad was a longshoreman, his was a college president. We were not friends but classmates in a small class of fewer than 150 students so of course, we all knew each other. Julian was lanky, suave, smooth and handsome and he was often not in class. I was neither, lanky, suave, smooth or handsome and I was always in class.
Julian was brilliant but his interests was in civil rights. He carried about a C average despite being one of the brightest students at Morehouse at the time. His activism would lead him to drop out of college although he returned to Morehouse in 1971 to complete his degree. His accomplishments have been well touted since his death; student activist, first black to serve in the Georgia House and Senate since Reconstruction, first black congressman from Georgia since the same period. He was a founder of SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) the most activist of the civil rights organizations. Julian was also a national NAACP leader and one of the founders of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He was an advocate for the poor and an enemy of racism all of his adult life. The president was right to call him “a hero.”
Julian Bond convinced me to participate in just one civil rights demonstration in Atlanta in 1960. It was a march to city hall. I held back from participating in marches because I doubted my ability to remain non-violent. I could stand being called a nigger. I could stand being pushed around a little for the cause but if some snuff-dipping, tobacco-chewing, straggly-haired, no- teeth, white son of a bitch spat on me, there was going to be war. So I tended to stay on campus. But there was Julian rushing from dorm to dorm asking for marchers and I agreed to go that day.
Fortunately no snuff dipping, tobacco-chewing, straggly-haired, no teeth, white son of a bitch spat on me that day and that ended my active participation in civil rights marchers. Julian kept marching for another sixty years. He is probably in heaven now trying to organize the angels for God only knows what purpose.
So long classmate. Job well done!
My Story – The Navy Years (1961-1967)
I completed Morehouse College in 1961, the year the city of Atlanta allowed the first nine black students to attend four white high schools in the city. I made the decision to join the Navy. My father had been a cook, but I wanted to be an officer of the line on fighting ships. I even dreamed of becoming a black admiral! That summer, I was to be sent by bus from Miami to Jacksonville to take the required exams to enter officer candidate school. Since I was the only college graduate in the group of about a dozen young white men who were taking this bus for induction before being sent on to Great Lakes, Illinois for basic training, I was put in charge of the group. I was the only black among them.
Upon arriving in Jacksonville at the Navy induction center downtown, the white members of the group were called up and given vouchers that allowed them to occupy rooms at the Roosevelt Hotel, across the street from the induction center. After the white recruits left, the white petty officer in charge called me up and gave me a voucher to stay the night at a rooming house in the black section of town. I was told that it was within walking distance. I felt singled out and discriminated against. I walked across the railroad tracks and into the black community. The rooming house that I was sent to was a two-story house, old and well beyond its prime. It had a wrap-around front porch and people loitering about the place. It was a dump.
As it turned out, it was a rooming house that was being used by transient prostitutes. It was after the dinner hour when I arrived, so the woman in charge directed me to the kitchen where roaches roamed everywhere and cold food sat in open pots on the stove. I did not eat. My room was a small closet-like space with a bed which had small dark bugs crawling over the mattress. The yellowed pillow case was encrusted with them in the seams.
I sat up all night as prostitutes brought man after man up to their rooms. The last one left a little before sunrise. That was when the sounds diminished and I could get a few minutes of sleep, sitting up in a chair. The following morning the roaches were gone in the kitchen, but a feral cat was licking the dirty dishes from the night before. The woman in charge fixed me a grilled cheese sandwich. I wondered how much she was getting from the Navy for my stay. I said I wasn’t hungry, and I left to walk back to the induction station. It was the only time in my life that I stayed in a whore house and the United States Navy paid for it.
When I arrived at the induction center, they escorted me into a room to take the academic achievement exams to enter officer candidate school. I failed. The white petty officer was almost gleeful when he told me the results. “Now you won’t be going to Newport for officer training. You failed the entrance exam Mister College Graduate. Now your ass will be going up to the Great Lakes with the rest of these dummies you brought in here.”
I protested that the accommodations that were provided to me were terrible. I gave the details. I will never forget his response. “No one has ever complained before,” he said. “That’s where Count Basie stays when he plays in Jacksonville.” I asked to see an officer; a lieutenant-commander was sent over to ask me what the problem was. He said my only option was to write a letter of complaint, but now I would have to board the plane for Chicago and enter the Navy as a raw recruit, college degree or not. I was devastated.
A few weeks after I completed recruit training and had been sent to a weapons training school, also in Great Lakes, a car arrived to take me to the office of the base commander. I was then ushered into the base commander’s office. He had the letter I had written in Jacksonville. He said the Navy had reviewed my complaint about the induction process in Jacksonville. I was being given a second chance to take the exams to enter officer training at the officer training school in Newport, Rhode Island. I was tested the following day, and I passed. Less than a week later, I was put aboard a flight to Newport. I was twenty-two years old.
The Navy had become very sensitive to the fact that, compared to the other services, there were very few black officers in the Navy, especially on ships. While at officer candidate school, I heard a story regarding this issue. It was said that during his inaugural parade, as the naval academy’s midshipmen marched by the reviewing stand, President Kennedy was overheard asking why there were no Negroes among their ranks. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral George W. Anderson, was seated behind Kennedy and did not forget the offhanded remark. The Navy began to reach out to potential black officers. This was probably why I was given a second chance to enter officer training.
