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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida.
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
Interviewee: Rosalie Gordon-Mills
Interviewer: Diana Edwards
September 23, 1990
E: This is an interview with Rosalie Gordon-Mills in St. Augustine. Today is
September 23, 1990, and I am Diana Edwards.
We can start by figuring out what you should tell me. Feel free to talk about
whatever topic that you think is important. Let us start [though] by your
telling us who you are, your full name, and who your parents were and what
they did. Tell us a bit about your family background.
G: My name is Rosalie Gordon-Mills.
E: What was your maiden name?
G: Rosalie Robinson. Now it is Rosalie Robinson Gordon-Mills. I was born in
Tallahassee, about three miles from the downtown area. My parents were
from Tallahassee, both of them.
E: What were their names?
G: Arthur Howard Robinson and Callie Eliza Ferrell Robinson.
E: What was her maiden name?
G: Callie Eliza Ferrell Robinson. She was a teacher, and he was a farmer. His
specialty was the milk dairy, which he produced and shipped to Jacksonville
and other places south for a number of years. She became a teacher because
my paternal grandmother was a slave, and she taught right after slavery [was
abolished]. Grandmother's idea to become a teacher had developed when she
was a maid in the home of very well-to-do people in the Tallahassee area.
She had been given the responsibility of taking care of the little girl who was
the madame's daughter.
E: Do you remember the family's name?
G: No, I do not. She told me this years ago, but I guess I was too young to really
put it on paper and know who she was talking about. Anyway, she said she
had had only this one job and had worked for these people as a little girl and
then as a teenager. When she became old enough to go to school with the
madame's daughter, the madame gave her the responsibility of taking care of
the daughter--taking her lunchbox to school, seeing that she ate her lunch and
washed her hands after lunch and so forth, and [making sure she] went back
to class. She [Grandmother] was supposed to sit in the back of the classroom
and wait for the madame to come out every day and take her home.
She said that it was easy to watch what was happening in the classroom,
although she [was] sitting in the back of the room. She knew what went on
in the front of the room, and she learned a lot. It was against the law for
black people to read, so nobody could say that she was learning. She did not
tell anybody. But when the lady's daughter got into trouble with her
schoolwork, my grandmother said, "I can help her." The madame said: "If you
can help her, Henrietta, you do that because I need you to help her. We are
not going to tell anybody that you know as much as you do and that you
E: What would have happened to her if people had known she could read and
G: Well, I do not know. She might have failed. I have tried to find out from her
grandmother if the child would have failed in school had she not been there.
She seemed to have thought she was somewhat retarded. There was not that
much on retardation at that point.
Anyway, my grandmother said that she worked hard with her and went to
school with her until the slaves were freed. When the slaves were freed, my
grandmother was well on her way to getting a good basic education. She
pursued this business of getting schooling. She was one of the first black
women to be given a school, a one-teacher school. She had a lot of pupils
and a lot of classes in the same room, but it was a job, and it was a vocation.
E: Right. And this would have been right after the Civil War?
G: Yes, right after the Civil War. My grandmother had twelve children, and all
of them lived to be grown but two. My father was the oldest of the twelve.
After he and my mother were married, my mother was intrigued with her
mother-in-law's [education and vocation]. My mother had been to school
because she was not born in slavery, but she learned from my grandmother
how to get a certificate and how to have a one-teacher school, how to drive
the buggy and take care of the kids and get to school on time. I followed the
pattern of my grandmother by sitting in the back of the room by going to
school with my mother every day.
E: Oh, you did?
G: I sat in the back of my mother's classroom, and I learned to read and write
and all this stuff. When my mother found out that I was reading, she was in
shock because she had not taught me anything about reading. She thought I
was not quite ready. I had just picked it up from crawling around, playing
with my toys in the back of the classroom. So I enjoyed learning that my
mother and my grandmother started off with one-room schoolhouses.
My grandmother did a lot of this [teaching] when I was very small, but then
she gave up teaching because her kids were all grown and my grandfather had
died. She did not want to keep on working, so she retired. My mother kept
on teaching, and she moved on to better jobs and so forth.
To make a long story short about Tallahassee, when I came along, I went to
elementary school at Florida A & M University [FAMU]. There was an
elementary and a high school there in those days.
E: Were they part of the education department of Florida A & M?
G: The school provided the elementary school for the children of the professors.
Of course, it was open to anybody else who wanted to send their kids to
school in that area. There were a lot of walk-in kids that lived around
campus. I did not live near the campus, but I came in as a boarding student
with a family on campus and went to the elementary school.
E: You were a boarder even in elementary school?
G: Yes, I was a boarder in the elementary school. Although I was from
Tallahassee, it was too far to get from my house to the elementary school,
which was beyond the college, every morning. I had great difficulty [getting
there] and back home.
E: And your mother was still teaching, so she would not be able to take you?
G: Yes, my mother was employed, and my father was busy with shipping his milk,
so they had me board-in with this family.
E: You have two brothers?
G: I have two brothers. My mother lost two babies in her lifetime. One was
about two, and one was about one and a half. So she had three left [at that
time]. She had six kids all together: two died as babies, one died as a young
man, and three reached maturity.
E: Did the two die of one of the childhood diseases?
G: Yes. One had whooping cough, and one had pneumonia. They did not have
any of the [modern] drugs. That left four of us. She lost her oldest boy when
he was a young man playing football at Talladega College [in Talladega,
Alabama]. He had pneumonia. He played football one day in the rain and
developed pneumonia. They did not have sulfa drugs at that point. This was
in 1931. So she really lost three children.
E: So she had six?
E: Are your brothers younger than you or older?
G: I am the oldest child. The brother that died was next to me by ten months.
Of the two boys who are living, one is a physician in Lumberton, North
Carolina. He is married and has one child. The other is a lawyer in
Washington, D.C. He has two children.
E: Why did the one go to Lumberton?
G: The one that studied and went to Lumberton wanted to be a country doctor.
He always wanted to be a country doctor. As a little boy he wanted to study
medicine to be a country doctor. Somehow I guess he did not think of
drifting back to St. Augustine. I always wondered about that. He could have
been a nice country doctor here. But when I came here after I graduated
from college (I am getting a little bit ahead of myself) there were four black
physicians here at that point. Now we do not have any.
E: There were four?
G: Well, there were three physicians and one pharmacist. They called the
pharmacists doctors in those days, so that is why I said there were four
doctors. There were three physicians and one pharmacist.
Anyway, the brother who is in Washington, DC, studied law because he always
wanted to be a lawyer.
Let me back up. We came from Tallahassee to St. Augustine when President
Joseph A. Collier, who was president of the Florida Memorial College here,
came to Tallahassee to deliver a commencement address. [In 1912 it was St.
Augustine Industrial School. The college has since moved to Miami.] I was
a little girl, and my mother had a very good friend on campus who wanted her
to meet President Collier because she wanted my mother to have my father
sell the farm and leave Tallahassee so that he could make more money and
they could give the kids a better education than they could on the farm. My
father was not much for that because he had the two white horses and the
carriage. Every child had a horse, and he thought he was about as big a wig
as one could be on the hill in a nice house. [laughter] He thought he was
doing very well, but my mother had different ideas. She just said that cash
flow was not good enough and that they needed better jobs.
So President Collier did come and have dinner with us after he delivered the
commencement address that year, and he asked my father, "Are you married
to this beautiful place you have here?" My father said: "No, not really. If you
want to show me something better, [I would be interested]."
E: What year was that?
G: I was trying to think what year that was. I would have to go to my records to
see what year that was. But we were all small. I was still in high school, and
my brothers were seniors in elementary school. My brothers came home to
St. Augustine with my parents, but I stayed on and boarded and finished high
school in Tallahassee.
E: That would have been somewhere around about 1920?
G: Oh, no, this was much before that. I just do not want to take the time that
we have because I might be so wrong. It was a long time ago. My brothers
were young. [It was probably around 1912.]
E: You did not tell me the year you were born. Did you mean to leave that out?
G: I was born May 6, 1907.
E: May 6 is my son's birthday! Those are good people, those May 6 people.
G: Right. Beautiful. [laughter] So President Collier did make it attractive for
my father to take charge of the agriculture at the college, and my mother [was
hired] as a teacher.
E: At Florida Memorial [formerly St. Augustine Industrial]?
G: At the college. They both accepted jobs and moved to St. Augustine.
E: Oh, I did not know that was how you ended up here.
G: That is how I came here. I did not come here then. That is how they came
here; that is how the family came. It was a lot of years before I got here. I
stayed on and finished high school and then went to Florida A & M. I went
home summers and then went back to FAMU. They did not understand this
at Florida Memorial, because they could not understand why I did not come
with the family and just stay. I had started my high school there, so I wanted
to finish there.
Then when I finished, I did not want to come here to go to college. I wanted
to go to Boston University. That was in the back of my mind.
E: How did you decide on Boston University instead of Collier-Blocker?
G: Well, I was more interested in knowing the other side of the coin. I wanted
to live in a place that was not segregated. I wanted to go to a school that was
not segregated. I just wanted to know what made the world tick.
E: Had you ever been up North?
G: I had been as far as Washington, DC. That is about mid-way. That was
about the extent of my travels.
E: Had you gone there with your family?
G: No. When I was in Tallahassee, I was always elected to be the representative
of some conference--the YWCA or whatever--and I was a delegate here and
a delegate there. I did a lot of traveling in Tennessee. That is how I went to
Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, that is how I went to St. Augustine's [College]
in [Raleigh,] North Carolina, and just lots of places. They sent me because
I would come back and give a good report. I worked hard on campus as an
officer of the YWCA, so I got to travel a lot when I was young. But I did not
go up North.
Somewhere deep inside of me was this burning desire to know the other side
of the coin, so I decided that I would keep up this vision and figure out a way
to do this. Although my parents had better jobs and had more money, they
still did not have that kind of money to send me [to the] North and to pay
that kind of tuition.
