“I had read some Negro dialect and heard snatches of it on my journey down from Washington; but here I heard it in all of its fullness and freedom. I was particularly struck by the way it was punctuated by such exclamatory phrases as ‘Lawd a mussy!’ ‘Gwan man!’ ‘Bless my soul!’ ‘Look heath chile!’
These people talked and laughed without restraint. In fact, they talked straight from their lungs, and laughed from the pits of their stomachs. And this hearty laughter was often justified by their droll humor of some remark. I paused long enough to hear one man say to another, ‘W’at’s de mattah wid you an’ yo’ fr’en’ Sam?’ and the other came back in a flash, ‘Ma fr’en? He my fr’en? Man! I go to his funeral jes de same as I’d go to a minstrel show.’ I have since learned that this ability to laugh heartily is, in part, the salvation of the American Negro; it does much to keep him from going the way of the Indian.”
As a strategist, Harry T. Moore was ahead of his time. Years before the Civil Rights Movement took hold, the leader of the Florida NAACP State Conference methodically took on brutal racial atrocities, including his most challenging case of the Groveland Boys, largely by himself.
Facing Willis V. McCall, a sheriff who made Birmingham’s Eugene “Bull” Connor look like a Sunday school teacher, Moore began his 1949 campaign to bring justice to the four men accused of raping a white woman by writing state officials, urging them to stop the white violence against blacks. A telegram and letters to the governor hand state attorney soon followed.
Moore didn’t stop there. Eventually, he wrote a letter to President Harry Truman and members of the Florida congressional delegation, urging them to hold a special session of Congress to pass a civil rights bill. He even conducted his own investigation and issued a press release accusing McCall of police brutality.
It was a good start; it even prompted an FBI investigation. Unfortunately, it was only the beginning of a long process that tragically ended in Jim Crow justice.
Many others may have forgotten this Florida native, like I did. But, on January 7, 1911, Thelma McQueen was born in Tampa. She would change her name and experience infamy.
Her initial career goal was to become a nurse, but a high school teacher thought she had the talent to act. So young Thelma set new sights and became a dancer, hoping to one day get a chance to act. Her big break would come and it would end up being her most memorable role — Prissy.
Prissy was a young slave in the film, Gone With the Wind, and although McQueen didn’t have much of a speaking role, the line: “I don’t know nothing ’bout birthing no babies!” proved to be both racially stereotypic and iconic.
The part brought similar roles that McQueen found demeaning. Her commentary on the type of roles that came her way resonate today in our #Hollywoodsowhite era.
“I didn’t mind playing a maid the first time, because I thought that was how you got into the business,” McQueen said. “But after I did the same thing over and over, I resented it. I didn’t mind being funny, but I didn’t like being stupid.”
Bottom line? McQueen had higher aspiration than the roles offered her in a time when film and television were clearly a whites-only realm. Diversity has come a long way from McQueen’s day, but there are still hurdles to overcome.
McQueen quit acting in films in 1947, but she continued acting, taking bit parts in television and radio. In 1979, she won an Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children’s Programming for the ABC Afterschool Special episode “Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid.”
McQueen also earned a degree in political science, which helped her in 1983 when a jury awarded McQueen $60,000 from a lawsuit she filed against two bus terminal security guards. McQueen sued for harassment after she claimed the security guards accused her of being a pickpocket and a vagrant while she was at a bus terminal in 1979.
Her only bit of controversy came long after the Prissy role in 1989 when was honored for her beliefs as an atheist. Her remarks at the Freedom from Religion Foundation event were later used as advertisements in Atlanta and Madison, Wisconsin. McQueen died in 1995 at the age of 84.
Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com.
New years always bring changes. For many blacks, 2017 brings a sense of dread with the incoming Trump administration threatening to undo much of the progress made in government under President Barack Obama.
Imagine the fear 94 years ago on New Years Day when the 200 residents of Rosewood were chased out of their homes by an angry mob of white men who believed that a white woman in nearby Sumner had been attacked by a black man. Many blacks believed the story was a lie to cover up a beatdown the woman received from her white boyfriend.
The facts, of course, never deterred a racist mob. At least six blacks were killed and the mob destroyed the frame houses, churches and a meeting hall that made up Rosewood, located 10 miles east of Cedar Key in rural Levy County.
Rosewood wasn’t the only black community in the 1920s to experience this type of bloodbath. However, it was the only black community that mob violence completely destroyed.