I was the only black officer candidate in my class of about ninety officer candidates. I saw only one other black officer candidate while I was there for the sixteen weeks of training. I felt isolated in Newport. When we finally got the privilege of going into town (where we had to wear our uniforms) none of my white fellow officer candidates invited me along. I found my way to the black community where, in that uniform, I was an admired, but distant, oddity. I usually ate alone, listened to black music on the juke box and then made my way back to the base.
I completed officer training in the spring of 1962. I pinned on my two gold bars and was sent as a brand-new ensign to serve aboard the fast attack aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk. The ship was assigned to the Seventh Fleet which was operating out of San Diego.
If ships were women, the Kitty Hawk would have been Marilyn Monroe. As long as three football fields, she was perfectly proportioned with sleek lines that made her appear to be moving, even when she was tied alongside a pier. The Kitty Hawk was a super carrier of the Forrestal class. She had four propellers, each the size of a house, and was capable of moving over forty miles per hour under full power. The ship seemed to sit lower in the water than other carriers, giving her a certain elegant, but menacing, look. She was the first aircraft carrier to be fitted with anti-aircraft missiles rather than guns. Deep below decks, she also carried nuclear weapons.
The ship had two missile launchers, one on each side of the back of the ship. Each launcher held two missiles, but the things never worked right. You would give the order to fire the ones on the left and the ones on the right would go off. If you gave the order to fire the ones on the right, the ones on the left would go off, or they would both go off, or neither would go off. They were expensive and flashy but they were useless in the defense of the ship.
Shortly after I boarded the ship in San Diego, we left for deployment in the Western Pacific with over 5,000 men and 1,300 officers. I was the only black officer on the ship. I was assigned to the bridge which meant that my duties primarily involved being one of four or five officers who assisted the captain for a four-hour watch each day.
About a week after we were underway, graffiti was discovered in one of the boiler rooms. Someone had scribbled, in large black letters, “U.S. Nigger Ship.” There was an investigation by the captain, but the person who did it was never found. I think there was an effort by senior officers to keep the incident hush-hush. I did not know about it until weeks later and even then I found out from an enlisted man who had been questioned. He said it was written the day after I reported aboard.
Being the first, or the only black, is overrated. Being the first, is by definition, lonely. I was born into the generation of blacks that came of age after the Second World War as racial barriers began to fall. However, after getting “there,” we found ourselves isolated and depressed. Within weeks of arriving aboard ship, I found myself, again socially isolated from fellow officers who really did not know how to relate comfortably with a black peer. I spent a lot of time alone on the fantail watching the ship’s wake.
Of course, there were hundreds of black sailors serving on the carrier, but Navy protocol prevented fraternization between officers and enlisted men. So, I went on shore leave in San Diego alone, finding my way to the black section of the city as I had done in Newport, just to be around other black people.
I rarely had any problem being afforded respect for my uniform, but one night when I was returning on foot to the Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, I was dressed in civilian clothes. Officers had a separate gate through which they entered the base. As I stepped through the officer’s gate,
I heard a voice yell, “Where the f- – – do you think you’re going?” It was a white Marine sergeant who had guard duty. I turned around and he yelled, “Get your ass over here. You ain’t got no business nowhere near that gate. Let me see your ID card, sailor!” I handed it to him. He snapped to attention with a click of heels that could be heard for a city block. “Sorry, Sir,” he said and saluted. “You have a good night, son,” I said, returning his salute. He was probably ten years older than I was.
I took some of Grandma Leona’s lessons from slavery into the Navy with me. For example, I made a point of not insulting the ship’s stewards. These are the men who serve the officers their meals, make their beds, do their laundry, and so forth. Almost all of the ship’s stewards in the Navy at that time were from the Philippines. There were a few black stewards, but I never saw a white one.
Some junior officers were inclined to be verbally abusive to stewards, or to be dismissive of them. A few were known to dress down stewards in the presence of other people – a very bad move. Basically, stewards were just ignored as if they were invisible. I remembered the Morehouse talks from the dean: Don’t abuse power just because you can. I made a very big point of merely saying thank you to stewards when they served me. This was really all it took, and I got little perks from them that showed they appreciated the respect.
Riding an aircraft carrier at 40 miles an hour on the open sea was thrilling. Kitty Hawk carried about one hundred powerful F-4 Phantom jet fighters. These hefty planes were essentially two enormous McDonald-Douglas jet engines mounted with a cockpit. Phantoms have a menacing, hawkish look about them. To get heavy jets airborne, an aircraft carrier has to have wind across the flight deck at about 38 miles per hour.
Normally, nature helps out by providing at least some wind, and the ship just has to turn into it and take on sufficient speed to make up the difference. One morning we were scheduled to launch a number of these planes for a training mission, but the sea was like glass, not a ripple of wind. It appeared as if you could walk on the surface. I approached the Captain and said, “Sir, there is no wind.” Without really noticing me, the man said, “Then make some.”
This is an order any junior officer wants to hear: a license to speed! I ordered three blasts on the ship’s horn to warn our accompanying ships that we were taking off, then ordered left full rudder and flank speed. The sudden jolt of power to the four house-sized propellers made the stern dig into the sea.