E: Did they think it was a good idea for you to go north?
G: They did not think it was a good idea to begin with because my father had
heard how girls walking the streets of New York would fall in those vents on
the street and would be carried away to some foreign country and never be
heard from again.
E: Oh, dear! That is pretty scary. [laughter]
G: I still will not walk on a vent in New York. [laughter] I did not have the
money, and I did not worry about it. I worried more about getting my father's
consent. My mother always thought I was smart, and she was always willing
to hear my side of anything. I was not too ambitious for her, but I was much
too ambitious for my father. It worried him a lot. I was the only girl and his
favorite child, but he did not have the control that he wanted because he
could not control my mind. This bothered him, too. So he thought: "I will
just flatly refuse to let her go, and that will settle that. I do not want to hear
any talk about it." I heard my mother say to him one night (they did not
know that I was still awake): "If she still wants to go anyway, it will be awfully
embarrassing. Don't you think it would be much better to give her your
blessing and whatever else you have that you could give her?"
E: Your mother was pretty smart.
G: That is right. My mother was a very smart cookie. She said: "I think that
would be so much nicer. She will take care of herself. She is a good girl, and
she will come back." He said, "Yes, but you do not know what condition she
will come back in." My mother said: "Let's not cross any bridges. Just give
her a chance and let her try." He said, "What will she use for money?" My
mother said: "That is a good idea. What will she use for money? She seems
to have it all mapped out."
Well, I had taken typing and shorthand in high school, and I thought I was
good. I had taken home economics, and I had lived in Tallahassee. There
were very few summers that I did not take a whole lot of stuff. Whatever I
could take, I would take. I learned how to sew, how to cook, how to type,
how to write shorthand, and I thought that some of those skills would be
salable. I thought if push came to shove, I could scrub floors. I did not know
if they paid well for scrubbing floors. Whatever it took, that is what I was
willing to do.
Somehow it got through to President Collier that I was planning on leaving
as soon as I graduated and that nobody was able to talk me out of it. He
said: "I will tell you what we will do. If Miss Felder" (his secretary) "wants to
go on vacation, we will hire Miss Robinson to run the office for us while she
is away. Miss Felder and I will both take our vacations at the same time, and
we will leave her in charge. She will open the mail and answer it, and do the
best she can with the situation. She will work with Miss Blocker." Miss
Blocker was the lady that was sort of assistant president. The two of them
had founded the school together. I did, and they paid me well. I used that.
Anyway, I had heard that you could get the boat to New York by way of
Savannah. If you went to Savannah and took the Savannah Line, you could
get to New York for half the fare of what you would pay on the train or the
Clyde Line out of Jacksonville. I took the train to Savannah and took the
Savannah Line to New York. By the way, when the Savannah Line arrived
in New York harbor and I looked out the porthole and saw the city of New
York, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. [laughter] It was so
beautiful. I think someday I am going to get somebody to make a picture of
New York harbor coming from the south. You just have no idea how
beautiful it is. It was just like one castle after another. I said, "This is really
beautiful." Anyway, I stayed in New York for a week and then went on to
E: What year was this?
G: This was in 1920-something. I have all of this somewhere. I went to Boston
E: Who did you stay with in New York? Did you know anybody there?
G: Yes, I had some friends that met me at the pier. They took me to their home
and showed me a nice time. When I got to Boston, there was a lady in
Boston who had been on the faculty at Florida Memorial, and she met me at
the train and took me to the family that had promised that if I came they
would provide a room for me until I could find a better place. They did not
want me to stay permanently, but this would be something temporary. I could
get registered at school and do all the things you have to do [without worrying
about finding a place to live as well].
Well, they had to take in African students, and these families would take
students in the big cities. They lived in Cambridge about three or four blocks
from Harvard University. But I had to ride the street car from their house
to Harvard. I had to go to Harvard Square and then took the subway train
to Boston University. Boston University was not on the Charles River in
those days; it was in the city.
Let me back up and tell you something. When I got to Cambridge, to this
address on Parker Street where I was supposed to live, I had eighty dollars in
my pocketbook. That was between me and my future. [laughter] Can you
believe that? Almost any girl with good sense would say: "I made a big
mistake here. This is not going to work. This is just not going to work out."
What do you do when you do not have any money and you are about to
launch on a college career in a city like Boston or Cambridge? Here were all
these people who have nothing but money, and you think you are going to do
it? I thought I do not plan to go back home, so I had better figure out how
I am going to do this.
E: I am here.
G: I am here. Here we go. Anyway, it all worked out very well. I had decided
before I left home that I was going to work my way [through school]. I was
not going to ask my parents to even try to take care of me. Well, there was
no question about that. They did not have that kind of money. The boys had
to be taken care of. I do not know what they were paying to have the boys
go to Florida Memorial. That is just too far back to remember, but they were
taking care of the boys. They were looking forward to moving off campus and
buying a house in St. Augustine proper, at least building a house. They were
not happy with our home situation on campus. Anyway, they were just not in
a position to send money.
E: Excuse me a minute. I forgot to ask your brothers' names.
G: The one in Lumberton is Dr. Arthur James Robinson, and the one in
Washington is attorney Albert C. Robinson. The Robinson boys.
E: Thank you. I did not mean to interrupt.
G: That is all right. I was talking about the money. My landlady did not ask me
how much money I had or did not have. She said: "The rent would be very
reasonable. You can help me a lot if you are smart around the house. We
will go from there. You have to get out to see what you can do about your
tuition and getting registered and all that." I did, and I found that I just did
not have enough money to start anything.
E: You did not have enough for tuition, either?
G: No, I did not have enough for tuition. Tuition then was $3,000.
E: Oh, dear.
G: Not only did I not have enough for tuition, I did not have enough for her. I
did not have enough for my landlady.
E: What did you do?
G: I said I would get my records transferred from FAMU, because that had not
been done, and I would take a job. My first priority was to find something
that I could do. I did find a job. It was not all that great, but it was working
after school in the bookkeeping at school and working on holidays. Then I
got a lot of other work from other people that I met in the offices at school.
They would give me work to take home, so I took home lots of papers to type
and got them back on time. Then sometimes I gave people in the library a
hand. Instead of going to class I just worked that entire winter. That put me
That summer I went to Harvard for summer school rather than Boston
University because I could walk to Harvard from my house. I decided to go
to Harvard University for summer school and just to take some courses so
that when school opened in September I would not be too far behind. That
is what I did. I met a professor there who was one of my professors, and he
said to me one day: "How are you getting along here? Do you like it?" I
guess he was surprised to have this young woman from St. Augustine, Florida,
in his class. I was an enigma everywhere, first because I was black, second
because I was from the Deep South, and third because there were no other
blacks in the classes that I attended.
E: Not women or men?
G: No. So he asked how I was getting along, and I said: "I am doing very well
in every way but financially. I really need to make more money. I am not
making enough money. I work after school and on holidays, but it still is not
enough. I have been able to save a little money and get myself in line for
school, but I would be happier if I had more money." He asked what I could
do, and I told him, "I can do just about anything." [laughter]
E: You are not one for modesty.
G: I told him I could do just about anything. He asked, "Can you take care of
a party?" I said, "Oh, yes, I can take care of a party." "You can? Can you
cook anything?" I said: "Yes, I can cook anything. You just tell me what you
want cooked and what you want served at the party, and I will do it." So he
said, "You need to talk with my wife." I said all right. He gave me her
number and told me how to find her. Their house was between my house and
Harvard University. I could walk from her house to my house, walk from her
house to the store and back, and back to Harvard. I thought my goodness,
this is too good to be true. When I met the lady, she liked me. She said, "If
you can take care of my teas and luncheons, I will give it all to you."
E: She had to give regular luncheons and teas for faculty wives or something?
G: She gave a lot of teas and luncheons and things for professors' wives and for
visiting professors. Her husband was writing a book. There was always
somebody in that house. They had plenty of money, but I worked for it.
They did not give it away. But they did have it. She was impressed that I
knew how to do so many things, so she said: "I will tell you what to do first.
Let me concentrate on the luncheon that I am hosting this Saturday. You are
out of school on Saturday." (I was out of school all weekend.) "So I will
make a list of what I want to serve, and I want you to get it in for me, and
then I want you to tell me whether or not you can fix it. If you cannot fix it,
tell me what you cannot fix, and I will tell you who to hire to fix it for you.
We will work together this way. When it is over, I will just give you a check
for the whole thing, and you take out your pay. You pay the bills. You do
the shopping." I did the shopping, I did the hiring, I did all of her parties for
the entire time I was there.
E: The whole time you were in Boston.
G: The entire time.
E: Which professor was this, what family?
G: From that summer until I left. You know, I am old and cannot recall the
name, but that is one of the names that will always [be with me]. I will think
of it in a minute. Would you believe that?
E: So you had a steady job the rest of the time.
G: I had a steady job, plus what I was doing at the university I kept on doing.
See, this was a summer thing. When winter came and I was back at Boston
University, I still had to work in the office and take peoples' work home to
Then I was so rich that I was sending my folks change: "This will help with the
E: Oh, no. They must have wondered how you were making so much money.
G: What in the world is happening? I said, "I have a good job, and I have two
or three other jobs."
E: And you had some left over from tuition and stuff?
G: The thing about working in those days is you just did not have to be lazy.
Once you were smart, you had it made.
E: You could get plenty of jobs.
G: You could get jobs, people hired you, people paid you well, and they paid you
for what you were capable of doing. She loved to have me around. She loved
my honesty and my integrity and my manner and the way I was brought up.
She just liked everything about me. Both of them did. They did not make it
easy. They just treated me like you would treat a person that was hired, but
it was so beautiful because I needed them much more than they would ever
know. Anyway, that took care of the job situation, and I did not have to
worry about having my tuition.
