1920s: Building a Community of Civil Rights Leaders
In the first half of the 20th century, most affluent African Americans of West Palm Beach live in the Freshwater District, in houses built by local African American contractors and designed by Hazel Augustus, the city’s first African American architect.
Business owners in West Palm Beach include Dr. Thomas LeRoy Jefferson, the first black medical doctor and Dr. Warren Hale Collie, one of the first black dentists to practice in Palm Beach County. Collie is a veteran of World War I, where he served in France as a dentist with the 808th Pioneer Infantry.
Coleman Park is home to black doctors, attorneys and teachers. Dr. Hampton Jackson, who grew up on 21st Street and Division Avenue, becomes a successful physician; later in his life he operates on President Reagan’s knee.
James “Cracker” Johnson, a bootlegger and entrepreneur, is one of West Palm Beach’s most successful businessmen–and not just among African Americans–during the Great Depression. He contributes a great deal to West Palm Beach’s infrastructure, donating funds for a black hospital.
According to lifelong Coleman Park resident Earl Wilkins, Coleman Park “was a real beautiful community.” Its Tamarind Avenue business district bustles with black-owned grocery stores, clubs, beauty salons and a library. On Friday nights, residents walk up and down Tamarind on their way to Lincoln Park to watch football games at all-black Industrial High, and later Roosevelt High.
Coleman Park is also popular among Negro League Baseball stars gathered for spring training. Slugger Hank Aaron plays baseball in this neighborhood, as does Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella.
One resident is Josh Gibson, considered one of the best power hitters and catchers in the history of any league. “This was the heart of the Negro League,” said James Irving, vice president of the Coleman Park neighborhood association. “This is sacred ground and it just never got the recognition.”
Activism in Northwest
The Northwest neighborhood home of Alice Mickens at 801 4th St. hosts many famous people, many of whom stay at the Mickens rooming house across the street. On their large front porch, Alice Mickens chats with A. Philip Randolph, a civil rights activist who in 1925 organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly African-American labor union.
Mickens is herself an activist. Another guest at her home is Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach in 1929. Together, they work to get women the right to vote, aware of the particular barriers for black women. By 1920, 36 states ratify the 19th Amendment passed by Congress, which gives women the right to vote, yet not every state votes to ratify it at the time. In fact, Florida does not ratify the 19th Amendment until 1969!
Both Mickens and Bethune also work together to raise funds and persuade the state Legislature to provide a home for young black women faced with prison sentences.
The Lakeside Cemetery Association is unable to maintain “the Colored Cemetery.” It donates it to the City of West Palm Beach without restrictions, and no further burials take place. The City converts the cemetery to a public park known as Dixie playground, which it later renames Flamingo Park.
The Sunset Lounge is built in 1926, and becomes a landmark in Northwest. It hosts jazz big band legends like Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong.
Hazel Augustus, the area’s first black architect, constructs the home of Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry.
In later years, Cherry becomes the first Black woman to serve as a legislator for the State of Florida. She is also the first black female law student to attend the University of Miami and to practice law in Miami-Dade County. In 1966, she becomes the first nine attorneys who initially served at Legal Services of Greater Miami.
After 1970, when she is elected as a state representative, she introduces the Equal Rights Amendment, the Martin Luther King, Jr. state holiday, and other legislation. She is elected to four terms and serves until 1979. She works with many to remove the barriers to equal opportunities for women and persons of color.
Cherry’s house briefly houses a Palm Beach County Black Historical Society, but it is vandalized and later burned down in a fire, destroying its records.
1928: The Hurricane
In 1928, a hurricane (on September 16) comes ashore near the Jupiter Lighthouse and travels west across Palm Beach County to Lake Okeechobee. It devastates communities along the coast, with flooding killing between 1,800 and 3,000 people.
Many of the fatalities occur when the Lake Okeechobee dike collapses, flooding the populated south side of the lake. In West Palm Beach, 69 white victims are placed in a mass grave in Woodlawn Cemetery and 674 African Americans are interred in the city’s unmarked pauper’s burial field at Tamarind Avenue and 25th Street.
Many others are never found.
On October 1, 1928, a city-proclaimed hour of mourning for the victims is observed. Memorial rites are conducted simultaneously at both of the burial sites. At the pauper’s cemetery, black educator and anti-lynching activist Mary McLeod Bethune reads the mayor’s proclamation to the 3,000 people attending the ceremonies.
On November 20, 1929, a city ordinance uses boundary lines to mark Pleasant City and the adjoining black Northwest neighborhoods as the “negro district.”
The Westgate Tabernacle Church opens.
1930s: Growth of Black Homeownership & Civic Life
In the 1930s, most black Palm Beach County residents live in areas between “Dixie Highway” and what is now I-95. Overcrowding pushes blacks north into Riviera Beach between the two sets of railroad tracks.
Black businesses continued to grow, and not all of them were run by men. According to West Palm Beach native Gwendolyn French, her grandmother Ella Gilbert was one of the finest and most sought out seamstress in West Palm Beach. She made the caps and gowns for the American Red Cross and sewed dresses and other articles of clothing for the wealthy and prominent residents in Palm Beach.
- Lifelong West Palm Beach resident Gwendolyn French recalls that her grandfather fled his Seminole Tribe by way of Georgia and then moved to Pleasant City so his daughter Elmira (Gwendolyn’s mother) could attend school for free. Elmira attended Kindergarten at a (black) private school in Pleasant City, for which he paid 50 cents a month. The school was run by Miss Roberts, an educator who graduated from Wilberforce University, the nation’s first HBCU (Historically Black College & University), located in Ohio.
