1960s: Housing Divides
In the 1960s, the West Palm Beach Housing Agency begins to buy property in Pleasant City, flooding it with scattered-site housing for income-restricted residents: 132 apartments in 33 quadplexes. Residents are stereotyped as drug addicts and welfare mothers.
According to former West Palm Beach Mayor Joel Daves, “The authority brought all these low-income people into a neighborhood that was already on the way down and washed their hands of it. The authority let the tenants basically trash everything.”
In remarks about the project in 2002, Isaac “Ike” Robinson Jr., then West Palm Beach’s only African-American commissioner, explains that “Pleasant City was a neighborhood of homeowners before the authority moved in.” He calls the housing authority “the biggest slumlord in the city.”
These characterizations of poor (and black) residents as the cause of poor housing conditions ignored other forces at work at the time, like job discrimination, unjust treatment by the criminal justice system (well-documented in the book, The New Jim Crow), huge disparities in the resources provided to black schools versus white or predominantly white schools, disparities in terms of access to medical treatment, racial bias in schools and other institutions, etc.
Policies, practices and racial attitudes continued to shape the lives of local residents and the built environment in which they lived. Racial segregation continued to make its mark, even after it was made illegal. Integration brought unforeseen consequences, too, like less patronizing of black businesses.
The Building of I-95 and the New Divisions of West Palm Beach
At the time the construction of I-95 begins in the late 1960s, US-1 (Broadway Ave) Corridor is the main corridor and the economic driver for the City’s Northend communities. It is the main route residents use to travel from the Northern/Eastern sections of Palm Beach County into downtown West Palm Beach, and many of its small hotel/motel businesses cater to vacationers traveling to Palm Beach County. The construction of I-95, which continues into the 1970s, leads to Broadway businesses relocating west to the 1-95 corridor and the Palm Beach Mall, leaving businesses struggling to survive, and results in an economic downturn for Northend neighborhoods.
The City is then divided into four unique sections: Southend, Downtown, Western and the Northend. Few resources go to the Northend in the years to follow; it loses out in the competition for funds. As longtime resident Robert Taylor, CEP, explains, it becomes the city’s “Sacrifice Zone,” leading to growing inequities that persist to this day.
Thanks to longtime efforts by the African American law firm of Holland and Smith based in West Palm Beach, the school system in Palm Beach County begins a slow process of desegregation. To comply with one ruling, in 1961 Palm Beach County offers a plan that results in the transfer of four black students to white high schools.
- By 1965, of the county’s 15,000 minority students, 137 attend predominantly white schools. Palm Beach County closes Pleasant City’s elementary school, and children in West Palm Beach are bused to ten different schools for racial balance. According to local residents, the Northwest neighborhood suffers significantly when children are sent to different schools and middle and upper-class blacks move to other parts of West Palm Beach, however.
- In integrated schools, not all white teachers foster a connection with the students and expectations of African American students are low. According to Kenneth “Hamburger” Allen, operator of Hamburger Haven in West Palm Beach’s Northwest neighborhood, “the glue began to deteriorate. They took away the pride.” According to Gwen Ferguson, president of the Black Historical Preservation Society of Palm Beach County, “Many people felt that just by placing black kids in classrooms with white teachers, they would automatically do better in school. “I don’t think black kids received the reception in school that they should have. Those things are changing, but it hasn’t changed enough.”
- Northwest business owners Thelma H. Starks and her husband Dennis, who operated the Sunset Lounge for more than 30 years, say that after integration, “We stopped patronizing our own. Everybody was anxious to go to the whites — they wanted to see what it was all about – and then our businesses began to deteriorate.”
- Coleman Park suffers, too. Crime, which was once concentrated in the Pleasant City neighborhood and the area that is now CityPlace, creeps into Coleman Park. According to lifelong West Palm Beach resident Frances Coffield, Coleman Park was never wealthy, but it was peaceful. “You could sleep in your house with the windows open,” she said. “You didn’t have to close your doors.” According to resident Earl Wilkins, “it hurts me to hear people say it’s blighted, because it’s still a nice community. It’s just economically depressed, and it’s been economically depressed since integration.”
- Territorial disputes hinder funding for community recreational facilities, with fewer funds devoted to historically African American neighborhoods.
- Citizens of West Palm Beach protest efforts by the city to sell Flamingo Park — an African American burial ground — for commercial development.
- The Phyllis Wheatley Branch of the West Palm Beach Public Library (then the Memorial Library) closes its doors permanently on October 1, 1966, after more than a decade of operation, due to impending budget cuts from the city. The last librarian to work there is Ida Mae Burns. In 1961 a dance is held to generate funds to purchase children’s books for the Phyllis Wheatley Branch.
Clarke founds a chapter of the black National Business League and tries to foster a Pleasant City commercial district on Northwood Road.
The West Palm Beach Housing Authority is building new homes and takes over administration of the federal Section 8 program of rent vouchers for the poor.
1970s: Changing Neighborhoods
Everee Jimerson Clarke runs twice ran for the West Palm Beach City Commission, losing each time in runoffs. She is committed to building minority business development.
In 1970, Gwendolyn Cherry–who inherits a home in the Northwest neighborhood–becomes the first Black woman to serve as a legislator for the State of Florida. 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.
- Clarke’s daughter Renee dies in a swimming accident at age 17. She is the first African American buried at previously all-white Royal Palm Memorial Cemetery.
- African Americans start to shop and dine outside Pleasant City due to integration, with negative impacts on Pleasant City’s black-owned business community. Residents like Clarke try without success to transform an abandoned department store into a supermarket and office complex. “Pleasant City was devastated,” says Everee Jimerson Clarke. “The children of the old families moved out. They sold off the old homes to absentee landlords. They rented them out and didn’t do a thing about upkeep. So many of the new people were transient and poor — they didn’t care.”
Florida introduces statewide examinations for every level of education. When it launches a literacy test in 1977, 78% of black students flunk the test, compared to 25% of whites.
In the court case Debra P. v. Turlington, plaintiffs file a class action lawsuit against Florida Commissioner of Education Ralph Turlington, challenging the Florida competency test graduation requirement. They claim that the test and/or the testing program are racially biased and violate the 14th Amendment. They also claim that students are not given adequate notice of the competency requirement nor enough time to prepare for the test. Plaintiffs sugget that the remediation program is in effect”resegregating” the public schools.
In Florida, teachers are provided the competancy objects only four months before actual testing is to begin.
The District Court rules that the Florida competency test cannot be administered fairly at the present time. The school authorities must refrain from using the test as a graduation requirement until the 1982-83 school year. African Americans are often given “certificates of completion” in Florida, and these are not considered a diploma for purposes of state employment or higher education. Florida hires only 10% of its labor force from those who lack high school diplomas. Only those with recognized diplomas receive acceptance into the state universities.
Moreover, many of Florida’s competency tests profess to measure “adult life skills,” even when schools do not offer instruction in these areas. After three tests had been given, for example, slightly more than twenty percent of the black students failed all three compared to two percent of the white students.