For a long moment, nothing happened. Then the ship moved forward, slowly at first but gaining speed quickly and leaning heavily into the turn. In less than five minutes, I had a 40-mile-per-hour wind sweeping the flight deck. I could see men below holding onto equipment to keep from losing their footing. Some caps were lost to the artificial wind.
At the moment Kitty Hawk levelled herself out of the turn, the first Phantom was catapulted into a bright blue sky.
That was one of the moments that I thought about Long Island, and wondered how it was that I got to be on that bridge. I began to think about becoming an admiral. Jim Crow had not robbed me of ambition after all.
One day it was announced that President John F. Kennedy was going to visit the ship at sea and spend almost twenty-four hours aboard. He was to arrive on June 6, 1963 and depart the following day. It was traditional for the president to spend a twenty-four-hour period with each of the military services. Kennedy chose to visit Kitty Hawk and was coming to see a weapons demonstration, including the firing of those new missile launchers Kitty Hawk sported—the ones that never worked properly.
He was to be flown out by helicopter to board the carrier at sea as we steamed off the coast of California with a huge collection of ships. The taskforce contained two other carriers, two nuclear-powered submarines and a plethora of surface ships including heavy and light cruisers and destroyers, all assembled for the presidential show.
The Seventh Fleet went into what I thought was a virtual panic getting ready for the president’s visit. A replica of Kennedy’s rocking chair was mounted on the bridge in place of the captain’s chair. Numerous messages went back and forth between Seventh Fleet and the ship regarding every possible detail. The admiral’s suite was painted, new furniture was brought in, and special meals were planned for the presidential party. The admiral’s suite was just a few feet from the stateroom that I shared with another junior officer. The fleet spent weeks rehearsing every step of a display of power for Kennedy. I had been assigned a watch on the bridge when the president was scheduled to be there. I was thrilled.
On the afternoon of June 6, Kennedy was far behind schedule. He had taken extra time to visit with the enlisted men at the Marine base ashore. My watch period had expired, and the president was over an hour late. As the other three officers on my watch team approached the captain, saluted, and requested permission to leave the bridge, the captain routinely saluted back and said, “Permission granted.” But when I came up, saluted and asked, “Permission to leave the bridge, Captain,” his response shocked me, and other people who saw it. “Permission denied,” he responded tersely, “Resume your bridge duties, Lieutenant.” I was deeply angered. I had no bridge duties. My relief officer had assumed what had been my responsibilities. I realized that I was to be on the bridge as window dressing for Kennedy, and I resented it deeply.
Finally, the presidential party arrived. Thousands of sailors and officers in full-dress uniforms ringed the flight deck. It is the custom in the Navy to pipe senior officials onboard a ship by announcing the name of the officer’s command, such as “First Fleet arriving.” I was impressed that day, despite my fog of anger, to hear, as Kennedy stepped off his helicopter, “United States arriving.”
At that moment, two F-4s screamed by at supersonic speed, flying just a few feet above the sea and creating sonic booms as they streaked by. The two nuclear submarines erupted upon the surface on either side of the carrier, and the entire formation of almost twenty ships went into a full turn to starboard, creating an incredible wake. The missiles on the stern of the carrier were launched. For the first time, they worked perfectly, spitting fire and streaking into a cloudless sky. It was a great show!
Kennedy missed it all. I watched him from the bridge. He was bent over under the helicopter, talking to the only two men aboard who were allowed to wear work clothes. They were the men who were assigned to place chocks under the wheels of the helicopter to secure it on deck. By the time Kennedy finished chatting with them, the show was over.
When the president arrived on the crowded bridge, there were no fewer than ten four-star generals and admirals who were jostling to meet him. Among the senior officers on the bridge were General Maxwell Taylor, who was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Admiral George W. Anderson, who was the Chief of Naval Operations, the highest ranking officer in the Navy.
The Commandant of the Marine Corps, David M. Shoup, was there too. Governor Edmund Brown of California squirmed to maintain a position close to the president. Kennedy appeared distracted and in pain, nodding robotically as general after general and admiral after admiral was ushered up to meet him.
I would learn later that relations between Kennedy and the military were strained after the failure at the Bay of Pigs when the new president refused to commit air strikes in support of Cuban exiles who were trying to take back the island from Fidel Castro. Kennedy was the Commander-in-Chief, but he was not popular with the generals and admirals.
The president had a long history of back pain owing to an injury he sustained while in the Navy. Kennedy’s personal physician, Dr. Evelyn Lincoln, had accompanied him on the trip and was constantly beside the president as he sat in the captain’s chair, nodding as people were brought to him. He appeared to be uncomfortable, grimacing frequently. I was standing about ten feet from the president, and our eyes met for a few seconds. It was a transformational moment for me. He never spoke to me. It was just a momentary connection. I had never seen such deep, blue and troubled eyes. I thought for a second that he and I were the only two people on the bridge that day who did not wish to be there.
Late that night in an effort to get away from absolutely everyone, I made my way up to the signal bridge, or crow’s nest, the very highest point on the carrier. It was dark and the only person there was a white man wearing a sports shirt, unlike the other civilians who were all dressed in coats and ties. I took him to be a news reporter since dozens of them were swarming all over the ship.