I met a man at a party or somewhere [named] Ed Wick. It was just like I had
two lives. Nobody on this side knew anything about the Rosalie Robinson on
this side--that is, the sorority people [and] Countee Cullen [American poet
and novelist prominent in the Harlem Renaissance, Ed.], the poet who took
me out with my boyfriend. They did not know that I even worked.
G: Really. I thought it was wise when most of them had so much. It was wise
not to tell them that I had so little. I think it was smart. Even now I sit down
sometimes and wonder why it was that I never wanted them to know, and I
sort of feel that I was right.
G: You can hear your friends talk, and you can size up a lot from the
conversation that you have at a dance or at a sorority meeting of whatever.
You can fairly well judge what people think. I got the impression that [these]
people were not very happy with people who were that poor.
E: So you joined a sorority while you were at Boston University?
G: Oh, yes, indeed. I was made into the Alpha Kappa Alpha. I have been an
Alpha all my life. I still am. Alpha Kappa Alpha is the oldest black sorority
in America. I was made by this school into Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
Countee Cullen, who was a budding poet at the time, was one of my best
E: How did you meet Cullen?
G: They had a place called 464 and [one called] 558. 464 Mass. [Massachusetts]
Avenue was sort of a gathering place for everybody from MIT [Massachusetts
Institute of Technology], Harvard University, Boston University, Tufts
[University], the University of Massachusetts--all the New England area,
especially around the Boston and Cambridge area. Those people met at 464
or 558 every Sunday.
E: That was the street address?
G: That was the street addresses of these charity houses, as they were called.
They were social gatherings. These were teas, and people who were
interested in college students put on these affairs because in the university you
did not see a black face. Countee was at Harvard. This other boy was going
with my best friend. Percy Junior was a scientist. He died some years back.
He was a budding scientist. He was at Harvard.
There was another man from London at Harvard who liked me very much
and wanted to marry me and take me to London. He was not black. He was
not invited to these affairs because he was not black.
But 464 Massachusetts Avenue and 558 Massachusetts Avenue were definitely
black gathering places, and this is where the black kids hung out on Sunday
afternoons and Saturday nights, if they were free.
E: Adults would sponsor these?
G: Adults sponsored all these social gatherings. There were always those ladies
who were teachers, doctors' wives, lawyers' wives--that scene.
E: What did you do at these gatherings? Were there readings and so on?
G: There would always be a program, and some of the participants were the
college students. I was a dramatic reader when I was young. I learned early
that if you had stage presence, that would get you places. I had been a public
speaker in Tallahassee. I had won a prize in elocution. I won a prize in
oratory. I beat out four or five boys in high school for the twenty-dollar gold
E: So you did not know what I was talking about in the car, right? [laughter]
G: I was just listening as you were telling me that you were panicked [about
giving a talk]. But this begins early. I had no idea why I worked so hard at
this speaking thing at Florida A & M, but now I realize that it was one of the
things that I really needed to have, and I did. Some seasons in the year the
churches would put on programs, would give what they called recitals. People
played the piano or the violin, or maybe there would be two or three musical
instruments. Then there would be a period when they would have a reader.
They called it a reader, but it was a speaker that came in and did a play--just
E: So this was common in churches to have these kinds of events.
G: Oh, yes, this was very common in churches, and sometimes at 464/558. Girls
would come in and do dramatic readings. See, dramatic reading is something
that is never done now, but it was very popular in my day.
E: People here told me that Richard Twine did these plays at the church. Would
that have been the same sort of thing, do you think?
G: This might have been the same kind of thing. It was popular. See, this was
a meeting place for black people, especially. Black students in these white
colleges always needed identity, needed people to work with them so they
could meet other black kids like themselves from other colleges. That would
have been the only way because the schools sponsored nothing. I sang in the
choir at school, but I was the only black one. I had a lead [solo] at
commencement, and I am not even a singer. [laughter] I do not know why
I had the lead. The song was Good-bye Forever. I do not know if you have
ever heard it. "Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye forever." It went way up there,
but I was trained to do it. I do not think I had that much of a voice, but I
think it was better than [most whites' voices]. See, black people have a gift
when it comes to music. Many of them have this gift, and I guess my gift was
blossoming at that point. Anyway, I got the lead.
But they would have these programs, and they were interesting, and they were
helpful because black kids had the opportunity to meet the other people in
Boston at that time. They would have never met them otherwise. We knew
where they lived. Some of the girls lived in dormitories. Segregation was the
predominant thing. If I had had enough money, I could not have lived in a
E: So even up North, the dormitories were segregated?
G: Even up North the dormitories were segregated. Even when I went back to
Boston to do my master's degree and I had married and had babies and
whatnot, I lived at the Y while I was looking for a place. The dormitories still
were not open.
I was talking about meeting people and getting on in Boston. I actually had
my life in pretty good shape at that point. But I had this terrible thing
happen at school. One of my professors--who now I know was sick, although
at that time I did not know what his problem was--suggested that [I go back
to Florida]. I was sort of upset about not getting my papers back, and he said
that they were so poor that he had not given them back because he had not
had time to mark all the things that were wrong with them. So he just put
them aside and wanted to talk to me about going back to Florida. I had had
black teachers, and he said, "You have never had white teachers, have you?"
I said, "A few in elementary school, a few who were doing work with the
college, but most of my teachers were black." He said: "Well, I do not want
to put that down, but I will say that you have not been prepared for this, and
I do not think that you should upset yourself. Just withdraw and go back to
Florida." I said: "Go back to Florida? Is it that bad? You are telling me that
my work is so poor that I cannot make it?"
E: What kind of a teacher was he? What course was he teaching?
G: He was teaching my major; he was teaching English. That was my major, and
if I could not do English to suit him, I needed to go back to Florida. I knew
that I was good. At Tallahassee I had been good. I was good in English and
science because I was taking pre-med. I had concerned myself with chemistry
and physics and taking the minimum in the arts so I could do the pre-med.
But I did not think I was going to have enough money because I could not
work my way through medical school. But I wanted to be ready just in case.
So I was good in science and in the arts. But he said I was not, and I had to
deal with that.
My first inclination was to just take a whole day and cry because I had had so
much invested. He said that I should go back to Florida, and I said I needed
to see what corrections he had made so that I could know what was wrong
with it. I was supposed to be a good student. He said, "Well, there is no
doubt you are in the estimation of the teachers you have had, but I do not
know how good they were." I thought well, I had a problem. "Anyway," he
said, "I really have a meeting coming up, and I cannot talk to you any longer.
But I want you to give some thought about withdrawing and going back. I will
not be able to help you in this course."
I panicked at first, and then I cried enough to get myself together. My first
idea was to go talk with the dean about what I had encountered. I was always
fairly able to take care of myself. I said to the dean that I thought I had a
problem that I did not think was mine. "I think it is my professor's problem,
but I need to be given a chance. I had so much trouble getting here and
getting this far. I do not think that you would want me to go back to Florida
without having had a chance to try. I do not think I have been given a chance
to try. I do not think the gentleman likes to look up and see me in the room."
He said, "But Little One (he called me 'Little One'), isn't that an indictment?"
I said: "Yes, sir, it is, but I do not think he likes to see me in this room. I do
not think he likes to look up in my direction and see my face. I think it
bothers him, and I do not think it is what I can do or not do. I do not think
it would change." He asked, "What do you suggest that I do?" I said, "Maybe
there is another professor in the university." He said: "It is past six weeks.
There is no way somebody else would take you." I said: "But if you told this
other person what I have told you, maybe this other person would think that
he would like to give me a chance. If he knew what went on, he might be
willing to help us. Would you be willing to try?" He looked at me a long
time, and he said, "Well, you will come back to my office tomorrow afternoon
at 2:00 and let me try." He was a good man.
I was there at 1:30 waiting outside. He had found a professor that was willing
to take me that late, and I said: "If you have found someone, I will gather all
the written [material] that I get back from him and leave it on your desk. I
will not disturb you. I will just leave it in your basket. When you see an
envelope with your name on it that is handwritten, you will know it is from
me. It is my paper. Take it, and look at it." I did not make any B's. I did
not make any B's.
E: They were all A's?
G: They were all A's.
E: On the papers in that envelope?
G: On the papers in that handful that I put on his desk. The new professor used
to write me from London--he went to London in the summer--and he knew.
I think he was so hurt to know that somebody would do this to a child.
E: Somebody on his faculty, besides.
G: I never saw the man again until commencement. We had on our caps and
gowns. You know how you just flit around. You can fly away! [laughter] I
went up to him and said, "How are you?" He looked at me like, "Is this
somebody I should know?" I said: "I am the girl you said should go back to
Florida. Don't you remember me?" He turned green. I knew he
remembered me to begin with, but I thought I would help him out.
But these are the people in the world who stop your world. They stop the
world and ask you to get off, and if you do not know how to take care of
yourself, you might get off because they have misled you. They have put you
down and made you think that you were that poor. But I knew that he had
to be wrong because I had been studying all my life, and I could not have
been that far on my way and not know how poor I was, or not poor.
G: I had to know that. Anyway, the dean was so proud that I did very well with
this other teacher that year and the next year, and I just got to be so popular
around the place. You would have thought I owned the place instead of
making the grades. [laughter] They would say, "That is the little black girl
E: So you went out and tried?
G: Oh, yes, indeed I did. It had its bad moments.
E: What happened to the man from London that wanted you to marry him?
G: The man from London carried this marriage certificate around in his pocket
for weeks to catch me at a weak moment. My father had said: "Come back
to St. Augustine with your degree, and let me see you as Miss Robinson, a
fine lady that you think you are going to be, and prove to me that you were
right and I am wrong. This is what you have to do. You cannot go up North
and come back another way." To me, that meant getting married, having a
baby, disgracing your family, getting sick, and dying. It meant a lot of things.
