Why is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday celebrated here in Indian River County?

NEWS ANALYSIS

MILT THOMAS

Editor’s Note: Back in 2004 I wrote a “History of Gifford” that was edited by Ruth Stanbridge, Indian River County Historian, Freddie

First Gifford Neighborhood Plan Update meeting on July 22, 2013

Woolfork and Joe Idlette II of the Gifford Progressive Civic League. It is a public record attached to the County’s Gifford Neighborhood Plan Update as Appendix E Gifford Neighborhood plan update July 15, 2004. For recent generations, it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine what life was like for African-Americans 50 or 100 years ago. Some in this story are still around though and contributed to this history.

Around 1855, blacks began to settle in this area. Four black families were among the earliest homesteaders. William S. Brown, born on a cotton plantation in Savannah, Georgia, settled on land around modern day Gifford in November 1890 and received his homestead grant in 1896. Other black families came around that time including Alvin O. Espy, Willie E. Geoffrey and James T. Gray. Each received a federal homestead grant of 160 acres around 1901. All of them farmed their land, Brown also grew citrus. William Brown was well respected by his neighbors and they all agreed to call their settlement Brownsville in his honor.

During construction of the Flagler railroad between1890-1896, many job opportunities existed for black workers as work progressed along the route. Railroad camps and workers quarters grew in what was then Brownsville and Wabasso as progress on the railway reached Sebastian in 1893. Two years earlier, a white homesteader, Henry Gifford, opened the Vero post office on his land south of Brownsville. When Flagler needed right-of-way through his homestead, Gifford refused. So Flagler established a station just to the north and named it “Gifford.” The black community then became known as Gifford.

Alvin O. Espy grew citrus and vegetables on his land, built a family store and created the Espy subdivision. He was born in Dothan Alabama and was attracted here by opportunities with the railroad. In 1896 he quit the railroad and took out homestead papers on 160 acres. His property extended from the Atlantic Coastal Ridge just west of the railroad tracks to what is now 27th Avenue and in 1908 he purchased another 40 acre tract south of his homestead, an area known then as “The Hill,” that extended to the northern boundary of the original Vero Beach airport. However, during World War II, the airport was handed over to the Navy and the surrounding lands to the west and the Espy property to the north and east were annexed. The Hill was condemned along with Espy subdivision and the government moved out all the residents and businesses. After the war, the government signed over all airport land to the City of Vero Beach, including what once belonged to entrepreneur, Alvin O. Espy. There was a lawsuit that was settled on the claims of the Espy family.

Like Espy, William Edward Geoffrey came here to work on the railroad in 1892 from a cotton plantation near Florence, South Carolina and homesteaded 160 acres. The area’s first school was built in 1898, but for white children only. A few years later, William Geoffrey donated some of his land for the first black school and a park. A small building was constructed and classes were limited to first through sixth grades. It was initially operated by parents and the local church. The school year lasted three months, when there were no beans to pick.

The historic Macedonia Baptist Church was built in 1908 on land in Sebastian donated by a white family, Murray and Sara Hall. It was built primarily by black workers who had worked on the railroad and lived in “quarters” along the tracks. Six kerosene lanterns lit the church. Other churches emerged to serve the black community because blacks were forbidden to worship at white churches.

In 1994, the Macedonia Church was moved to its current location in Gifford and completely restored. NOTE: It now houses the Gifford Historical Museum.

The late J. Ralph Lundy, a well known and respected activist for the black community described some of the inconveniences for blacks in the years before desegregation. “We not only had separate schools, but blacks weren’t allowed on public beaches. We had separate water fountains and bathrooms, even a separate waiting room in the doctor’s office. Ladies could not try on clothes in Vero Beach stores and seating at Dodgertown was also segregated until 1963, years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.”

Victor Hart, Sr. is a well know Gifford community leader and civil rights activist. Now age 81, Hart moved to Gifford from the Bahamas in 1952. “I thought I was coming to live in Vero Beach, but I was told that colored people live in Gifford. Back in Nassau, we didn’t use terms like ‘black’ or ‘colored.’ I could go into any restaurant or hotel. I was Mr. Victor Hart. Here I was told where to live and eat, could only work as a laborer and at age 37 people called me ‘boy.’ I was not a boy – I was a man.

Hart would soon start a local chapter of the NAACP. He, Ralph Lundy and others started the Gifford Progressive Civic League in 1961. Their efforts slowly paid off. One example is that Gifford did not have water or sewer until the mid-70s, nor did they have paved streets, streetlights and stop signs. According to Victor Hart, he and Ralph Lundy took a jug of water to a county commission meeting and said to the commissioners, “Would you drink this?” They said of course not, nobody would. Hart said, “Yes sir, someone would – the people of Gifford.”