He spoke first. “How’s it going, Lieutenant?” “Terrible,” I replied and found myself spilling out my sad “I’ve been used” story to this total stranger in the dark, in the crow’s nest of all places. It was not that I did not want to see the president, I explained. It was that my fellow officers knew that the bridge protocol was never broken unless there was an emergency of some sort and that this had happened because I am black, and it distinguished me from my peers.
The man listened as if there was no one else on the ship but us. Then he said something about how glassy the sea appeared, even in the dark. I agreed and returned to my sullenness. In the end, he asked my name which I freely provided but asked that none of this discussion appear in his newspaper. “Oh, I am not a reporter,” he said.
That night, by mere happenstance of the location of my stateroom, I slept within 50 feet of the President of the United States. When I got up to use the bathroom, there were two unsmiling secret service agents standing a few feet away. I decided to hold it.
The next day, from the bridge, I saw the man whom I had been talking to in the crow’s nest, boarding the helicopter with Kennedy to depart the ship. He was one of only three or four people who actually rode with the president. I wondered who he was. I picked up the boarding chart for Kennedy’s helicopter departure and learned that the man was Paul Burgess Fay, Jr., a confidant of the president and the Under Secretary of the Navy. A few weeks later, he became Kennedy’s Acting Secretary of Defense. Four months after he left Kitty Hawk, Kennedy was shot dead by an assassin in Dallas, Texas.
About two years into my service, the Navy posted me on land as Fourteenth Battalion Commander at the Great Lakes Recruit Training Command, where I had been as a recruit. I had about 12 companies in my battalion. I found myself walking the same barracks that I had walked as a raw recruit less than three years earlier. One very cold night, I was doing a routine bedtime walk through the barracks of each company, with their company commanders walking behind me for the inspections. The men were all standing at attention beside their bunks.
As the company commander and I were about to exit at the far end of the barracks of one company, I heard the word “nigger” escape someone’s mouth. I told the company commander, “I am going to inspect the other companies, but when I finish in about fifteen minutes, I want whoever said that downstairs in my office. I want him fully dressed, and I want him to have all his gear packed.” I told the company commander to set up a bunk for that man in the front yard until the shore patrol can pick him up because he was not sleeping in my battalion that night.
It was a night like only Great Lakes can deliver. There was a hard, driving wind coming off Lake Michigan. Snow was deep and piling up in large banks in the battalion’s front yard. When I got back to my office, there was a pole-bean-skinny, little, white recruit, fully dressed and standing at attention with his company commander, a first class petty officer.
I asked the recruit, “Why did you say that?” I was taken aback by his answer. “That’s what we call ‘em down in Louisiana, Sir.” I reminded him that he was no longer in Louisiana. He had on his heavy weather gear, including his pea coat. I told him to go outside, climb in the bunk and cover himself with the blankets provided. I told him to stay there until the shore patrol officers came for him in the morning. He did as he was told.
As I left the four-storied battalion building to drive home a few minutes later, I looked back over my shoulder to see hundreds of little heads bobbing at the darkened barracks windows, watching “Louisiana” in his bunk in the yard. The shore patrol officers came about ten minutes later, as I knew they would, but my point was made; it’s probably not a good idea to call the battalion commander a nigger, even if that is what they “call em” down in Louisiana. The sailor was court-martialed but, with my recommendation, he remained in the service.
While stationed at Great Lakes, I earned a master’s degree in education at Chicago’s Roosevelt University by attending night classes offered on the base. I was then sent to sea on a second aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Saratoga which was stationed at Mayport, near Jacksonville. I was the only black officer on that ship, too.
Saratoga was also of the Forrestal Class attack carriers, and again I was assigned to the bridge. I learned an important lesson about leadership on Saratoga. One morning on the North Atlantic we were in the throes of a terrible storm, and I had the bridge watch from eight in the morning until noon. From below I could tell, as could everyone else, that the carrier was heaving and lunging in rough seas. It had been a long night. Many of the men were sick, a rare thing on an aircraft carrier. We had been in rough waters before, but nothing prepared me for what I saw once I entered the bridge.
The front third of the ship was suspended momentarily many feet above the water. I had never seen this before. The ship shuddered the length of the keel and then plunged down onto the frothing ocean. We were actually in free fall for three or four seconds before crashing down with horrific force. A third of the flight deck was plowed into the sea before rising again to repeat the cycle. Each time that we lingered in the air, the ship emitted a long, moaning sound like that of a suffering animal, before crashing back down onto the face of the sea.
But the pitching up and down was not our problem. It was uncomfortable, but not dangerous necessarily. What was dangerous was that the carrier was heeling badly, that is, rolling from one side to the other at the will of the tempest. That was not good. Aircraft carriers are top heavy with their flight decks, and they can flip over if they tilt too far on one side or the other. We were heeling fourteen to fifteen degrees when I arrived on the bridge. This was dangerous. Even some of the senior officers, who had come up to see what was going on, were awed and scared. So was I.
There was total silence. Just one voice could be heard—that of the captain. He sat in his elevated chair, still in his night robe from the evening before, sipping a cup of coffee, and peering at the ocean. Looking neither right nor left, he was issuing orders in a very quiet voice. “Come port ten degrees.” or “Increase speed five knots,” and so on. All of us around him were in near panic, but the “Old Man” showed none of it.