You should have seen how scared I was that I had not ruined something. I
was going to die, and my father was going to be mighty upset with me because
it was cold. Oh! Have you ever lived in Massachusetts?
G: There is some wind that never blows anyplace else like it blows in
Massachusetts. It goes right straight through you! So I did not marry. I went
out with a lot of fellows, and I was very popular and was very polite to
everybody, and everybody liked me. But like I said, back then I was a
working student. Working my way [through school] was my only business.
And my very closest friends--not my boyfriends but my closest girlfriends--
[were my other business].
E: What happened to Countee Cullen?
G: Countee Cullen was not a fellow who wanted to be serious with a girl. He
was good company and a nice fellow, and I did not have a problem with that.
He was very lovely to take me out because he always had a taxicab or the car
of a friend, so it was always nice to go out with him. He loved to take you
out to dinner and all that, so we had a very nice relationship. But you know,
I did not keep a single one of his poems that I had. At that time, he was not
famous. He was just a friend. So I guess that is the way it goes.
E: So you came back to St. Augustine as Miss Robinson.
G: I graduated from Boston University and came back to St. Augustine. I was
going to teach in New York. I had done the groundwork for getting a job in
New York, and I did not want to live in the Deep South because this
segregation thing bothered me. I did not want to be in a place where you
could not go into a restaurant, could not take a friend into a restaurant and
sit down and eat, like we did today. You could not do that in the Deep
E: I know.
G: In the Deep South, if you were in here talking to me like you were my friend,
that was questioned by your neighbors. Why is this white woman going into
her house? Why is this black woman going into this white woman's house?
E: You can hardly do it today, let alone in earlier years.
G: It is still bad. People still look twice. But this is the thing that I did not want,
to be in the Deep South. I always wanted to live like my daughter lives. She
has two sides to her life: all the white friends that do not like the black ones
and will not come when she has a party, and all the black ones that do not
like the white ones and do not come. Then there is another band that likes
each other, so she has a beautiful relationship. This is the way she has a
dinner party. She very seldom has an all-black dinner party and very seldom
has an all-white dinner party. But if she has a dinner party and has ten white
people and ten black people, they all like each other and all know each other
and are friends. It makes it nice. When I go up at Christmas-time, she has
... We have not talked about the children.
E: I was going to say we are getting ahead of ourselves. [laughter]
G: Anyway, that is what I always wanted, and that is not what I was going to get
in the Deep South. So I came back to St. Augustine just on a visit. I was
supposed to be here about a month.
E: This would have been 1924?
G: This was 1928. My father said: "Why not take a job here for a year and stay
with us? You have been away so long, and it would be nice. Then if you
want to go back to New York, [you have our blessing]." I said: "A whole
year? Oh, Lord, could I live in this place a whole year?" There was a friend
that I had met one summer when I used to come here when I was going to
FAMU, and she had a little party one night.
E: What was her name?
G: Her name was Mary Saunders. She said, "Would you like to come over and
meet some of the young folks that are around?" I said, "I am very sleepy, but
I will come." I had been up so long for exams and packing, and I was so
tired. Anyway, I went, and among the guests were Dr. Gordon, Dr. Forward,
[and] Dr. Mills. This was the second man I married. They were all there that
E: They were?
G: Yes. Dr. [Rudolph N.] Gordon was the children's father. [laughter]
E: So you met everybody all at once.
G: I met everybody all at once. Dr. Gordon called me the next [day]. It was
casual that night.
E: Had Dr. Gordon just come to St. Augustine? He was not from St. Augustine,
G: No, Dr. Gordon was Panamanian by way of London, where he had gone to
school, and by way of Boston and New York and Philadelphia and
Washington, DC. These were places where he had studied. But he had not
planned to live in Florida. He came here when he heard about making easy
money--the boom town. He was going to practice dentistry for a while and
then go back to New Jersey. He took the New Jersey board.
E: So he came to St. Augustine because it was booming then?
E: What year did he come here?
G: He must have come here in 1925. He was here several years before I came.
I met him, and he said: "Do not go back to New York to teach. You are
needed here." I said: "A lot of people are needed in a lot of places. You do
not have to stay just because you are needed. I do not think that I want [to
stay here]." Well, my father was pushing me to stay, and he was pushing me
to stay. On our first date we talked almost all night.
E: It is a wonder your father did not send you away then. [laughter]
G: I am telling you, he [Dr. Gordon] took me to a church--he was Episcopalian--
and took me up on the bay front. There is a big house up on the bay front
where there are steps all the way down to the waterfront, and you could sit
on the steps and look at the moon and see how beautiful the water was. The
Matanzas inlet is so pretty up there. I do not think that house is there
anymore. Anyway, that is where the church had a dinner; his church had a
dinner at this house. The people that owned the house were away in London,
and they had left it. So the mission used the house for their dinner, so we
went there for the dinner. We went up on this thing to look at the moon, and
when we came down, all the baskets were packed up and all the food was
E: It must have been a good conversation. [laughter]
G: That was the conversation of my life. He asked, "Can you scramble an egg?"
I said: "I can scramble an egg, but I do not know if I can scramble an egg in
my house at midnight. I do not know what my parents would think about
that." So he said, "Well, I am so hungry, and there is no restaurant," so we
went inside, and I scrambled some eggs and made some toast. We sat down
quietly and ate it. I do not need to tell you the rest. [laughter]
E: How long was it before you became engaged?
G: I guess a few months.
E: And then you were married. In what year did you get married?
E: That was a little longer than you intended to stay in St. Augustine.
G: Well, I had not planned to stay in St. Augustine at all, and he had not
planned it. But my parents were here, and they began falling apart very early,
especially my mother. I guess I did not have the courage [to leave them].
First I had a little boy; Rudolph was born. He was my first child. Teaching
here was difficult because we were going into the Depression and there was
not enough money. I was teaching, but I was not getting paid.
E: Where were you teaching at that time?
G: I had only one job.
E: At Excelsior [the public school for blacks in St. Augustine]?
G: Yes. I had only one job in St. Johns County my whole life.
E: Oh, really?
G: That is right. I had one boss.
E: So even when you moved to Ketterlinus School you stayed.
G: The St. Johns County School Board was the boss. I worked under several
principals, and I aspired for the principalship at Excelsior School after they
moved the school to Murray High because I was not particular about going
out to the location of Murray High [on the western edge of town]. I was
unhappy about that, and I applied for the principalship of Excelsior. But they
wanted to give it to a man. The black people said that Dr. Gordon made
enough to take care of me, so they should give the principalship to a man who
had to take care of a family. A black ought to have it. That made sense to
the school board. See, the school board was not concerned about preparation
or personality. They were mostly concerned about who needed a job. For
instance, when I got my master's in guidance, no white person had a degree
E: So you went back up to Boston after your baby was born?
G: I went to Boston University after my children were born and got my master's
E: So you had your master's degree when you applied for the principalship?
G: I had my master's degree when I applied for the principalship, and I also had
gone back to Tallahassee and taken administration and supervision. I had all
that on my certificate when I applied for the principalship. And I still did not
E: You did not need the job.
G: No, I guess I was happier as a counselor for the last twenty-eight years.
E: And you were broke? [laughter]
G: Well, I really was, but I am a great believer in the good lord directing our
lives. If we put our trust in him, and turn our lives over to him, and ask him
to guide us, then he takes charge. I always say he can look into the future
and see what is good for you and what is not, and what should make your life
and what cannot. Some decisions I never bothered to try to figure out
because I was letting him do it. He has never failed me. He has always made
the right decision. I would not have been happy as a principal, not as happy
as I was as a counselor, and I would not have influenced as many lives as a
principal as I did as a counselor. So you see, what you think you want a lot
of times is not what is best for you, but at that time it seems like you are
And that goes on through our whole lives. Every challenge, the way you meet
it, the action you take, the decisions you make often are influenced by the way
you really think when you think deep down in your heart where the lord
operates. This is not you thinking. He is thinking through you and telling you
what to do. That is what they call the "deep-down" thinking. Somehow he
gets the message over to you, and then you go on from there. I never
dreamed a decision. I never said, "Lord, let me see the moon move" or "Lord,
show me a star." That is not the way I do it. But it will reveal itself to me
what to do just as I am talking to you. I have learned how to do that. From
having had a childhood that was basically made by me, I have learned that it
works. It really works. You do not need to make these deep-down decisions
without any help.
E: That is true. So you were still teaching school in the 1960s here in St.
G: Yes. I was teaching when Martin Luther King, Jr., [was a leader in the civil
rights movement]. Dr. Gordon passed away. I did not go into that part of it.
I have not even said anything about my children. I will back up just a little.
We were married and had two beautiful children: a boy and a girl. The little
girl [Carlotta] wanted to be a doctor, and the little boy [Rudolph] wanted to
be a medical illustrator. We kept them here and sent them to the public
school, where I taught, for elementary school and high school. Then we sent
them to Massachusetts for finishing school, thinking that a year in a finishing
school would be adequate for my daughter and son to move on to a northern
college because times had changed a lot from what happened in the Deep
South, especially in the public schools here. I was at Florida A & M [when
I attended high school], which was a little different from a public school in St.
Augustine. I think it was a little more thorough, you had a better choice of
background, and you just had a better chance to get a more rounded
[education]. Plus you had the laboratories for your chemistry and physics and
whatever else you were taking. The chances were just a little better that your
training would be a little more thorough.
