Joseph F. Gennaro: The bad old days

Published: Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 at 9:58 p.m.

I moved to Gainesville with my wife and five children almost 52 years ago to teach at the University. The city was a very different place then, and in some ways even nicer than it is today.

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Jim Hope, who had the hardware store on SE 1st St., closed it in order to be able to take my wife and our baby home in the rain. He told her to get used to it and that, "she was no longer living in New York."

The "supermarket" was a Piggly Wiggly located on Main Street at about 10th Avenue. Shopping on Friday night, one could meet almost the entire population.

Discussions of race (and racial problems) rarely came up, but the black/white interface was so much a part of our lives that some incidents were unavoidable.

I accepted, as did the rest of the white population, the fact that the cooks, servers and cleaners (but none of the customers) in most if not all of the restaurants were black. However, it came as quite a shock to learn that many of these people lived in houses without running water or sanitary facilities.

As a consequence of this discovery I voted with many of the newcomers to require the city to provide these people sufficient infrastructure for these necessaries. The vote passed to the dismay of local developers who felt that the money would be "wasted".

I remember the amusement of the local people who watched me pull my four-year-old son out of the grocery. He was crying because I was too embarrassed to allow him to drink out of the drinking fountain marked "Colored." He was sure it would dispense Kool-Aid.

My eight-year-old daughter asked me why the elderly black man coming toward us near Wilson's department store stepped out into the street to allow us to pass before resuming his walk on the sidewalk. It was difficult to explain to her that some people thought that the difference in the color of one's skin made it impossible for us all to exist on the same "level playing field".

Since those days I have many times heard "university historians" talk about the seamless manner in which the University of Florida became racially integrated. Perhaps they don't remember the not altogether peaceful "sit ins" at the popular college eatery, the College Inn, which used to exist on University Avenue in an area later occupied by the Purple Porpoise. They seem not to have heard about the first black student who came to the university to study.

This was in the College of Medicine. She was a young lady of excellent family, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from a reputable college who, because of her race, was unable to live in a student dormitory or even (I was told by the other medical students) eat with them in the medical school cafeteria.

These hardships made it impossible for her to survive longer than one semester.

Later, another black medical student, now a physician alumnus and retired, was required by the chief of the University Police Department to show his report card each semester in order to get campus parking privileges for his car.

One of my coworkers was a black man who was unable to continue past his baccalaureate in mathematics because the university informed him that they did not accept people of his race in graduate school.

Fortunately, such times seem largely behind us.

Many visitors to the university find it hard to believe that they ever existed. I have to admit I rarely think about them myself except on days of special occasion.

But although I would like to think so, I am not sure that the wounds inflicted as a result of these practices are entirely healed.

Joseph F. Gennaro Jr. lives in Gainesville.

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