Local residents step up and make a difference
Published: Sunday, August 25, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 10:56 p.m.
The summer of 1963 in Gainesville was a time for change and making a difference.
For many black residents, all they wanted was to be able to sit down and enjoy a movie at one of the downtown Gainesville theaters and eat a meal at a restaurant counter.
And they fought for this opportunity by holding demonstrations and lunch counter sit-ins.
Nationwide, the summer of 1963 sparked a momentum in the civil rights movement as protests, sit-ins, voter registration drives and marches — some of which were extremely violent, especially at the hands of law enforcement — ushered in a new reality of life, especially with the most famous march of all — the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963, which attracted more than 200,000 citizens.
But back in Gainesville, many residents took matters into their own hands.
Breaking ’em down
Denifield Player, who was in his early 20s at the time, and Gainesville residents Vernon Hayes, James Miller and Chester Player, Denifield Player’s younger brother, staged a sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter at the store located on the northwest corner of University Avenue and Main Street.
“Gainesville was totally segregated,” he said, “and blacks were still going to the back door of restaurants.” Although Player and the others sat at the lunch counter, they were not served. He said they were told by an employee that it “was not store policy to serve Negroes.”
But that didn’t stop Player and the others. They immediately sought the guidance of their pastor at Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church and were encouraged to organize the NAACP Youth Council.
Other actions led to the city of Gainesville in 1963 forming a biracial committee that dealt with the issue of segregation in Gainesville, which eventually was lifted in stages beginning later in 1963 as a result of those efforts.
Aaron Green, a retired Alachua County American history teacher who was 17 at the time, said Gainesville blacks “had a lot of white folks on our side,” including University of Florida professors and other liberal-minded whites. He also praised the efforts of the city to form the biracial committee.
But there was a reason behind the protests.
“The goal was to integrate restaurants and theaters,” said Player, who was raised in the Northwest Fifth Avenue/Pleasant Street neighborhood.
At the time, there were two theaters in downtown Gainesville, the Florida Theatre, which still stands today, and State Theater, which was located in a building between the Seagle Building and what is now the Santa Fe College Center for Innovation and Economic Development.
Green said the problem wasn’t with State Theater but with the Florida Theatre. “We had to break Florida Theatre down,” he said, “and we had to break Woolworth’s down.”
Player, who retired as an associate in anatomy in the University of Florida Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, said he remembers when he had a newspaper route and would get hungry, he could go only to Louis Lunch at Southeast Second Street and Fifth Avenue and go to the back door to buy a burger.
“That’s the way it was,” he said. “Those weren’t good times, the days of segregation.”
He said he also remembers working at the Florida Theatre, where he cleaned the bathrooms while in high school, and having popcorn thrown on him by white patrons and also going to the doctor near what used to be Alachua General Hospital and having to enter by the back door.
For Dan Harmeling, life in Gainesville was a little different. Harmeling, who is white, and his twin brother, the late Jim Harmeling, were juniors in the summer of 1963 at the University of Florida majoring in psychology. They lived in what was then called the Student Ghetto, now College Park, north of University Avenue.
They learned about “activism,” he said, and the “theater incident,” a demonstration at Florida Theatre in downtown Gainesville, through a story in The Gainesville Sun. Harmeling described the incident as a “white and black standoff.”
After that, Harmeling attended an NAACP meeting and joined the protests and also the local branch of the NAACP. Participating in demonstrations in and near Gainesville, including St. Augustine, became a way of life.
“This was a new way of living,” he said. “The way to make change is to live the change you want.”
In Gainesville, Harmeling said housing was segregated, public facilities and restaurants, too.
“I was raised in Wisconsin in 1950, so I was isolated from it,” he said.
After leaving the Student Ghetto, Harmeling moved to a rooming house near the Gainesville Police Department on Northwest Sixth Street and Eighth Avenue, where he said a black woman rented rooms to blacks and also white students. He remembers a black roommate being stopped by police after crossing Northwest 13th Street after dark and being questioned about where he was going and having a light shined in his face.
“Yes,” he said, “the walls of segregation meant you keep us apart, but you can dismantle walls.”
