Clarence C. Walker. Annie T. Reed. Sylvia Aldridge. Thomas Scott Cobb. Harry Coyne.
Recognize any of those names? If I add Dr. James F. Sistrunk to the list, does the picture become any clearer?
A surprising view of early Fort Lauderdale is found in the rarely heard stories of our city’s Black settlers.
“This was a great farming place, and we were in the farming business, raising tomatoes,” recounted Isadore Mizell, whose family arrived in 1910. “There were a lot of Black people who would come down [from north Florida and Georgia] during the farm season and help raise crops.
“Some grew cabbage and some peppers,” he said. “Now nobody owned [anything] when we came down here. We went anywhere we wanted to. We would just go out and clean up a place and plant tomatoes… People never said anything about it.”
All that changed in 1915 when Dade County gave up a chunk of its north and Palm Beach County gave up a chunk of its south and a new county, Broward, was born. Land ownership was recorded and families like the Mizells had to rent the land they farmed.
“The Florida East Coast had a train twice a day on Sunday,” according to Mizell’s account recorded in My Soul Is a Witness: A History of Black Fort Lauderdale by Deborah Work. Blacks and whites would go down to meet the train “just to see who would come in.” Mizell remembered entertainers stopping by, and chairs set up for those who gathered. They might dance a little bit but principally, “they would just tell jokes.”
His wife Minnie added that family fun also included beach picnics – cooking the food at home and bringing it in a basket. She called one of her sons, Von, “the perfect child.”
History would later know this child as Dr. Von D. Mizell, who, with Dr. Sistrunk, ran the city’s first hospital for Blacks.
Charlie Mathis’ father brought his family down from Georgia in 1912 when the local population was around 5,000.
“Things were hard and simple back then,” Mathis recalled. “I went to school in a one-room school building – it was called No. 13 – for five months out of the year.” The rest of the year, he and his brothers worked in the fields. “The Black children and the white children played baseball together. Mostly everybody – Black and white alike – knew everybody by their first names.”
Mathis’ account, given when he was 80, appeared in a 1988 Sun-Sentinel story on a gathering of Black pioneers.
The seemingly idyllic first part of the century soon turned nasty for Blacks in South Florida. Schools were set up in the Black community, but their terms were shortened so the students could pick crops. The policy was instituted by the school board after it received pressure from white farmers.
Clarence C. Walker, principal at the Dillard School, fought not only to keep the schools open for a full, nine-month term but also to continue education for Blacks beyond the 10th grade. Inspired by Booker T. Washington, Walker worked hard to bring the school up to accreditation standards.
In 1941, Walker and his students staged a boycott until the school board agreed to a full term for the school. But the following year the board reversed its decision. After an hours-long meeting, at which Walker once again argued his case, the board stood firm. Later that night, Walker suffered a heart attack and was dead by morning. Four years later the injustice was finally reversed, but only by a federal court order.
With regard to health care, the story was tragically the same. The need for a Black hospital became clear in 1936 when a bus accident killed several farm laborers and injured many others. The wounded were brought to Memorial Hospital on East Broward Boulevard. In an outrageously cruel action, Memorial refused to admit them and left them lying on the grass outside.
Enter another of the city’s most important pioneers, Sylvia Aldridge, who washed and tended to the wounded.
Aldridge, once a maid for white families, had gone on to become one of the city’s first Black entrepreneurs, starting an employment agency for Blacks looking for restaurant, hotel and domestic work. When they had trouble getting around, she started a taxi service.
Shocked at the white hospital’s action, she went to work raising funds. After two years, with physicians Mizell and Sistrunk at the helm, Provident Hospital opened for the Black community.
As the century wore on, Blacks not only coped with the same pestilences the whites did – the oppressive heat, sandflies, mosquitoes, not to mention hurricanes and fires – but also faced segregationists, Klan members and a redistricting that restricted them to the northwest quadrant of the city.
The days of Mizell finding a patch for his tomatoes and no one caring faded as our town became “more sophisticated.” Even the beaches, long open to everyone, progressively became closed to “the colored” in the ’40s and ’50s.
It’s a disturbing history, but one that produced dozens of brave and fascinating souls in all walks of life. It’s not much talked about, but the stories are there, in books like My Soul Is a Witness and in the city’s Old Dillard Museum and African-American Research Library and Cultural Center, places where we can all get educated, and probably angry – but in the end inspired.