So I sent my daughter to Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts,
for a year. Then she chose Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, for
her undergraduate [education]. My son chose Lincoln University in
Pennsylvania, which is a black college, for his college. He was very unhappy
in Pennsylvania, so he joined the air force. So they were on their ways to
making their lives. He was going to go to graduate school and do his
illustrating, and she was going to go to medical school and become a
pediatrician, although she later decided that she wanted to be an
analyst/psychiatrist because she could have her office [at home] and make her
own time. As a pediatrician she would have to leave her babies to go out to
take care of other babies, and she was worried about how her own babies
were getting along. But as a psychiatrist/analyst she could have her own
office [at home] and make her own time. It worked out very well. She did
very well with her medicine and all that, and my son was going to do his
illustrating back at Boston University, at my old school. He had a blood
vessel give way in his brain, and he died early. He was not a sick child; he
was never ill.
E: So he had no warning?
G: No warning, he just died in 1967. He had married Marjorie Manning, but
they had no children. Their father [Dr. Rudolph Gordon] passed [away]
before all of this. He passed in 1959 with his high blood pressure. (I am
getting my events mixed up here.)
G: Essential hypertension, they called it. We did not have the blood pressure pill
that we have now, so he died early. I was a widow for twelve years working
on their college and graduate school business and getting them through. He
[their father] had established a trust that helped me a lot with the children's
E: Dr. Gordon was a dentist in town?
G: He was a dentist in St. Augustine. I think he did more in the racial thing than
any person I have met since I have been here in these fifty-odd years.
E: What makes you say that?
G: Well, this is how he managed. He said: "I do not want to be a martyr. I
could never be somebody like Martin Luther King or any of those people who
want to give their lives for a cause because I do not want to be a martyr.
But," he said, "there is a lot I can do, and I will do what I can do on my level."
He built his own office building down on Bridge Street and had people come--
black and white--and sit in the same room.
E: So he had one waiting room when other doctors had two.
G: He had one waiting room. Everybody had two. He was invited to join the
staff at both hospitals, at East Coast Hospital and the Flagler Hospital, and
that had never been done before.
E: How did he get white patients? How did they hear about him?
G: This is how they knew about his being a good dentist: If they were in an
accident and their faces were all out of sorts and they had lost all their teeth
or some of [their teeth] or whatnot, he could do a reconstruction. He just
wanted a picture of what they looked like before this happened, and he would
take them into the operating room and fix them up.
E: So through his jobs at the hospitals he then developed his private practice.
G: Through his jobs at these hospitals the people wanted him. First, if he
extracted a tooth for a white person, that white person would tell another
white person, "You ought to go to Dr. Gordon on Bridge Street." He was up
over the Iceberg [Drugstore] then. "You ought to go to him." Then if he had
a patient, they would not go to anybody else. That is how it built up through
the years. He never told white people to come or black people to come.
He said that black people would go to Jacksonville to keep from coming to
him because they had a feeling that if they could go out of town to get their
work done, then it would put a crimp on his style. That was his expression,
meaning that he would not do so well if people took their business elsewhere.
But he said he never gave them a reason to want to do that. He said, "I have
friends that did not know that I knew that they went out of town to have their
dental work done, and I was their friend."
E: I do not understand why they would do that.
G: I do not understand it either, but he said those things happened. During the
Depression he said he had a heck of a time trying to keep his books straight
so that all the money he made would not be on the books. [Many accounts
were on credit--never paid--so books looked better than reality. Ed.] This was
a very poor community. He said, "White people began to find out about me,
and that made it much better because I could then draw from the black
community and the white community, and I could make a living."
But then the black people got upset because usually if he had given them an
appointment for 2:00, they would come around 1:00, hoping that they could
get in a little earlier. Or if he did not give them an appointment at all, he
told them, "If you want to come and wait, I will try to work you in." Then the
room would be full. He just could not win. There would be people needing
another chair, and the black people would go to the back door and say,
"Which door do you come in here?" He would say: "That back door is my
door to sneak off when I have to get a sandwich. You come in the front door
where the waiting room is." They would say, "It is full of white people." He
would say: "They will not bite you, I promise. Just come in and sit down and
be nice, and they will be nice to you." So he accomplished that. They sat
down in the same room and waited for him, and they did not bite each other.
E: This was in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s?
G: Yes, ma'am, this was all of that, the 1930s, the 1940s, and 1950s. Martin
Luther King had not been here, either. When I went to the doctor with my
babies, my last doctor was not a black doctor, and he had a special chair for
me in the hallway by the water fountain. He thought that because I was a
doctor's wife he could not send me to the waiting room he had for black
people because that would not be nice. I was not good enough, I guess, to sit
in the waiting room he had for white people only. There was a sign: "White
Only," "Black Only." So he was confused as to what to do with me.
E: Why did you go to him?
G: I went to him because the black doctors did not practice in the hospital. The
black doctor could be your doctor at your house, but he could not go to the
hospital with you when your baby was born. No black doctor had ever been
in the hospital to practice.
E: None of them had practicing privileges in the hospitals?
G: Dr. Gordon was the only one I ever heard of for the poor.
E: So if you did not have a midwife delivery, then you had to find a white doctor
that would take you as a patient.
G: Right, or a black doctor that would deliver you at your house.
E: That was until when?
G: Until the 1960s. I do not know if a black doctor could deliver you at the
hospital now. I do not know any black doctor that is on the staff or who had
been on the staff since Dr. Gordon died. He did not deliver babies; he was
a dentist--and the only black one, to my knowledge.
E: Is there a black doctor in town now?
G: There is not one now, but there were black doctors, lots of them. But they
would not come here because of this. They had no hospital privileges.
E: So we lost the people we might have gotten because of that.
G: We lost all our possibilities, yes. A black doctor's settling here was
completely out of the question.
E: And teaching in the schools, when did they start integrating?
G: The black kids went to the high school in the 1960s, I guess it must have been
1965 or something like that. I have to go to the history for that one.
E: When did you first have a white student?
G: Oh, I did not go as soon as the schools were integrated. I stayed in the black
high school. I was head of the department at the black school, so I kept my
job as a head counselor. I had my office in the black school. I was not
anxious to move over because, like I said, there still were no white people in
the county that had a master's degree in guidance, and this was a thing with
the school board. They were worried about what to do with me because it
was a very long time before they gave me a job and a salary and
acknowledged the work that I had done in guidance.
E: So even though you had a master's degree, it did not make a difference?
G: They did not want to have somebody in the black school that they did not
have in the white school, so they managed to get that straight by appointing
someone that could do the job, I guess. I cannot remember just how they
worked that out, but they did want to have anything in any black school that
they did not have already in a white school.
E: What was your sense of the community when black kids first started going to
the white school? I guess that is how it was first. How did they decide who
would go where?
G: The first children, if I remember correctly, that went to other schools were
volunteers. They wanted to go; they were willing to integrate. All the
children were not willing. Some really did not want to go. There had been
so much fussing and fighting and things. That whole thing was pretty
horrendous, those civil rights things: Martin Luther King and the whole
business of getting the town integrated, getting the restaurants integrated,
getting people to sit down and realize that they would not be bitten by each
E: They did not start the school integration until after the 1964-1965 school year.
G: The law passed; they had to pass the law first. After the law was passed, then
the schools had to be integrated. But they did not force it on people. I think
they started with volunteers.
E: In what ways did your life change? What did you do when Martin Luther
King was here when all the riots and marches and so on [were going on]?
G: Oh, when Martin Luther King was here in the crisis situation, I was a part of
the solution, not the problem. [laughter] And I was proud to have been.
E: By saying that, what do you mean?
G: They had a lot of meetings. Martin Luther King did not just come here and
appear in St. Augustine one day. He had a lot of workers that came here
months and months [earlier] to teach people how to handle it, how not to get
killed--that is really how to put it--how to march at night without being too
afraid, how to march period, [and] how to go to jail and not feel that your life
had ended. My parents told me never to go to jail. They never wanted to
hear that I was in jail. So going to jail was a bad thing, and they had to teach
them that this was the way it had to be done.
E: Did you go to any of the classes?
G: Yes, I went to all of them.
E: Oh, you did.
G: Yes. Every time I got out of school, whenever I got home (I was a widow
during this period), I would rush around to get all my things done and get
ready for school the next day so I could attend the afternoon meetings they
had for the children and the night meetings they had for the adults.
E: Did most of the people in the community, in Lincolnville, go to the meetings?
G: Yes, but very few of the people who were teachers. I think I was the only
black woman who was a teacher. There were one or two black men. See, the
threat went around that if you were involved in this, you might lose your job.
E: Which was not an empty threat.
G: It was not an empty threat, I imagine. But I do not think they ever had to
prove it. They did not fire me, and nobody was ever unkind to me about it.
But they said that I got away with it because I could have taken care of myself
in the event that I had gotten fired. I was well prepared and could have
E: So they did not have any way to threaten you.
G: Yes, but that would still be the punishment for doing it. I do not think they
would have. I knew the superintendent, I knew all the board members, and
I do not think anybody would have taken it out on me for being a part of it.
Black teachers were just scared. They were scared of doing it, and they were
also not very happy about being involved. I do not think they really thought
it was that important for them to be involved.
G: I think a lot of them thought it was something you let somebody else do.
E: But were not the teachers and the ministers always the leaders in the
community? If they did not take part, [the cause would be lost].
G: You thought that, but that separated the men from the boys and the women
from the girls. It was a whole different ballgame when it came down to "Here
we are. What day are you going to go to jail?" See, the kids--the young
people--really took the brunt of the whole terrible thing in that they were put
in trucks and put in wire fence and put in jail, and there was not room enough
[for them all]. They were really mistreated.
E: The young people went to school. How young?
G: Well, whenever they wanted to get themselves into trouble, they knew how to
do it. I cannot remember what they would do to get arrested. You had to do
things to get arrested, like going down to the drugstore and sitting at the
counter. It would seem as if I was not there. The memory goes from you if
you do not write some of this down. But they found reasons to arrest them,
and they really did do it. I think that was a bad time for St. Augustine. That
was a very bad time.