Both Player and Harmeling received awards for their fight for equal rights by the Rosa Parks Quiet Courage Committee, founded in 2006 by the Rev. Milford L. Griner, pastor of Pleasant Plain United Methodist Church in Jonesville. Player was honored in 2011 and Harmeling in 2008.
The award recognizes Gainesville residents who have carried on the legacy of Parks, whose refusal in 1955 to give up her seat to a white passenger while on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala., sparked protests in that city and led to the world becoming familiar with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Bad, but not worse
Albert White, 18 at the time, and home for the summer after his freshman year at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, N.C., recalls the theater demonstrations but said they were not as intense as what he witnessed in Greensboro as a result of the lunch counter sit-ins at the Woolworth’s there.
However, he vividly recalled returning to Gainesville after going bowling in Ocala, where there was a black bowling alley, and running into a large group of protesters — blacks and also white males — who had returned to the Northwest Fifth Avenue area — “which was open to us” — following a demonstration at a theater in downtown Gainesville. The police were out in force, and there was a lot of “discord going on,” he said.
White, who was raised in the Canty Heights/Springhill neighborhood, north of Williams Elementary School, said the black community had no relationship with the Gainesville Police Department, and there were maybe four or five black officers on the force who only could arrest fellow blacks. However, white officers could arrest blacks, too.
But White, when comparing Gainesville with Greensboro, N.C., said the Gainesville protests were not as violent, and the situation was more laid back and civil, but still bad.
“We had some brave leaders here to make a difference,” he said. The city was more receptive, but it could have done better.”
White said that on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of transitioning to a community of one, he would give Gainesville a 5. “It could have been better, but it wasn’t worse.”
Clara Griffin, a longtime Gainesville resident and retired hair salon owner, made the same point.
She said her children were involved in a sit-in at what was the Humpty Dumpty restaurant on Northwest 13th Street near what is now Krispy Kreme. She said the demonstrators were carried to jail as a result of the protest but were not arrested. She said restaurants were a big problem when it came to serving blacks, but the department stores were more accommodating.
“You could go to Wilson’s, Bob’s shoe store, and you could go in the front door, but the restaurants didn’t want you there,” she said.
Griffin said her children also wanted to go to Gainesville High School, but “GHS didn’t want blacks there,” she said. At GHS, she said, to discourage her children from enrolling, they were told they would be put back a grade.
However, the next year, LaVon Wright Bracy and Joel Buchanan integrated GHS, but not without taunts and repercussions from the students.
Green, who also participated participated in the NAACP Youth Council and the demonstrations, said the protests sparked a fire in older blacks, which resulted in them running for office in Gainesville, and “they kept running and kept running,” he said.
But the first one to win an office after 1963 was the late Neil Butler, who was elected to the Gainesville City Commission in 1969. He became mayor of Gainesville in 1971.
There was Charles Chestnut III, who lost his first election to the Alachua County Commission but came back in 1976 and won a seat on the Alachua County School Board, becoming the first black to ever serve on the board. He remained in office until 1992. Then, there was Green himself, who was elected to the City Commission in 1975, serving as mayor-commissioner from 1978 to 1979 and remaining in office until 1981.
In recent years, Gainesville native Rodney J. Long has held positions on both the City Commission and the County Commission. He was elected to the City Commission in 1991 and the County Commission in 2000. He left office in 2011.
Cynthia Moore Chestnut, a native of Tallahassee and a longtime Gainesville resident, was first elected to the Gainesville City Commission in 1987, becoming the first black woman to serve as mayor-commissioner in 1989. She also served in the Florida House from 1990 to 2000 and the Alachua County Commission from 2002 to 2012.
Currently, Charles “Chuck” Chestnut IV is a member of the County Commission, and Gainesville native Yvonne Hinson-Rawls, a retired educator, sits on the City Commission. Charles “Chuck” Chestnut also was a member of the Florida House from 2006 to 2012 and the City Commission from 2000 to 2006, serving as mayor pro tem in 2003-04 and again in 2005-06. Representing area residents in the Florida House today is Rep. Clovis Watson.