The lesson that I leaned that day on Saratoga about leadership was that when everyone else is coming apart, a true leader is the quiet center of the storm. Put another way, no matter how bad it gets, never let them see you sweat. An inspection of the ship the next day would reveal that the bow on both sides of the carrier had been peeled back like a sardine can.
Back in port one Saturday in 1966, some white officers took the unusual step of asking me to go into Jacksonville with them for a night on the town. It didn’t hit me as a great idea. Attending a ball game or some public event would have been fine, but these guys did not have football on their minds. Reluctantly, I agreed to go.
We were in civilian clothes. One of the fellows had a car; we all went into town with him, perhaps five of us in all. Between Mayport and Jacksonville was a strip joint with lots of pickup trucks parked in front. Loud country music could be heard emanating from the joint. “Let’s stop in here,” someone said. “Let’s not,” I said. I was overruled and we went inside. The place was packed. There was a white woman stripping on the stage and loud music was playing to her gyrations. Then, everything stopped.
The bartender came over and said to the guys with me, “Get him out of here.” All eyes were fixed on us. “Why do we have to leave?” one of my buddies asked. “We are officers in the United States Navy. How come we have to leave?” “You don’t,” the bartender said, “He does!” nodding in my direction.
Even if the guys with me did not know why, I did. “Let’s go, fellows,” I urged. But my shipmates were irate. Some of the white men in the joint were now gathering about us. I walked out. That solved the problem. They took me back to the Saratoga. I had had enough going out on the town in Jacksonville with white guys.
During the latter portion of my service on Saratoga, I met the first white person to whom skin color was irrelevant. He was the first white person who treated me as an equal, not as an oddity. Lieutenant Lawrence (Larry) Malik was from Colorado and had an upper middle class background. Malik and I shared a stateroom as we were of equal rank. He was a Marine officer and was in charge of the Marine detachment onboard the carrier. He became a lawyer after the service. We have been friends for over fifty years.
As the end of my tour of duty aboard Saratoga loomed, I started to think about graduate school. I ultimately made the decision to get out of the Navy and attend graduate school to become a psychologist. I wanted to understand racism. I wanted to understand why people do the things they do. I wanted to attend graduate school in psychology in my home state. From sea, I applied for admission to the University of Florida graduate school in psychology. It was important to me to attend graduate school in my home state. This was more than ten years after the Brown Decision that ended segregation in public education. It never occurred to me that there would be a problem. But, there was a problem.
A few weeks after I sent in my application, a letter from the University of Florida reached me. The letter advised me that the University of Florida did not accept Negro students in its graduate programs, but if I was admitted to any psychology program in a graduate school outside of Florida, the State of Florida would pay for my tuition.
The university rejection hurt. I was devastated. Self-pity set in quickly. I was in the uniform of the United States Navy and was defending my country on the other side of the planet, and I could not even enter my own state university. I wanted to go to graduate school somewhere. I had heard when I was doing graduate work at Roosevelt University that the University of Tennessee was accepting, even welcoming, black graduate students. I applied. I was accepted within a few weeks with substantial financial support. I never asked the state of Florida to pay my tuition.
Academic Career and Activism
I felt welcomed at the University of Tennessee. True, I was the only black doctoral student there in psychology, but it didn’t seem to matter to anyone. My academic interests gravitated to issues such as racism and social justice. I specialized in an emerging area of psychology called community psychology, but I was also trained in school psychology. It was during this time that I saw white poverty firsthand. I was sent out to do psychological evaluations of Head Start children in the Appalachian Mountains of east Tennessee. I was startled by what I saw. I had heard my father say many times, “A Cracker ain’t got no business being po’. Dey ain’t black.”
But to me, white poverty looked to be about the same as black poverty I had seen in Miami’s Overtown community: family abandonment, violence, especially on weekends, too much drinking, wife beating, garbage everywhere, and little dirty children who, at age six, did not know the alphabet. Whenever I traveled in the Appalachians to test children or to conduct training on parent involvement in schools, I realized that many of the children had never seen a black person in real life. Some of them wanted to touch my hair. A few even asked if my black skin color would rub off on them.
I was awarded a Ph.D. in psychology in 1972 by the University of Tennessee. I had been all over the world. I was grateful for the opportunity that Tennessee had given me, but Tennessee was not home. It was time for me to return to Florida. I moved back to Miami that summer. My first job in Miami was that of school psychologist. I was hired by the Dade County school board to work in inner-city schools. I did not like the work at all. I was expected to have a bag of tricks that would fix dysfunctional children. I had learned at Tennessee that there was no such thing.
I started having guilt feelings about administering intelligence tests to black children. It was common knowledge by that time that intelligence test scores were highly influenced by the environment from which children come. Consequently, black children tended to score lower on these tests which were inherently unfair to minority children. My dilemma over intelligence testing and the futility of inner-city public education led me into academia. When Florida International University, the new state university, opened in Miami in 1972, I applied for and was hired as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology. The University gave me the latitude and protection I needed to pursue my community-based interests.
Early in my tenure at FIU I was planting gardens in Overtown. I had, in a sense, returned to Long Island. What little I knew about farming and gardening was taught to me by my parents and grandparents. I put that knowledge to work in planting botanical and vegetable gardens in the poorest area of Miami-Dade County.