But it was needed. People who sit down and say there was no need are crazy.
See, they had never been black. I have been black. I was born black, and I
know what you could do and what you could not, and I know how much it
meant to be a second-class citizen, and I resented it.
E: How did you feel when you went into a place that was for whites only?
G: How would you feel if you went to the library and you were a teacher, and
you carried your child, and your child is now a college student in another city,
and you carry a child with a book and ask: "Do you think you have any of this
reference material? Could you let us take it home for the weekend to use
and then [let us] bring it back [Monday], since you will be closed Saturday and
Sunday? Will that interfere with your program?" and then they shut the door
on your foot? You have to move your foot to keep them from doing that, and
they hurt your toe.
E: And the librarian knew who you were?
G: The librarian knew.
E: And this was a public library?
G: This was a public library. [Later,] when you could get a card and you were
black, I never wanted a card.
E: You could not get a card there, could you?
G: I thought I would never go in that building again. I do go to the new library,
but I could not go back to the other one. That is how bad it was. She said,
"Do not blame me. I just work here." Of course, you know I wanted to hit
E: Was your daughter with you at the time?
G: My daughter said, "This is the place you chose to call home?" She tried to
chastise me. I said: "This is home, and this is your home. We just have to
work on it." She loves St. Augustine, but she knows, too, the price some of
us paid to call this home. We paid a big price. If you were black, you paid
it because it was not automatic that you were a citizen. You were just
somebody that lived here and had a brown face.
E: So you think most of the people in the Lincolnville community, anyway, were
behind the movement? They were ready to do [what they had to do]?
G: Yes, everybody was behind the movement. Most of these people walked at
night. A lot of them went to jail. See, I am not non-violent, and I knew I was
not. I told the men that were working for King that there were things I could
do. I could make contributions, I could help with dinners, I could help
prepare for the bigwigs. Martin Luther King himself came, and I was glad to
be a part of the preparations of the dinners and stuff. But I could not march.
I do not march at night [in areas] with bushes where people are going to jump
out and hit me with a stick because I might try to hurt you. I might try to find
out who did that. "Who hit me?" [laughter] I am not non-violent.
E: You would think that that non-violent part would have been hard for a lot of
the men, too.
G: It was hard for a lot of people. I always thought it was great. My kids, the
seniors, asked me at school that day: "What day are you going to go to jail?
Everybody has their day. You have to be in jail. You have to do something.
You have to get arrested." I said: "I am not going to go to jail. They know
what I can do, and I know what I can do. I cannot go to jail." This was a day
or two before Mrs. [Malcolm] Peabody [wife of Bishop Malcolm Peabody of
Boston] went to jail. I was supposed to keep Mrs. Peabody; she was supposed
to be my house guest. But I said: "No. They may throw Molotov cocktails
into my window, and I am a widow. I do not want to be in here alone with
Mrs. Peabody and no man in this house."
E: So where did Mrs. Peabody stay? [Mrs. Peabody came to St. Augustine in
March of 1964 to participate in a Florida Spring Project similar to the
Mississippi Summer Project. College students on spring break and other
people came to St. Augustine to demonstrate. Ed.]
G: She stayed with some people down in the area where the recreation center is,
the Willie Gallimore Center. I cannot remember which house it was, but a
nice little lady took her in. She did not have a husband, either, but she was
E: She might not have had kids, either.
G: It took a lot of courage to do a lot of things then. It was like a political thing.
I was afraid I was going to get murdered, but I wanted to do it. I prayed over
it, and I had gotten my answer: This is what you have to do. You have to
make some sacrifices.
E: Now, were you friends with Dr. [Robert] Hayling [the dentist and local leader
in the civil rights movement]?
G: Dr. Hayling was rooming from me; he rented an office from me. He was
from Tallahassee, and he heard that Dr. Gordon had died and that I was
looking for a dentist, so he came. In fact, the first two months he was here
he stayed with me while he was looking for a place. But I do not think that
Dr. Hayling would have had to do what he did--you know the background of
all this--if he had not been beaten by the Klan.
The whole thing started when the Klansmen thought that he was spying on
them [at a meeting in September 1963, three miles south of St. Augustine],
and they ran him and a friend up a road that was a dead end. They caught
them and tried to murder them. They beat them with chains. He looked a
E: Who was his friend? Was he the one that was a barber?
G: Yes, Clyde Jenkins. Clyde and Dr. Hayling were in this car together, and they
beat them unmercifully. I think that he was so bitter that he decided then
and there that if he lived he would do something about it. So that was his
every-day dream from then until it was over. You know, it ruined his
practice. He did not have a dental practice when it was over. But he did all
right where he went, down to the Cape Canaveral area.
E: You say he looked a sight after that.
G: Yes. They took him to the hospital, and I had a feeling that they were going
to finish him. That is the way the Klan operates.
E: Finish him at the hospital or at some other time?
G: Oh, they might go in and find you. From the things that they had done in
Mississippi and all over the place, you knew that you were in danger once you
had incurred their wrath. I called the Alpha [Phi Alpha fraternity] men, the
medical doctors and dentists out of Jacksonville--they were my deceased
husband's friends--and I asked them if they would send somebody over here
and get him out of the hospital and take him to Jacksonville.
E: Oh, you did?
G: Yes. They came and took him to Jacksonville and took care of him there.
So if the Klan came to Flagler Hospital that night to finish him, he was not
I think that from then on he planned his strategy to get them, to straighten
out this situation, because this should not have happened. I do not say that
going to a Klan meeting is right, but still the roads are free, and they were in
E: Were there a lot of Klan meetings in St. Augustine then?
G: The Klan had paraded here on several occasions in my lifetime. I know they
wanted to keep the threat going that they were bad, real bad, and black
people had been in the habit of going into their houses and closing their
doors. That had been going on. They had been here before.
E: In St. Augustine, do you think it was different than in most towns because
there was not one single area that was a black area of town; it was sort of
spread out in a lot of areas?
G: Well, St. Augustine had no black area as such. There is no area in
Lincolnville where some white person does not live.
E: That is true. That was true then, too?
G: That was true then. I think there were more white people in the Lincolnville
area then than there are now. But that was not it. The problem was that
nobody in St. Augustine had ever tried [to change the situation] because just
what a lot of people will tell you was happening [was, indeed, happening].
I will give you a better example than I can explain it. When my daughter was
at Wheaton, her French teacher's parents wanted to come to Florida for a
visit. Her French teacher told them: "Look up Mrs. Gordon in St. Augustine.
I have her daughter in my French class. She is a nice person. She has been
to the campus" (I had been to visit my daughter at Wheaton) "and you will
like her." I had talked to them on the telephone, but I had not met them in
person. I told them that St. Augustine was segregated. "If you come here to
live with me, you will have to live as if you were black. Your white friends
in the white community will not visit you in my house, neither will I be
allowed to visit you in their houses because black people and white people do
not visit here like they normally would in other places. Also, there is no place
that I can take you to eat. You will have to eat your meals at my house or
eat your meals at a restaurant in the white community. These are decisions
you will have to make. If you live in my house, then you will have to eat in
my house. You will be segregated. If you live with your white friends, you
can live with them, eat and visit with me at my house, and go back to your
white friends. You make the choice." Since I was teaching, they thought it
would be better not to be here in the house while I was gone to school. (I
had a full-time cook in those days.) They wanted to live in their own place
and visit both of us, their white friends and black friends.
So that is what they did. They took an apartment where they had cooking
privileges, and they visited their white friends. But most of their meals they
ate here. They did not eat out that much. I had a very good cook, and she
did beautiful meals. We all had a good time getting together in the evening.
E: Who was your cook then?
G: She is dead now. She had been cooking for me for nine years. At various
times I had various people, but from the time we were married until the time
my husband died there was always a full-time person in this house that cooked
and did the shopping and the cleaning and things around the house. A
doctor's wife in the Deep South had to have a maid. You were not a doctor's
wife if you did not have a maid. There was something wrong with your
doctor. [laughter] This is really crazy, but is was one of the facts of life.
When the children were little I had a maid and a nurse for the baby, for the
children. What do you call them?
E: A nanny.
G: Nanny. Yes, ma'am. You had to do that.
E: The people would have thought it was strange [and that if you did not have
a maid or nanny], that your husband was a failure.
G: And that meant, too, your husband had to do this for himself. This was taking
care of his family as a professional. See, we associated with professionals.
We had friends in Deland that we spent the night with. The other doctor that
used to be here moved to Deland, so we went there and spent the night, and
they came here and spent the night. Our friends in Jacksonville, the doctors
and lawyers and candlestick makers and whatever, were all professionals. We
had our own little clique of people.
E: Do you think that made it harder to be a part of the black community here
G: No, we were a part of it, too.
E: So it did not set you apart.
G: No. We played the game. The only thing was neither of us was accustomed
to being close with nonprofessionals. We did not know how to spend a lot of
time making small talk.
E: You did not go out for a beer or something?
G: No, we did not go out for a beer [nor] did we like to fool around. We did not
want to send our kids to visit people that were not home and did not know
where the kids were. We built a playhouse, and we had the children come
here and play in the playhouse. We had a movie machine and a doll house
with dolls and trains and stuff for the kids to play with. But I could be in
charge. I could see who was playing with my kids and what they were doing,
as well as being in charge. So it was nice. You have to figure out all sorts
of ways to bring up kids in a community where there is no structure.
E: What do you mean, a community where there is no structure?
G: Well, some people just let their children roam the streets.
E: Even when your kids were young?
G: Oh, yes. Everybody watched everybody's kids, but they were always found in
the street. There were always what you call "latch-key kids" that went home
with the keys and would go into [the house] and wait for Mama to come.
Heaven knows what goes on when there is nobody there. That is mostly what
I am talking about. If they were not in the street, they were home alone, and
that was just as bad, or worse.