All that’s left are open fields a few bricks, a historic marker and the house of John Wright, one of the few whites that tried to help black residents during the violence. Fortunately, this historic tragedy was remembered. There was a movie and in 1994, the Florida Legislature approved a bill that Gov. Lawton Chiles signed into law that compensates survivors and their descendants of the massacre.
The late Carlton B. Moore, a civil-rights activist turned city commissioner in Fort Lauderdale, once gave a talk that I’m sure escaped notice.
This was no speech before a huge audience that warranted media coverage. This was simply brief remarks to Moore’s core constituents — a gathering of residents of Northwest Fort Lauderdale and a smattering of black professionals who come and go through the city’s historic black neighborhood.
To be honest, I don’t recall the exact location or time of Moore’s remarks. I do, however, remember his message: black folk need to support their institutions.
For Moore, the point was easy to make. He grew up in the NAACP, ultimately becoming the president of the Fort Lauderdale chapter and transforming the branch into a vehicle to fight racial discrimination and rebuild communities. Moore knew something about strength in numbers and the power of organizations; he had lived it.
It’s a lesson black America must take into 2017. History teaches us that blacks in Florida, the South and across America survived and thrived in the harshest of times through business leagues, civil rights groups, the church and secret societies. They put their heart, soul, time and money into these organizations to achieve a far greater good. That was the essence of Moore’s message.
We should support our institutions, and others, that support us moving forward.
Editor’s Note: Lyons is the creator of www.blackinfla.com.
Who among us has the courage of Harry Tyson Moore, a Florida schoolteacher turned activist who became the first martyr of the Civil Rights Movement? True commitment to a worthy cause comes with a price, a cost Moore paid dearly.
At 10:20 p.m. on Christmas Day, 1951, a bomb planted under Moore’s home in Mims, Fla., exploded, ending the lives of Moore and his wife of 25 years, Harriette, who died from her wounds a week later.
Moore was the Florida coordinator of the NAACP, crisscrossing the backroads of the Sunshine State in the 1940s to educate and organize black people. Investigating lynchings, registering black voters, writing letters of protest to state officials — all in the face of intense bigotry and personal danger — Moore blazed a trail as a civil rights leader long before the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X or Medgar Evers came to national attention.
“In late 1833, William Pope DuVal resigned as governor of Florida. During his twelve years in office, he had turned a territory at peace into a swamp of injustice, ethnic hatred and smoldering violence. He did not intend to be the one in charge when the chickens came home to roost.”
“No colored man can read an account of the recent lynching at Gainesville, Fla., without being ashamed of his people … Without resistance they let a white mob whom they outnumbered two to one, torture, harry and murder their women, shoot down innocent men entirely unconnected with the alleged crime, and finally cap the climax, they caught and surrendered the wretched man whose attempted arrest caused the difficulty. No people who behave with the absolute cowardice shown by these colored people can hope to have the sympathy or help of civilized folk… In the last analysis, lynching of Negroes is going to stop in the South when the cowardly mob is faced by effective guns in the hands of people to sell their souls dearly.”
— 1916 editorial in The Crisis excoriating blacks for submitting to a lynch mob
I’m not sure if people living in the Fort Lauderdale area realize what a treasure they have in the Mizell-Johnson State Park. Many probably won’t recognize the park’s name.
Say John U. Lloyd Park, and perhaps, you’ll see a glint of recognition.
Von D. Mizell was a prominent black physician and founder of the local NAACP chapter. Eula Johnson was a businesswoman who owned several gas stations and became NAACP chapter president. Both worked to change the Jim Crow laws that kept blacks and whites separate.
On July 4, 1961, they led a “wade-in” protest at Fort Lauderdale’s “whites-only” public beach. The one that is now the economic engine and tourist attraction.
In their honor, the one-time blacks-only beach was renamed after Mizell and Johnson. Three pavilions have also been renamed to honor other black dignitaries in the Fort Lauderdale area.
Regardless of the name change, the park is a beautiful locale and a nice alternative to the city’s more popular — and heavily used — beach.
Yes, the Fort Lauderdale beach along A1A and Las Olas Boulevard is free, and there’s a cost to get into Mizell-Johnson. It is a state park after all.
The irony is hard to miss. The one time “all-white” beach and cultural attraction for Fort Lauderdale can be a experience of sand, shore and crowd control. The more serene historic “all-black” beach in Dania Beach is the real jewel.
In place of the congestion that comes with a tourist-trap strip, Mizell-Johnson State Park offers a very pleasant shoreline, park amenities and tranquility. If you’re looking for serenity in South Florida, I can’t think of a better spot to find it.