'The people's struggle'

Three of Gainesville's 'foot soldiers' being honored tonight


Published: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 9:40 p.m.
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Lucille Perkins was active in the civil rights movement during the 1960's. Perkins along with other activists worked to get the old Waffle House on University Avenue de-segregated and went door-to-door at night in an attempt to get other African-Americans registered to vote.

Rob C. Witzel / The Gainesville Sun

Facts

Awards banquet

  • What: 18th annual Martin Luther Ling Jr. Hall of Fame Banquet
  • When: 6 p.m. today
  • Where: Sheraton Hotel, 2900 SW 13th St.
  • Tickets: not available at the door

  • In the black communities, right in the heart of Gainesville back in the 1960s, some people didn't have indoor plumbing. Some didn't have electricity. But what they really wanted was even more basic: an equal chance.
    With the 1960s, finally, begrudgingly, came change. And many in Gainesville's African-American community battled fiercely for this change.
    Lucille Perkins, Carol Thomas and Pearlie Mae Stephens-Hunt didn't just witness the bigotry of the time. They didn't read about it in the papers. They dove into it head first. These women helped to register nervous voters. They helped integrate the jail, restaurants and schools. They brought Gainesville that much closer to where it is today, fighting in their little corner of the national movement.
    Tonight - in a Gainesville 40 years removed from the stress and strife of fighting for civil rights - these women will be honored by the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Florida as "civil rights foot soldiers." They will be awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Hall of Fame Award.
    But Carol Thomas doesn't want to be called a hero.
    "I hope this isn't all about me," she says. "If the people weren't there, I wouldn't have been there. You have to call it what it was - it was a community awakening and making demands on its own behalf and talking about self-determination. There was so much pride in the people that came out of it. It's really the story of Gainesville, of the people's struggle."

    From the eyes of a child

    Lucille Perkins, now 84 and still a pillar of strength, doesn't remember ever feeling fear when she, Carol Thomas and Pearlie May Hunt worked to integrate several Gainesville establishments.
    "You can be right and still get hurt," Perkins remembers thinking. "So I don't remember ever being afraid."
    However, Gladys, Lucille's daughter, watched the civil rights movement from the innocent eyes of a child, and remembers frightful times. She figures she was 8 or 9 when she, on occasion, used to join her mom in marches from the old Mt. Olive Primitive Baptist Church near Alachua General to the Florida Theater (today known as the Palace nightclub) or to the Waffle House (which sat on the site now occupied by a Checkers drive-in).
    Gladys vividly recalls the time, as a child, when lawmen arrived at her home near the corner of present-day SW 5th Avenue and 6th Street, warning her mother that they feared for her safety and that violence might erupt. Word was that Klansmen might pay them a visit. She remembers lawmen waiting and waiting, but no confrontation came.
    Gladys remembers the night that she, her mom and others stealthfully crossed Tumbling Creek and made their way to a black residential area known as The Branch (today, apartments just north of P.K. Yonge cover the site). They went door to door, encouraging those living there to vote in an upcoming election.
    To this day, Gladys says she can still picture her mom busy in the kitchen cooking, as others involved in the civil rights movement sat nearby, "talking, strategizing."
    They had much strategy to plot. If they weren't considering a sit-in or picketing at the Waffle House, it may have been at the College Inn across from the UF campus, or maybe the Humpty Dumpty restaurant, where today sits the 13th Street McDonald's.
    Perkins, Thomas, Hunt and many others who were immersed in civil rights protests had a long list of places they were determined to integrate: G.C. Murphy on W. 6th Street; the State Theater, which used to sit just west of the Seagle Building; the Primrose Inn, Canova, Wise's and Vidal drugstores, Woolworth and McCrory's, all located downtown.
    "These were very strong women, who sacrificed a lot," says Gladys, who believes these women's strength and mentoring has helped her a great deal over the years.

