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THOMPSON: Racism, people, and Silver Springs, Florida in the 1950s and 1960s

August 14, 2017 - 12:38 PM

 


OPINION


This week’s column is another excerpt from my book about growing up in Florida during the 1950s and 1960s. Despite the distance in miles and time, we all share a common bond, and perhaps these words will ring true to some readers who grew up here or elsewhere during that time.

Over a couple of decades, I came to know most of the people at Silver Springs, Florida’s number one tourist attraction in the 1950s and 1960s. After all, my brother and I practically lived there during the summers.

Ross Allen was one of my favourites. He wasn't a movie star, but he was perhaps the world’s most famous herpetologist. His 10-acre Ross Allen Reptile Institute at the Springs was a working research laboratory for snake anti-venoms. He funded his research projects through ticket sales…with hundreds of tourists watching him milk rattlesnakes, handle other poisonous reptiles and even wrestle alligators for nearly a half-century…from 1929 to 1967.

He had been bitten so many times by rattlesnakes, coral snakes and water moccasins that his body developed its own anti-venom for snake-bites. A rattlesnake strike only gave him a slight headache, he once said. Hundreds of soldiers in World War II who suffered poisonous snakebites in faraway places survived because of his efforts. His left hand and thumb were grossly deformed from scores of rattlesnake bites over the years.

Allen and my grade-school principal, Newton Perry, gathered scores of alligators and poisonous snakes in Florida, even traveling to South America and Africa for crocodiles and other exotic creatures in the 1930s and 1940s.

Perry was famous in his own right…working with Hollywood actors like Johnny Weissmuller - who played Tarzan in movies in the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, Perry consulted on scores of movies involving swimming and diving. He also opened Weeki Wachee Springs in 1947 - another tourist destination an hour south - where “live mermaid shows” are still performed today.

Perry was an amazing athlete…he could hold his breath underwater for 3 minutes and 45 seconds and swim 25 miles in a shade over seven hours. He taught me how to swim, but his most famous student was his nephew, Don Schollander, who won five gold medals swimming in both the 1964 and 1968 Summer Olympic Games.

I really liked the glass-bottom boat captains. I knew them all and without fail I'd drop by the dock and say hello to Captains David, Roosevelt and Oscar. They were in their mid- to late-20s when I was 12.  

"How are you Captain David?" I'd call out as tourists loaded on his boat. "Doing fine, Mr. Don. How ya doin'?" I liked that the tourists thought I was a regular. Most people in the South use Mr., Mrs. or Miss with first names…something I still find charming today.

All of the glass bottom boat captains - dressed in white nautical uniforms and hats - were black men. Ironically, black tourists weren't allowed in Silver Springs until the late 1960s. 

Years later, I discovered that Captains David and Roosevelt were brothers, and Oscar was their brother-in-law. All three men...now 86, 81 and 77...take visitors on the same glass bottom boats today, though the Silver Springs is now a vastly under-funded state park. These were good jobs...especially for young black men in Florida in the 1950s and 1960s.

In fact, the jobs were so good, the three men really didn't want anyone to know they were even related. Blacks didn't want to call too much attention to themselves...fearing repercussions. “Don't rock the boat” was the unwritten rule if you were black, Captain Oscar told me three years ago when I took my wife, Bonnie, for a glass-bottom boat ride, and we reminisced about the “good old days.” I guess his strategy worked…he’s been there for nearly 60 years.

I was about 11 years old before learning that black people had their own swimming area at Silver Springs...actually it was a half mile away off a small tributary of the Silver River and much smaller...called Paradise Park. It was well out of sight...with only a small sign at the entrance off a side road. Black people couldn’t even park in the Silver Springs parking lot with white people. Prejudice, discrimination and even outright hatred were alive and well in 1960s Florida.

Even though one of the nation's biggest companies - the American Broadcasting Company - bought the Springs from Bill "Buck" Ray in October of 1963 for $7.5 million...it would bow to pressure from locals in 1964. Civil rights laws outlawed segregation that year, but a small but powerful and bitter group of white city fathers threatened to boycott the Springs if blacks were admitted for swimming. So, ABC closed Silver Springs to swimming forever. This was one of many injustices that shaped my views on matters of race and politics going forward.

Looking back at the inequalities between blacks and whites...I wonder how I might have acted and reacted had I been black growing up in Ocala. Until the early 1960s, water fountains and restrooms in Publix - Florida's largest grocery chain - were designated “White” and “Colored.”

We had two sit-down movie theatres in Ocala...the Florida Theatre, which allowed blacks only in the balcony...and the Marion Theatre - a grand movie palace - where blacks weren't allowed. The Florida Theatre sold tickets to black patrons from a separate box office around the side of the building. Black people weren't allowed in the lobby...no mingling with white patrons. The two drive-in theatres - the Ocala Drive-In and the Skylark Drive-In - barred blacks.

Of course, neither black nor African-American was in the lexicon of the times. Signs in public places typically referred to “Colored.”  Most whites used the term...as did blacks. But the N-word racist epithet was used by some whites openly. It was common for even young white people to call older black men boys.  

An imaginary line separated Ocala in real ways...housing, education, healthcare, jobs, churches, even funeral homes. Black folks lived in a well-defined geographic area...more or less ghetto-like. They had there own grocery stores and retail shops, often owned by whites even though they were in “colored-town.” 

That imaginary line was real if you were black. Pine Street - a major four-lane highway also known as U.S. Routes 301, 27 and 441 - on the east, State Road 200 on the south and Highway 27 to the north, which headed toward a small farming town, Williston.  A western boundary didn't really exist...”colored-town” simply petered out...turning into farmland.

There were two Bittings Drug Stores in Ocala…one on the town square across from the courthouse and city hall where my mother ran a luncheonette…and another for black people a block-and-a-half away on the same street…on the edge of “colored-town.”
                   
Florida isn't necessarily considered the Deep South by most people. But it was Florida in 1887 that passed the first law requiring railways to provide “equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored, races.” Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana followed quickly with similar laws. But a group of black business people in New Orleans soon filed suit in Louisiana.

Winding its way through the legal system for nine years, the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled in Plessy vs. Ferguson that segregation did not violate the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law for all citizens. Nothing could have been further from truth, of course, but the Supreme Court's ruling put in place the legal doctrine that all Southern states, including Florida, used to sanction poll taxes to discourage black voting.

Further, the decision was used to prevent blacks from sitting with whites in theatres and restaurants...even from drinking from the same water fountains. Decades of intimidation followed...and the sole intent was to keep black people in their places.

The law of the land changed with the Civil Rights Act of 1964...but powerful whites in Florida and elsewhere fought equality for many years. Laws affect behaviour, but not necessarily the hearts and minds of people. Things are better, but even today - often in hushed tones - you can hear derisive comments and hateful jokes about black people in America.

But make no mistake…racism isn't a Southern phenomenon. This is something many of my Canadian friends don’t fully understand. Racism is a nationwide malady in America…it always has been. During the Civil War the North and South had convenient geographic lines of demarcation, but racism and discrimination flourished overtly and covertly North, South, East and West. I would see racism as a teenager and adult...but as a younger child I was busy being a child...oblivious to the bad that often stood alongside the good in people.

– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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