- From the 1930s through the 1950s, Pleasant City is almost never mentioned in the white press. Instead, it is mentioned in the police blotter. According to West Palm Beach resident Everee Jimerson Clarke, it became an enterprising and largely self-sufficient black community. “Most people continued to work on Palm Beach, on the big estates and at hotels. But when they came home, it was a world of our own — stores, schools, doctors, lawyers — all black. We didn’t have to go outside for anything.”
- Clarke spends the summers of her childhood in Pleasant City, where her father owned a farm near the railroad tracks at what is now 19th Street. “Daddy was a preacher. But we got a lot out of the land. My brothers used to sell fruits and vegetables to whites on the highway. They’d go out at night and get turtle eggs from the beach — it was legal, then — they’d sell them too.”
- Northwest residents include business owners, domestics and employees in service jobs. They work hard, attend church, and put their children through school and college. Resident Jimmie E. Jones is the first black public school teacher (he began teaching in 1894). Thomas and Henry Speed are the area’s first black real estate brokers and lumber yard owners.
- Northwest resident Alice Mickens continues to host legendary African Americans in her home, including noted educator and anti-lynching activist Mary McLeod Bethune and legendary band leaders like Count Basie and Louis Armstrong.
- In 1938, Northwest resident Leander A. Kirksey organizes the State High School Band Association.
The City of West Palm Beach creates the West Palm Beach Housing Authority, a quasi-governmental hybrid born from the Federal Housing Act of 1937. The Housing Act is the first national effort to provide shelter for the poor. It provides federal funding for low-income housing but requires that programs be initiated, owned, and operated by locally appointed, state-authorized bodies.
While the mayor appoints the housing authority board, the housing board is autonomous; it has the power to issue bonds and to seize property by eminent domain.
The West Palm Beach Housing Authority completes its first two (racially segregated) projects in 1938:
- Southridge (whites only): 248 units south of downtown.
- Dunbar Village (blacks only): 246 apartments on the other side of the railroad tracks, to the west of Pleasant City.
West Palm Beach native Gwendolyn French says that her family was one of the first 15 families to move into Dunbar Village. Clarke remembers Dunbar as a refuge for Pleasant City residents, who have fled there in hurricane season to escape less-well-constructed dwellings. “One time, folks thought you were something if you lived in Dunbar,” she says.
1940s: Black Leadership
22 Feb 1972, Tue The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Florida) Newspapers.comIn 1940, Clifton G. Dyson opens up a drugstore in West Palm Beach and becomes a registered real estate developer and broker. He had graduated from Fisk University, where he had served as president of the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers and a member of the prestigious black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha.
In the decades to follow, he becomes the first black member of the Florida Board of Regents, an associate trustee of Bethune Cookman College, president of the Gulfstream Goodwill Industries, member of the West Palm Beach planning board, the Bi-Racial Committee of Palm Beach Public School Council, the Palm Beach County Housing Authority, and the Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America. He is awarded honorary degrees from Florida A&M University and Edward Waters College; he receives numerous awards as well, including the Boy Scouts Beaver Award.
Famous African American guests at Alice Mickens’ Northwest home include political scientist, academic and diplomat Ralph Bunche (the first African American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize).
The City of West Palm Beach hires its first black police officers, Primus Green and Dwight Bolden, to patrol the Northwest neighborhood.
- Whites begin to move into new homes being built along Military Trail. Schools are built near these homes.
- The westward expansion of West Palm Beach in the 1950s creates housing opportunities beyond the CSX railroad, and these changes begin to impact the Northwest neighborhood of West Palm Beach. According to Bettye Dawson, who grew up in Northwest, “I’m not saying that living in a segregated community was paradise, but I am saying it wasn’t all bad. It caused self-sufficiency. There was a sense of upward mobility, of pride, of moving higher and wanting our children to move higher.”
- The Northwest neighborhood is home to many entrepreneurs. According to Stafford Ferguson, “All the businesses were owned by blacks. We had Carl Robinson, who had about four supermarkets, all your restaurants black-owned, the service stations black-owned and my father had a fish market at one time and a grocery store.”
- Venues in Northwest include the Little Savoy Hotel and Cafe, the Dixie and Grand theaters and Cracker Johnson’s Florida Bar. After church on Sundays, locals meet friends for ice cream sodas and conversation at popular eateries like Hamburger Haven. A popular upscale restaurant is the Plantation Supper Club at the corner of 10th Street and Tamarind Avenue.
Roosevelt Junior-Senior High School replaces Industrial High School. The former Industrial building hosts U.B. Kinsey/Palm View Elementary School. Other campus buildings of Old Industrial High School are demolished, with the exception of the chapel.
These schools are “the glue that kept the community together,” according to Bettye Dawson, who grew up in Northwest and is a 1950 Industrial graduate. Cultural events and assemblies occur throughout the year, and morning chapel features guest speakers, choral and band concerts.
A University of Miami study characterizes the black neighborhoods of West Palm Beach as congested slums.
The West Palm Beach Housing Authority completes the 118-unit Twin Lakes housing project in the still-segregated Northwest neighborhood.
Attorney Bill Holland files a landmark state lawsuit against Palm Beach County school district, in order to desegregate the schools. “Because of the racial patterns in the county, it required the movement of blacks from one end to the other,” he says.
The City of West Palm Beach sells 5,500 acres of its westward expansion area for $4.35 million to Louis R. Perini, Sr., president of Perini Corporation of Massachusetts. Perini’s company spends millions to transform swamp into dry land.
The city requires Perini to start with housing for African Americans. On 500 acres west of the Northwest and Pleasant City communities, between Lake Mangonia and Clear Lake, Perini adds moderate-income Roosevelt Estates.