E: So you had a good life, even though it was restricted in some ways.
G: I had a very good life. On Monday I took my daughter to piano, on Tuesday
my son to saxophone, on Wednesday my son to piano, on Thursday my
daughter to dance class. I picked up all the dancers, picked up the musician
that played for the dancers, and paid the dance teacher. [laughter] They took
ballet; that was ballet.
E: Where did these lessons take place?
G: In the school building.
E: Was the teacher white?
G: I had been busy teaching all day, but you have to bring up your kids. And to
bring them up middle class was a very hard job in a place like this. You have
to make your own situation. I made all the tutus.
E: Those sewing skills came in handy.
G: I did not do all the tutus. In other words, you have to be innovative and
figure out all kinds of ways. People in Washington want to know why my
daughter is so versatile? Why is she so smart? Why is she so this? They
think that she is the best thing, as her old lady says, since sliced bread.
E: Oh, in talking about your daughter we left out the fact that she is in
Washington. Where did she go for her medical school?
G: She went to Howard University School of Medicine, and her husband went to
Howard University School of Law [in Washington, DC].
E: Her husband did?
G: Yes, and they both lived in Washington.
E: What is her name now, her husband's name?
G: Her name is Carlotta Gordon Miles. She has an office on Connecticut
Avenue, and she has a psychiatry practice. She is a psycho-therapist, and he
is a lawyer. He is way ahead in that he is now the counsel for National
E: What is his first name?
G: Theodore Anthony Miles.
E: And they have lived in Washington since they got out of medical and law
G: Yes, they have lived in Washington since they got out of medical school and
law school. They live at 2115 Yorktown Road NW in Washington, DC. They
have three children. The oldest one is at George Washington University's
medical school [in Washington, DC], and the second one, a girl, is in a law
firm now. She graduated from Columbia University last year. She did not
want to go right on to law school, so she is doing a year in a firm where there
are several lawyers in the downtown area of Washington, DC. She is just
working as an assistant to get to know what law is all about. The third one
is a girl. She is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
She is working for President Bush this year. She took a year off to be an
intern in the Bush Administration at the White House.
E: What does she do there?
G: She is some kind of liaison person in the office. She has to arrange to meet
people who come to see the president. They have to come to the office
where she works first.
E: That must be pretty exciting for her.
G: It is, very.
E: Which brings me to something we almost forgot. You ran for office here
once. Could you tell me about your own political life?
G: Let me go back. In 1965, right after the Civil Rights Act was passed, people
thought, citizens thought, everybody thought that the black people needed to
do something more than just getting integrated and getting the Civil Rights
Act. They needed to be in the political scene, as well, if St. Augustine was
going to thrive and if blacks were going to prosper in this new state of being.
I will not say free, but first-class citizens. A group of men from various
E: From the black churches or black and white churches?
G: Black churches only. ... came here on a Sunday night right after services and
rang my bell. [There were] about ten of them. They wanted to know if I
would be willing to be a candidate for the city commission. I wanted to say,
"Are you crazy or something?"
E: What was their thinking? They must have had a list and said, "All right, she
is going to be the one."
G: All of them agreed that I was perhaps the only black person in St. Augustine
that could win.
E: What made them decide that?
G: Well, I think they had a vision of a person that can be black, can be white,
can be purple, can be green, can be red, and still be happy. This was a
person who has all these friends who are all of these things.
E: You had had more friends in the white community than most people in the
G: Yes. You know, people get to know things about you that you do not even
know that they know, or you have not even thought that they thought about.
But they watch. They know you much better than you have any idea. I
thought: "How could they think that I could win? I do not know that I can
win this thing. I might get shot." I was more worried about getting shot than
I was about winning.
E: That was probably a reasonable fear. [laughter]
G: It was a reasonable fear because they were killing people for less in this crazy
place. People were losing their lives.
E: Did you know people in St. Augustine that were killed?
G: Let me put it this way. A lot of people were hurt during the movement,
during the civil rights thing. The person that was killed [William D. Kinard,
October 25, 1963] was a white man, but it had to do with this whole business.
E: That was the Goldie Eubanks [situation]? The one [who was killed] that went
by the Eubanks house?
G: Yes. They had been climbing in and out of Eubanks's windows. Yes! People
would just climb into the window. After the man was killed, people just
walked into people's houses to find out what you were talking about. It was
just really crazy. They were just trying to find out who did it. I do not think
they ever knew who did it, but the [black] people were tired of being
harassed. I think somebody had to do it, but I think they thought they were
justified. That [the killing of Kinard] sort of brought that era to an end.
People stopped harassing black people and taking for granted that they were
going to harass them and get away with it. That is what the youngsters were
doing [when Kinard was killed]. That is why those kids were driving cars
through the black community. That had been going on for some time.
Anyway, coming back to me as a politician. That is the last thing I had ever
thought of myself, was as a politician. I had always thought that people that
ran for office always seemed to have something wrong with them.
E: Did you think that, really?
G: Yes, I really did. By the time the public gets through with them, there is
something wrong. They dig up something that really is embarrassing or
something. I said, "I do not know if I want to do this." They said: "Do not
answer us now. Just think about it."
E: Which ministers were they?
G: These were not ministers.
E: Oh, I thought you said they were ten people from the church.
G: Otis Mason was the leader. Malcolm Jones was another. Rudolph Hadley
was the campaign manager. I cannot recall the rest, but it was that age level
of young men.
E: There were no preachers with them. They were just laymen. I thought you
said that some people had gotten together at the church.
G: President Royal W. Puryear was with them. He was the president of the
[Florida Memorial] College at that time.
G: They were people like that. There were no preachers or ministers with them,
but the ministers were in accord. Everybody thought: "She ought to run
because she could win. She can campaign heavily in the white community,
and we will support her in the black community, and she could be a winner."
Everybody thought that I had won after I went through the primary so well.
E: Tell me about the primary. What did you do when you were running? What
was your campaign like? Who helped you?
G: I had campaign headquarters down on Washington Street, right on the corner
where [Olen] Meredith's [law] office is. There was a building there, and that
is where my campaign office was.
E: At the corner of Washington and Bridge streets?
G: The corner of Washington and Bridge, yes. I had all the helpers that I could
E: People from the neighborhood?
G: All the people from the neighborhood. Dr. Hayling wanted me to have some
people from New York--some national figures that were used to going into
small communities and taking over the political scene and running it--[help
out], but I told them no.
E: Like from the NAACP or something like that?
G: Not the NAACP, but there were a couple other organizations in New York
that would send people to take over the southern scene. But I said that they
did not belong here. "These people do not know them. I can do a better job
with the people from here." So I told them not to have them come. They
came anyway, but I did not give them a job.
Anyway, they were around, and that was one thing that Hayling and I sort of
fell out about. (I will go into that part a little bit later. I will go back to the
actual running.) I ran well. I worked hard on Anastasia Island and in the
E: Did you go door to door?
G: Yes, door to door, and to downtown streets, handshaking and kissing babies.
You name it, that is what I did.
E: Now, for what [office] were you running?
G: I was running for a seat on the city commission. There were several white
men running. There were no other women in the campaign. So I beat three
white men in the primary, so that made it very interesting.
E: Very good. That must have put fear in a lot of people's hearts.
G: It did. A lot of people were very happy because most of the white people
wanted me to win. When I tell you why I lost you will fall out of your chair.
I lost because my people were not ready.
E: What? The black community did not vote for you?
G: The black people turned out, but they just did not work hard enough. They
were home getting ready for the victory ball instead of being at the polls at
the last minute.
See, we had a card on everybody that was registered to vote. We did our
homework. We registered the people, and then we made a card with their
addresses and telephone numbers. We had a box at each polling place, and
people were supposed to sit across the street and watch who showed up and
mark their card so afterward we could make a survey of who did not vote.
We did not have to mark the cards. The newspapers showed just where the
discrepancies among the precincts were.
E: And they were right here?
G: Right in the black community is where it all happened.
E: Oh, no. But you got [votes from] a lot of white folks?
G: I got a lot of white folks in all the white precincts.
E: So you got the majority of votes in which precincts?
G: I got the majority of votes in the white precincts where I should not have.
E: What do you mean, where you should not have? The richest area? The most
conservative white areas?
G: No, I think the areas where the whites were liberal, less conservative, and
more affluent. I got the rest of the high vote in the Lincolnville area. Several
white areas surprised me. I did very well in Anastasia Island.
The interesting thing was the Associated Press came in here about 2:00 the
day before, and they went in the kitchen, in the yard, in the living room, and
they had me primping and cooking. I was going to be all over the United
States the next day because I was going to win the election. I was going to be
the first black woman in the Deep South to sit on the commission. It did not
happen, and everybody was in shock. Even the black people who did not vote
were in shock.
E: Do you remember what the count was at the end?
G: I have it somewhere in the attic. I tell you, they were as surprised as I was.
E: The newspaper people?
G: No, the black people that did not show up at the polls were upset. They said:
"I would not be surprised if some of them did not come out to vote. You
know how our people are. She did not go to their houses. Maybe they
thought she should have come to their house." They were trying to give
excuses. I learned one thing: Nobody should ever take a vote for granted.
Nobody should think that because people like you that they are going to vote
for you. You never know what they will do once they get in behind the
curtain, or maybe they will not even show up at all. So you have to work just
as hard on those that you already have as you do on those that you are
getting. But I did not know that. I believed people. I was willing to stick my
neck out and get myself killed, and I thought they were behind me 100
E: But you looked around, and they were not there.
G: They were not there. And then somebody had the nerve to say it was because
I did not beg them. That was not true. See, I was so put out when I pulled
the cards that they were not checked [meaning the person had not voted].
Then I thought why am I doing this to myself? I ran well, and I did a good
job. Close the book. But I made the way for Otis Mason [superintendent of
schools] and [Henry] Twine [city commissioner] and all of them.