I started a non-profit organization called Roots In The City, Inc. Through “Roots”, I brought thousands of students and other volunteers into the inner-city to help grow the gardens which covered about two city blocks. Planting on borrowed vacant lots, the effort led to a cleaner, healthier, more beautiful community. Roots hired residents to help take care of the gardens; at one time employing as many as six full-time employees. I served as the unpaid director of the non-profit for about fifteen years while continuing my responsibilities at FIU. The main garden was planted along the I-395 Expressway at N.W. 14th Street. It has been taken over by the county and continues to exist today.
The best job I ever had was being the director of the alternative high school that I co-founded in the months following the riot of 1980. It was called the Academy for Community Education (ACE) and was designed for at-risk high school students who were likely to drop out of school. I served as director for eleven years while continuing my teaching at FIU. Russell Wheatley, a white man who was a Dade school official, made the success of the Academy possible by supporting the school and its alternative approach from its inception.
The school was, by design, small. We maintained an average enrollment of about 160 students a year. Small was key to the school. Rather than being swallowed up and unknown in a large high school, students found a home at ACE and they also found family. The Academy staff was saturated with strong and caring people.
The teachers and support staff were the engine that drove the success of the school. They expected much from the students and were rewarded by most of them who rose to meet the standards. They were the best public school teachers I saw in my many years of activism in education. The administration respected staff and listened to their ideas and concerns. We took retreats to center ourselves and agree on where we were headed and how to get there. The ACE model requires going the extra mile for the students and so we did.
We operated the school using a behavior modification system – a token economy approach. Students earned points for successful performance for everything from attendance to academic performance and effort. Points were tallied weekly and rewards distributed. The rewards ranged from material items such as music, cosmetics and school supplies, to lunches sponsored by local restaurants and out-of-town trips.
Some of the best performing students earned the privilege of traveling with the school on trips that included amusement parks, weekends in N.Y.C., a stay in the Smokey Mountains, tours of Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Montego Bay, Jamaica. In order to pay for these rewards, the staff solicited donations and contributions and wrote grants for funding. This kind of effort distinguished the ACE staff.
The Academy was a school of choice and we maintained high but attainable standards for academic performance and behavior. These at-risk and previously unsuccessful students needed to find success. The ACE program was structured and individualized to achieve this. Student successes were recognized and celebrated in a big way. It was a safe environment with no tolerance for vulgarity, physical aggression, racial insults or bullying.
A guidance staff relieved teachers of disruptive or uncooperative students and maintained close contact with parents, especially related to attendance. (Parents of absent students were called by 11 AM.) Workplace internships were provided for the oldest students. They spent a part of their school week in a workplace in a field of interest to them with their experiences guided by a workplace mentor.
The school’s standardized test scores were comparable to those of regular high schools despite the challenges the students faced. The school continues to operate as an alternative school within the Miami-Dade Public School system and is currently located in Miami Shores. Slicing through the Pacific Ocean on an aircraft carrier at fifty miles an hour was quite thrilling but it did not begin to approach the thrill I experienced each time I handed a diploma to an ACE graduate.
My grandmother Leona moved to Miami in 1974 to live with my mother. She died in 1980, the year of the great riot in Miami. My father worked on the Miami docks as a longshoreman, then retired and moved with my mother to Sanford, just seventeen miles from DeLand. True to his roots, he planted orange, tangerine and grapefruit trees all around his backyard and sat endlessly on his patio watching and caring for them. He died in 2001 at age eighty-one.
My mother moved to live with me in Miami. She had been an activist, especially in Opa-Locka. She was a moving influence in the construction of the North Dade Health Center. A street in Opa-Locka, Corinne Dunn Way, is named for her. She died at our home in Miami in 2013, due simply to old age. She was ninety-five years old, but up to her last day on earth, she could still do that old-time church hand clapping to any tune with a beat. Just hours before she died, as I was driving her home from an errand, she was having a grand time clapping her hands to Mick Jagger’s old hit tune Start Me Up, although I seriously doubt she understood the words.
The journey of African Americans through Florida history has been a story of triumph. My own life makes that case. But given what I have been able to accomplish, was I damaged by Jim Crow? Was I hurt by it? Of course I was. It was not possible for a black person to have been born in the Jim Crow era in the South and not have been scarred by it.
But I was fortunate. My parents raised me and my brothers in a disciplined home that valued education. My dad did not abandon us. I had bootstraps given to me by the Ford Foundation that opened the way for me, a child from a migrant family to attend college. But I left many other blacks behind when I headed off to Atlanta and Morehouse. Still, Florida in 2016 is not the Florida of past years. The new Florida holds promise for blacks. The state is more multi-racial and more urban now. The heavy influx of northerners has changed the racial tone and conversation , at least in south Florida.
But, there is healing yet to be done. There are stories yet to be told, both tragic and triumphant. African Americans must realize, however, that forgiveness works. True, some of the descendants of the people who did those bad things still live in Florida, but what guilt should the current generation of whites bear for the sins of their relatives? I say none.
On the other hand, whites in Florida and elsewhere in this country, should stop living in denial. Terrible things did happen to blacks in this country and the debt to African Americans is not yet fully paid. Let us all face our history together, even the bad parts. Let us learn from mistakes of the past and move on; after all, the challenge our country and the world face today leaves no room for racial, ethnic or religious divisions.