    From the eyes of a white activist

    Carol Thomas, now 69, remembers well the incident that she says ignited things: It was on Christmas Eve 1965, she says, when a small group of black men were walking down University Avenue. They stopped at the Waffle House, located where the Checkers restaurant is today. Though the restaurant was segregated, they dared to go in, in hopes of warming up with some coffee, according to Thomas.
    When the black men's order was ready, the lights of the restaurant suddently went black and, according to Thomas, customers attacked the men, throwing scalding coffee on them. One of them, Thomas recollects, was temporarily blinded.
    "The (white) men did it purposely to teach them a lesson, to teach them what their place was," says Thomas. "(Their place) was not there with the white men."
    Billy Thomas, who at the time was a UF physics professor and Carol's husband, says Carol's civil rights activism actually began before she arrived in Gainesville, when "we became very inflamed at the atrocious treatment of blacks at a sit-in" when they lived in Nashville, Tenn.
    Soon after the Thomases moved to Gainesville, "We both felt the weight of (racial) injustice quite a lot."
    "Carol has such high ideals," says Billy, long since divorced but still a close friend of Carol's. "She has been a rebel against middle-class values all her life. Blacks were not getting a fair shake, and we both felt very strongly about it."
    Carol met Lucille Perkins at the home of her children's playmates, where Perkins worked as a maid. Perkins eventually helped care for the Thomases' children, and Carol and Lucille's friendship strengthened.
    "As a white person, you didn't see much of the African-American community," Carol says. "You didn't connect very often with people different than you."
    Billy Thomas surmises that Lucille trusted Carol because, during that time, "almost all of Carol's time was spent on 'The Movement,' as we used to call it."
    Eventually, Perkins took Thomas through neighborhoods that she would never have seen, and introduced her to people she likely never would have met, had she been just any white woman.
    Soon, even with children to raise at home, Thomas immersed herself in Gainesville's civil rights movement. "She has many close friends in the black community," offers Billy Thomas.
    Sit-ins at the Waffle House had already begun when she returned from Christmas vacation after New Year's of 1966. Thomas lived just a few blocks from the restaurant, on the corner of SW 5th Avenue and 10th Street, so her house became a gathering place for picketers after protests.
    One night, Thomas recalls a few of the young black people at the protest came to the Thomases' afterward. Around 11:30, Thomas recalls, the kids stepped onto the porch to leave. In the darkness, they heard engines revving around them. As one car after another turned on its headlights, Thomas says she saw her house was surrounded, and the parking lot across the street filled with cars, as well.
    Thomas says she and the others hurried back into the house; Carol's husband put blankets over the windows. She recalls quickly calling police.
    "I'll never forget the tone of the police," Thomas says. "They said, 'Well, well, well, Ms. Thomas. What are you doing with people at your house at this hour?' It wasn't much later than 11:30. They finally sent one car over some time later," she said.
    As a result of that incident, Thomas says she was arrested for the first time, for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
    One of the young protesters missed his curfew, not wanting to go out and face the cars that encircled the house. Thomas says police charged her with harboring the boy.
    Later, in a courthouse packed with supporters including Hunt and Perkins, the judge threw out the case. Thomas says two police officers later stopped her on the street and told her they had been pressured to testify against her, but that they had refused.
    Thomas' next run-in with the law landed her in jail for eight months, convicted of contempt of court after she distributed outside a grand jury room a handbill critical of the grand jury, police and the fire department.
    It was 1967 and a black friend had told Thomas that a jail guard had been molesting black female inmates - an accusation that Thomas brought to the City Commission on Dec. 4. She was in jail before the New Year.
    "Things were escalating," Thomas recalls. "But people like Lucille and Pearlie Mae were there to support me. They were always there."
    There were marches, candlelight vigils, even firebombings.
    "Racism is like water in a tub," says Thomas. "When you put stones in it, it rises to a new level. All the changes raised the ante."
    She was released on bail after six weeks. Later, while participating in another civil rights march, she was arrested a third time, for resisting arrest. She served four months during the summer of '68.
    Thomas left Gainesville in 1969, amid what she says were rumors of a $1,500 price on her head. She has since returned to the area, and lives in Alachua.
    And these days, she and her ex-husband, Billy, "still value our friendship (with Lucille Perkins) quite a lot," says Billy. "When the kids come to town, one of the first things they want to do is go see Lucille."

    Somehow, she found the time

    Pearlie Mae Hunt-Stephens died in February 1988, taking with her much of the history of her fight for civil rights. Her son, Rodney Long, says she kept much of what she did from her children to keep them safe and untroubled.
    "I would have never known that my mother would have been honored by others now for what she did then," he says. "She would tell us she was going to a meeting or church, and that's where we left it."
    But as chairman of the Alachua County Commission, former mayor of Gainesville and many other civic titles, Long seems to have inherited traits he never knew his mother had.
    He says he just recently began uncovering the extent to which his mother was involved - which has created a whole new admiration for her.
    "I don't know how my mother found the time," Long says. "She was a single mother of seven, worked a full-time and a part-time job, and also cared for other members of my family," he said.
    Sharon Usher-Mann, Pearlie Mae's eldest daughter, remembers her mother as calm yet committed to the cause.
    "She hoped that one day things would change and knew they would in time. She also knew that it was the 'in time' that people had a problem with," she said.
    As her grandfather was a minister, Usher-Mann says her mother raised the children to rely on God and be thankful for life, no matter how much of a struggle it became.
    "I can't say that she was ever angry or bitter," Usher-Mann says. "She accepted it, but didn't give up hope of things to come."
    Usher-Mann remembers Lucille Perkins and Carol Thomas as friends of her mother's, and says that "together they were strong and they helped each other with the cause."
    Gladys Perkins, Lucille's daughter, remembers as a child seeing Pearlie Mae at the candlelight vigils when Thomas was in jail, at the civil rights marches. And she remembers sneaking door to door with her and her mother to encourage people to vote.
    "She believed in family and God and people. She was always willing to help," Gladys says of Pearlie Mae.
    Pearlie's work didn't stop upon her death. One day after church, shortly before she died, Pearlie Mae asked Gladys to promise something.
    "She wanted me to continue the work she had started and get involved with campaigns. She was sort of passing the torch," Gladys said.
    So today she works with the "Get Out and Vote" campaign, organizes rides and encourages political awareness. And, thanks to the efforts of her mother, Lucille, friends Pearlie Mae Stephens-Hunt and Carol Thomas and that '60s generation, Gladys doesn't have to do it in the dark.

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