Another Gifford activist, Reverend Leon Young, said, “In 1974 I called CBS in New York and asked them to send someone down to do a documentary on our water situation. They did and put the report on CBS Evening News. The Gifford water situation was reported by Morton Dean on the CBS Evening News on Sunday, July 24, 1977 and county water became a reality within the next year.

In the early 20th century, the Gifford School only went through the sixth grade and they could not attend school in Vero or Fellsmere. They also did not have the resources to send kids as far away as Ft. Pierce or Melbourne.

John Broxton, born a slave baby in pre-Civil War south, settled in the Wabasso area and after sixth grade, sent his kids to Bethune-Cookman School in Daytona to complete high school. His daughter went on to earn her Master’s Degree. To help alleviate the transportation problem, Broxton saved up his money to buy a used car and began transporting black students to Ft. Pierce for high school. In 1931, the Indian River County School Board agreed to pay him $10 a month to take the students to Ft. Pierce. Then he purchased an old school bus and transported kids from Wabasso, Gifford, Oslo and St. Lucie to Ft. Pierce to attend school.

In 1938, the Gifford School expanded to include high school. Textbooks were donated to the school when they were too outdated and worn out by the white students. The same was true for furniture and equipment. The school had no heating (no school had air conditioning then), and on cold days the students would huddle around a fire on the outdoor basketball court. In 1952, a new high school was built, but students and teachers still dealt with a shortage of equipment. Teachers would spend hours raising money in the black community for materials and supplies. That school is now the integrated Gifford Middle School.

Joe Idlette, Jr. played a key role in our county’s school integration. According to Idlette, “In 1962 I wanted my kids to go to Vero Beach Elementary School and was told they had to attend a neighborhood school closest to home. I said you have white kids coming here from all over the county, but was still turned down. So I went to the NAACP for help. They sent a lawyer down from Jacksonville and it started a process that would take seven more years.”

During the 1960s’ civil rights struggles, reports of Ku Klux Klan activity in Indian River County were documented. According to an FBI report, “…Agents also opened an intensive investigation after receiving reports that Klansmen were plotting to kill several individuals active in the integration of the Indian River County school system.”

That seems to coincide with comments by Joe Idlette, Jr.: “One day my wife and I were backing out of our driveway to go grocery shopping and a car pulled in behind me. A man came to my side of the car and told me he was from the FBI and needed to talk with us. He said they had an infiltrator inside the KKK and White Citizens Council and that my name had come up. He wanted to know if I had any identifying marks on my body in case something should happen to me.”

Idlette and many others are quick to point out that they had support in the white community, even if it was behind the scenes. The schools were integrated without any serious incidents in 1969 and the last vestige of legalized racism was eliminated in Indian River County. Joe Idlette, Jr. was elected to the school board in 1974 and served four consecutive terms.

In 1962, Deputy Sheriff Dallas Yates became the first black law officer in the county. In the late 1970s, Thomas A. Jackson became the first black doctor to open a successful medical practice serving all residents. Blayne Jennings became the first black lawyer. Dr. A Ronald Hudson, a well-respected teacher, principal and assistant superintendent in the Indian River County school system.

Piper Aircraft hired a number of blacks in general labor and skilled positions. One of them was Freddie Woolfork, now Director of Public Relations and Facilities Operations at the Gifford Youth Achievement Center. “After college I came back here and applied for a job at Piper. At first they said there weren’t any openings, but when they realized my father was already working there for ten years, they hired me on the spot.”

Woolfork’s father ended up working there for 30 years, son Freddie for 20 years and was able to advance to the position of Supervisor of Sheet Metal and Fabrication before changing careers.

These are but a few situations endured in the black communities of Gifford, Wabasso and the original Carter Hall Subdivision in Fellsmere. The first black settlers came to this area hard-working and hopeful for a share of the American dream. Thanks to them and the sacrifices of many after them, that dream is finally being realized.

The full text of the article is available at this site and appears on pages 104-108.

One comment

  1. Thanks Milt. Good history lesson.

    I’ve been writing about the Flagler railroad. He got around 800,000 acres from the State as payment, but I don’t know where that land was. I assumed it was the land abutting the tracks, but I guess not it the State was giving out homestead land near the tracks. Any clarification would be appreciated. Thanks. Nick.

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