Marvin Dunn Emeritus
EDUCATION University of Tennessee; Knoxville, Tennessee
Ph.D., Psychology; 1972
Roosevelt University; Chicago, Illinois
M.A., Education, Administration and Supervision; 1966
Morehouse College; Atlanta, Georgia
B.A., Psychology; 1961
Dr. Dunn’s primary research interests are in the identification of effective instructional and behavioral strategies and programs for students at risk and in race relations. His research examines the characteristics of effective schooling practices and intervention strategies for motivating the disinterested and disruptive learner. He founded the Academy for Community Education (later re-named Dr. Marvin Dunn Academy for Community Education), a Miami-Dade County high school for at-risk youth. His views on racial and ethnic relations in the U.S. have been widely published and broadcast on the major news outlets. He has authored several books on the history of African Americans and have produced several films related to African American history in Florida.
Dunn, Marvin. The History of Florida: Through Black Eyes. North Charleston, South Carolina: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 2016.
Stepick, Alex; Dunn, M.; Castro, M.; and Grenier, G. This Land is Our Land. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. 2003.
Dunn, Marvin. Black Miami in the Twentieth Century. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida. 1997.
Porter, Bruce and Dunn, Marvin: The Miami Riot of 1980: Crossing the Bounds. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath. 1984.
Dunn, Marvin. “The Illusion of Moderation: A Recounting and Reassessing of Florida’s Racial Past”. In Old South, New South, or Down South? Florida and the Modern Civil Rights Movement. Irvin D.S. Winsboro West Virginia University Press. 2009
Dunn, Marvin. “Miami in Black.” In Miami: The Sophisticated Tropics. San Francisco, California: Beebe, Morton, Chronicle Books. 1991.
Dunn, Marvin. “Black Miami.” In Miami Now, edited by Stepick, A. and Grenier, G. Temple University Press. 1988.
Dunn, Marvin; Solomon, R.; Puroff, T.; Gonzalez, M.; and Beneckson, R. “Community Construction: An Unequal-Resource Activity.” In Intergroup and Minority Relations, edited by Fromkin, H.L. and Sherwood, J.J. LaJolla, California: University Associates. 1976.
Dunn, Marvin; Solomon, R.; Gonzalez, M.; and Beneckson, R. “Listening and Confronting: A Racial Role-Reversal Experience.” In Intergroup and Minority Relations, edited by Fromkin, H.L. and Sherwood, J.J. LaJolla, California: University Associates. 1976.
Articles for Newspapers
“Georgia Ayers: The Lioness Sleeps” The Miami Herald – Editorial. February 27, 2015.
“Justice for Willie James”. The Tampa Bay Tribune. November 18, 2009.
“Shackled To The Past: Slavery Still Haunts Us Today. The Miami Herald. April 13, 2008.
“Slavery in Florida: Make the Apology Meaningful” The Miami Herald. April 6, 2008.
“A Mixed Legacy: Leadership, Suicide.” The Miami Herald. August 7, 2005.
“1980 Riots: Could They Happen Again?” The Miami Herald. May 15, 2005.
“Let’s Try to Wear Each Other’s Shoes”. The Miami Herald. May 25, 2000.
“Message to Mandela: Save Your Children.” The Orlando Sentinel. May 8, 1994.
“Bloodshed in South Africa Won’t Halt Long March to Democracy.” The Miami Times. April 14, 1994.
“A Teen Curfew for Florida?” The Orlando Sentinel. October 20, 1993.
“Herald Created a Reputation, Then Destroyed It.” The Miami Herald, Viewpoint. August 8, 1993.
“Are You Black, Liberal and Scared? The Miami News Weekender. November 8, 1980.
“Why the Lozano Trial Should Be Moved.” The Miami Herald, Viewpoint. October 29, 1989.
“Lock-Them-Up Approach Cannot Solve the Epidemic.” The Orlando Sentinel. September 17, 1989.
“Ghettos Need More Good Men.” The Orlando Sentinel, Insight. March 12, 1989.
“Our Black Ghettos Need Bold Actions.” The Miami Herald, Viewpoint. January 29, 1989.
“Can We Save the Inner Cities?” The Orlando Sentinel, Insight. December 18, 1988.
“Who is to Blame for Haiti?” The Miami News, The People Speak. July 4, 1988.
“How the System Failed Tammy.” The Miami Herald, Viewpoint. June 12, 1988.
“Amity Amidst Discord.” The Miami Herald, To The Editor. March 22, 1988.
“The Greek Twisted History, But Meant Well.” The Miami News. January 27, 1988.
“Prison Riots: No Winners, Many Losers.” The Miami Herald, Viewpoint. December 13, 1987.
“Miami’s Annexation Plan Tests City’s Leaders.” The Miami News. December 11, 1987.
“The Miami Election: A Postmortem.” The Miami Herald, Viewpoint. November 15, 1987.
“In Response: A White (Criminal Justice) System Is Racist.” Miami Review. March 4, 1987.
“1987 Marks Healing Process for U.S.” The Miami News. January 30, 1987.
“The Black vs. Cuban-American Power Struggle in the City of Miami.” Politicos 2 (March 1984).
