Editor’s note: Following is a short history of the black community in Indian River County that I wrote with help from (now retired) Librarian Pam Cooper and was edited by County Historian Ruth Stanbridge. Some of it is disturbing – at least it should be – but the residents I interviewed will be the first to tell you we have come a long way from those days.
Back in 2014, the county initiated an updated Gifford Neighborhood Plan to correct many long-neglected infrastructure problems. As part of that plan, a history of the Gifford community was published as Appendix E. The county has come a long way since the “Jim Crow” days, but this history goes a long way towards understanding the sense of anger and frustration felt around the country over the past few days. Those who have read this history, many of them transplants from around the country, were shocked that these conditions ever existed in our great community. Others may find reasons to discount this information because of their own racial animus, but they are a minority today. Work still needs to be done, but if you take the time to read this 2800-word background, you will see we have come a long way. Your comments are appreciated.
Gifford Neighborhood Plan 2014 Community Development Indian River County 104 Appendix E History of Gifford By Milt Thomas Edited by Ruth Stanbridge, Indian River County Historian, Freddie Woolfork and Joe Idlette II of the Gifford Progressive Civic League
The history of African-Americans in Florida was quite apart from the rest of the South. Prior to 1819, when Spain turned over control of Florida to the U.S., the Spanish offered freedom to black slaves escaping the British southern colonies (as long as they converted to Catholicism). During the American Revolution, when the British controlled Florida, escaped slaves fought with the British in exchange for freedom. So did the Seminole Indians. Blacks and Seminoles also fought with the British in the War of 1812, incurring the wrath of General Andrew Jackson. He would take out his revenge in the Seminole Wars during the 1840s.
Around 1855, blacks began to settle in this area, sometimes as slaves to white landowners, but also as free settlers working land of their own or on white farms and groves. The Federal Homestead Act of 1862 guaranteed the right to own 160 acres of land as long as the homesteader cultivated at least five acres and continued to live on the land at least five years. Four black families were among the earliest homesteaders.
The end of the Civil War was also the end of slavery, technically. Although southern states, including Florida, could only be readmitted into the Union by banning slavery, many states enacted the so-called Jim Crow laws designed to restrict the rights of blacks. This and segregation of the races would exist well into the 20th century.
In spite of this, black people learned to live within the system and at times overcame injustice to flash a typically American entrepreneurial spirit.
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.
* Note: There were actually two James T. Gray – one black and one white. James T. Gray (white) is reported to have named the area we now call Winter Beach – Woodley. Woodley was changed to Quay in the “teens” for Senator Matthew Quay, and finally changed again to Winter Beach.
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.
NOTE: It is ironic that once the railroad was operating, Henry Gifford’s son, F. Charles Gifford, worked at the Gifford station. In 1903, that station was replaced by one in Vero.
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 school for black kids in the Wabasso area was an old Masonic Hall.
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.
John Russ and his family arrived in 1922. They were known for their hospitality. Blacks couldn’t stay in white hotels or go to white restaurants, so the Russ family welcomed them.
As the area developed, black men found work primarily in manual labor and women were limited primarily to domestic work. Thomas and Hattie Jackson homesteaded in Gifford after moving up from Deerfield Beach. He decided to grow citrus and his son, Walter, eventually owned 300 acres. In 1964, Walter Jackson became the first black man in Indian River County to hold elected office, on the school board.
Joe Nathan Idlette and wife Nancy Cookley came from Sumter County, Georgia in 1923. His son, Joe Idlette, Jr., said in a 2008 interview, “When my parents came to town, a bell would ring at sundown in downtown Vero Beach and that was the signal for all blacks to leave Vero.”
Many Gifford old timers told of the infamous bell that would ring at sundown in Vero Beach, the signal for all blacks to leave town. Reverend Leon Young, long time Gifford resident, said, “In the evening downtown Vero was off limits to black folks. If you came down at six o’clock you were questioned by law enforcement – why are you here? Who do you work for? They would let you buy what you needed, then escort you out of town. You could only walk on the sidewalk if no white men were around; otherwise you walked in the street. We were allowed to go to the movie theater at night, but we had to enter from a back alley and sit upstairs.”
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.”
Separate but equal did not apply to how the Indian River County Sheriff’s Department treated blacks, particularly during the term of Sheriff L.B. Osteen. According the many accounts, in the middle 1940s to 1950s blacks were often brutally beaten by Osteen and deputies for even minor traffic violations. Blacks were often sentenced to prison over minor violations. Most did not have legal representation facing an all white jury.
Anna Lane, 92, has lived in Gifford since 1929. “We were all poor but accepted our lives and made the best of them. However, we were all afraid of Sheriff Osteen. He was so mean to black folks. When he walked into a place, everyone got quiet. When he was killed in a car accident, people were so relieved.”
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.
“One night I was driving along U.S. 1 in Winter Beach where the elementary school used to be. I saw a big fire and said to the guy I was with, ‘Let’s go see what’s going on.’ He said we shouldn’t go there because that’s where the Ku Klux Klan meets. I said what are they and he said, ‘If you are a negro and go there, they will lynch you.”
Hart would soon start a local chapter of the NAACP. He led demonstrations in front of Vero Beach businesses. 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 Sixty Minutes. It turns out that back in 1971 the state had offered Indian River County $19 million to put in central water and sewer for the whole county and the county turned it down.”
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 fired 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. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Brown vs the Board of Education, declared separate but equal to be unconstitutional. 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.
“After that I told the sheriff I would arm myself since my life was threatened. For a long time my wife and I slept in the front bedroom, with kids in the back bedroom. But then I decided if you live by the sword you die by the sword and put my weapons away.”
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.
But integration proved to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand black students would receive the same education as whites, but it meant decommissioning the Gifford High School. For a tight-knit community like Gifford, where family, church and school formed a single bond, losing their community school was to have an impact on their social fabric that is felt to this day, especially when it comes to education.
During the early 1900s, most blacks who came here were employed as railroad and sawmill laborers as well as cooks, dishwashers, bellhops and domestic workers. But many black entrepreneurs established businesses to serve their fellow African-Americans. In 1962, Deputy Sheriff Dallas Yates became the first black law officer in the county. By the 1970s, a few blacks were employed by county government and white-owned retail businesses. 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 recalls an incident early in his career. “My wife and I were both teachers and went to the bank to borrow money and build a home. We were making a decent salary between us and had saved money for a down payment. The loan officer told me the bank didn’t normally loan colored folks that kind of money unless their boss came in to sign the note. I told him, ‘My boss is the Indian River County School Board and I don’t think they have the authority to sign for me.’ He called back several days later and we had the loan. Like this situation, I feel the good has overshadowed the bad and life has improved a great deal from those days.”
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.