“After Overtown.” The Miami Herald. January 9, 1983.
“Police and Riots.” The Washington Post. January 6, 1983.
“What’s Wrong in Miami?” The Miami News. January 6, 1983.
“The Haitian Problem: ‘Baby Doc’.” The Miami Herald. August 16, 1981.
“Riot Report: Cops Caught Off Guard.” The Miami News. June 3, 1981.
“A Year After the Miami Riot. Embers Still Glow.” The New York Times. May 17, 1981.
“The McDuffie Riot, How It Was Different and Why.” The Miami Herald. May 17, 1981.
“Sinking Into an Immigration Quagmire.” The Miami News. January 27, 1981.
“Why Miami Blacks Might Riot Again.” The New York Times. November 10, 1980.
“The Conservative Sweep: Are You Black, Liberal and Scared?” The Miami News. November 8, 1980.
“Liberty City.” The Los Angeles Times. August 24, 1980.
“Death Watch.” Tropic Magazine. August 24, 1980.
“Miami After Two Months: 1,000 Blacks Arrested, 12 Blacks Dead–White Killers Still Free.” Pacific News Service. July, 1980.
“Miami’s Explosion Isn’t Miami’s Alone.” The New York Times. May 20, 1980.
“How a Black Sees the Jones Case.” The Miami Herald. March 2, 1980.
“The McDuffie Killing, A Black Leader Cries Out: What Next?” The Miami Herald. January 6, 1980.
“A Looming Conflict in Miami? A Local Psychologist Argues That the City’s Racial and Ethnic Groups Neither Know Nor Understand Each Other and Offers Some Suggested Remedies.” The Miami Herald, May 23, 1976.
Sponsored Research Papers
Dunn, Marvin; Kretsedemas, P.; and Beneckson, R. “Haitian-Americans in Miami-Dade County and the Welfare System, A Study of Utilization, Attitudes, and Perceptions Among Haitian-Americans 2001,” prepared for The Kellog Foundation.
Dunn, Marvin; Beneckson, R., et.al,, “Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Florida Welfare Reform, A Study of Income Levels for Black, Hispanic, and White Post-Welfare Recipients,” 2000. Prepared for The Kellog Foundation.
Dunn, Marvin; Beneckson, R. et.al, “Successful Welfare Leavers in Florida, A study of Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Income Levels and Their Relationship to The Federal Poverty Level,” 2000. Prepared for The Kellog Foundation. Miami Annual Conference, Blacks in Miami-Dade County History; April 2002
Founder and Director, Roots in the City an urban gardening program in Miami’s inner-city community of Overtown
Director, School Violence Prevention Interactive Media Technology Project; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services; 1999 – 2002.Assisted in development and field testing of an interactive CD-ROM and accompanying text guide for elementary-age children and their parents targeting avoidance as one tactic to combat bullying behavior.
Director and Senior Mentor, University of Maryland and the Kellog Foundation, Welfare Reform Devolution Initiative Grant; 1999- 2002. Grant funded to conduct research regarding the impact of national welfare reform policy on Florida’s poor population with special emphasis on the impact upon minorities.
Collector, The Dunn Collection consists of over four thousand photographs and images reflecting the history of blacks in Florida (Donated to Florida International University).
Curator, Rosewood Artifacts Collection contains hundreds of artifacts recovered in Rosewood under three state grants between 2008 and 2012.
United States Information Service (USIS). Sent on a training assignment in South Africa; keynote speaker at Conference on The Family in a Changing South Africa: Implications for Socio-Economic Policy and Interventions; conducted conflict resolution and organizational development workshop for black university student leaders at The University of The Western Cape, Cape Town; July, 1994.
Consultant to The Goldberg Commission on Violence in South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa; provided review and comment to the Commission on its report to the South African government on the impact of violence on youth; July, 1994.
United States Information Service (USIS). Sent on a training assignment in South Africa; conducted a series of workshops on counseling victims of violence and on youth issues in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town; February, 1994.
“Rosewood Uncovered” (28 minutes) documents the Rosewood massacre of 1923 and provides a look at present-day Rosewood and archaeological research conducted there between 2008 and 2010, Filmmaker Isaac Brown, 2010.
“Murder on the Suwanee: The Willie James Howard Story” (27 minutes) the story of the lynching of a fifteen year old black child in Live Oak, Florida in 1944, Isaac brown filmmaker, 2009.
“Black Seminoles in the Bahamas: The Red Bays Story” (26 minutes) documents the flight of slaves from Florida escaping to the Bahamas Islands in the 1800s, Isaac Brown filmmaker, 2007.
“The Black Miami” (140 minutes) based upon the book, “Black Miami in the Twentieth Century.” Filmmakers Michael Williams, Carlton Smith and Marvin Dunn provide a visual history of the black community of South Florida from the mid-1600’s to the 1980’s, 2012.
National News Appearances (Partial listing)
NBC Nightly News, multiple appearances
CBS Evening News, multiple appearances
ABC Evening News, multiple appearances
ABC Nightline, multiple appearances
Good Morning America, multiple appearances
The Today Show, multiple appearances
Black Entertainment Television
Voice of America
Fox Television: The O’Reilly Factor
National Public Radio: multiple appearances