E: Yes, you did.
G: I paved the way for them, so that was a good thing that I did.
E: Oh, yes.
G: That was a good thing I did for St. Augustine.
E: Probably Mr. Mason remembers, and maybe Mr. Twine, too.
G: Oh, they both remember. They have, I think, a lot of love and respect for me
as a person. I think I have always been a little bit much for most men
because I am a different kind of woman. I know that. Even some women are
intimidated by me, and I know that, too. But I try to be a regular, good ol'
guy. I just believe in things like they should be, and I believe in hard work,
and I believe in doing a job well, and I believe that you should be what you
say you are, and things like that. I do not apologize for that. But I think a
woman that thinks this way and that dares to be a politician, a teacher, a
counselor, a mother, a wife, a citizen, a community worker, and all that--these
are a lot of titles for most people. [laughter]
E: Yes. Speaking of community work, do you want to tell me a little about the
Council on Aging and what you did to get that organized?
G: Well, I retired from the school system, and I was no longer [working with
people and meeting challenges like I was used to].
E: What year did you retire?
G: [In] 1971.
E: That was a pretty long career in teaching.
G: Forty-four years. Where did the time go?
E: I do not know, but I know when we go anywhere all your students are out
there in town yet.
G: You mean my grandkids?
E: The grandkids of students, yes.
G: I retired from the teaching profession, and I was upset that I was not going
to be with my children anymore. I was not going to have anything challenging
to face the next morning. I was just at loose ends, and I did not like
retirement at all. This is what I am thinking as I am closing my office and
sending over to the junior high where I was the papers from Ketterlinus. It
took me almost all summer to get all the materials like I wanted to leave it.
You are not coming back, so everything that you do in your office has to be
right because there is nobody to ask. You were not there anymore, and you
do not want people guessing about what you meant to do with this and how
you meant to fix that and whose record is not complete and whatnot. So I
worked practically all summer to get finished with that, and then when I
realized that when school opened in September I was not going to be going
back, I did not like what I saw.
I did not think anything about the elderly. Somehow that had not even come
up in my consciousness. But I was thinking that I would concentrate on Echo
House and getting this black studies [a center for black history] library going.
That would take more than enough time and energy because I had already
gotten the building.
E: Oh, you had the idea for that in the 1970s, in 1971.
G: Oh, yes. Not only did I have the idea, I had the building. I had that building
before I started working with the elderly. Well, I went to see some old lady,
and her curtains were about to fall off the wall. They had been there so long,
just hanging. There was no place to sit, not a clean chair. There were old
clothes all over the place and dirty dishes in the kitchen. It was just a bad
scene, and I thought: "Oh, Lord, how in the world can this old lady be sick in
here? There must be a program in the world where they take care of people
that cannot take care of themselves."
I got a letter from the agency in Jacksonville--it was not called an area agency
then--that sponsored the programs for the elderly, and they asked us to come
to the city building for a meeting. They asked me if I would come. I thought
maybe something would come out of it. So I went to the meeting, and they
were talking about the programs that they had going in Jacksonville, and I
thought how nice it would be to have some of these programs going in St.
Augustine. I asked why we had not heard about them before. They always
tell you they contacted so-and-so, but that was the end of it. I do not know
what kinds of excuses they gave, but I know when information like that goes
out across the state, everybody receives a notice. But nobody in St. Augustine
had attempted to take any action on this notice. That answered my question.
We were right at square one. There were several of those meetings, and I
attended all of them.
A lawyer or judge had accepted the presidency of the little group that was
meeting, and he came in to a meeting one day and said that he would not be
able to work with us any longer. He had to go fishing, and he did not want
to take on [this additional responsibility]. I do not remember his name, but
he was a lawyer and elderly. I think he is still alive. Anyway, he said he
could not carry the work on. He wanted very much to do it, but it interfered
with his life as a retired person. I sat there and thought, "Is he kidding?" He
did; he gave it up, and we had three or four presidents before we got
somebody that could keep it.
Anyway, to make a long story short, the minister from Trinity Episcopal
accepted the presidency, and he asked me one day--we were meeting in his
office at Trinity--if I would write [a proposal for programs for the elderly].
I had never heard of a proposal for a project for the elderly, to say nothing
about writing one. I had not even heard of one. "Would you get the
information? Here is a stack of books. Take these home and study them,
and write something for me so that when we go to Jacksonville to the meeting
we can show them that we want to have some of these projects for the elderly
in St. Augustine. I am going to a conference, but when I get back I will call
a meeting, and you can come in and show me what you have done."
I left the meeting very heavy-hearted, thinking to myself that I had gone into
that room and sat down, and people dumped the hardest work on me, and I
do not like this. [I thought], "What is it that I do or do not do that makes me
always come out this way?" Have you ever had that happen to you? I felt so
inadequate. As a teacher you know what you are teaching; you know what is
expected of you. But here these people were asking me to write a proposal
to get some federal money, and I did not even know what was supposed to be
in it. So I read those books every night all night. I was burning the midnight
oil studying these various Council on Aging projects all over the United
States. I am saying to myself: "Has this been going all the time and people
did not know about it, or are these people just acting like they did not know
about it? What is it?"
E: So there really were not any programs in St. Augustine for older people?
G: No, not the first one. I finally got all the books read and started to write.
You cannot write until you know what you want to write about. I got the
books all read--we are talking about a couple of weeks--and then I started
writing. I put it together. When we went to Jacksonville, it passed the first
time. It sure did!
G: The Trinity priest had resigned, and we had to get another president. But I
took the proposal to Jacksonville to the right people, to the area agency, and
they okayed it. They put it right into the hopper and started the works for
getting funds to set up the programs here. I think our first meals were at
Anyway, I was so proud of writing the proposal and putting it together, of
being involved with these people that were working for the elderly, that I was
completely beside myself. I had met a new talent, and I was happy doing it,
and all these old people were showing up. I realized how many people
needed this. We got out and made surveys on how many people needed [the
E: You went around canvassing the neighborhoods all over the city?
G: Oh, yes, this was house-to-house all over the county.
E: So people are bused in from out in the county?
G: Yes, we have people in the county.
E: Oh, I did not realize that.
G: We take meals to the county, too. We do not take all of the county; we take
just different sections. We tried to find out first how many people were in St.
Augustine. We took different pockets, and found so many people that we
could never take care of all of them. We cannot take care of all of them yet,
but we are doing a fantastic job. We have fed as many as 168 people out of
our kitchen at one time.
I think my greatest satisfaction came from getting the building. In another
meeting they were telling us that we had some communications from
Washington telling us that after 1980 we would not be able to get federal
funds if we did not have our own place, our own building. So at the next
meeting that was placed in my lap. "Will you be the chairperson of getting
the building?" I accepted the chairmanship of looking for a building, and that
took six years.
E: To get the funding and to get the building?
G: First I had to find the building. Then we did not have enough money. I had
to get dressed every day and go out to raise funds because we had to have
money in the bank. You do not get people's attention until you have some
money. Money talks too much.
E: So you took this proposal of what you were doing and went to see everybody
in town that had money?
G: Not only that, I did not tell them what we were doing. I would have to go
back. Like if somebody had given me $1,000, it takes about five visits to get
the $1,000. Some people would just write a check for $1,000 and say, "I am
proud of what you are doing." Another may write a check for $25 and say, "I
am proud of what you are doing." Others would promise $700 or $800 or
whatever, but you cannot ever get it. They keep telling you when to come
back. So raising funds is very hard. That was perhaps the hardest six years
of my life, getting enough money in the bank to say: "We have the money
now. We have enough money now. Will you listen?" Getting the
government to listen, the state to listen, the county to listen--everybody that
you have to work with to get funds.
Then, what was worse, the thing that really gave me heart trouble, was after
I found the building that we should buy that would meet our needs, then our
money did not come up fast enough, and they sold the building at auction.
The people that owned the building needed the money, so they put the
building up for sale at auction. And here is somebody that was going to come
in and bid on something that you really had your eyes on for some time. I
think that anybody that gets involved in buying property from somebody, or
buying anything from somebody else, with somebody else's money is really
crazy. It is unbelievable.
Anyway, I said: "I think I am going to die today, Lord. Please help me just
keep on breathing." I went to the auction, and the other people on counsel
said: "Why bother? Just give it up." A black minister said: "I think I am
going to get your daughter's address. I need to write her to tell her that you
are going to have a stroke or something worrying with this. First of all, the
people on the board do not think you can do it. The people in the
community think that you have lost your mind. They think that you ought to
give it up. You do not need to struggle like this to do something that you
cannot do and you know you cannot do. You know when you cannot. I see
how tired you are." I just listened. When he finished, I said: "Do me a favor.
Do not ask my daughter because she is the kind of person that I am. She will
close her office and come here to help me do it, and she cannot afford to do
that right now." [laughter]
E: So you went to the auction?
G: I went to the auction, and they auctioned the building. A woman from
Jacksonville bought it. She had plenty of money. They started pulling
[fixtures] out [of] that building the minute they finished. Somebody would
come up to her and ask, "Do you need so-and-so?" They would have a truck,
and they would start pulling the kitchen apart. Somebody else would come
and pick up [other parts]. I bought all the chairs and tables, and I did not
know where to put them. People went crazy.
E: Where did you put them? In Echo House?
G: No. Do you know the man that bought Marty's restaurant? You know it is
nice to have friends. I had been talking to them a lot about raising money,
and they had been talking to me. I went there sometimes when I was very
tired and needed a meal. I would sit down and talk. One of the young men
said: "We have a building. We will help you with those tables and chairs.
Just put them on a truck and bring them out here. We will store them for
E: Oh, that was good.
G: I said, "Now, if I do not get the building ever, what will I do with the tables
and chairs?" "Sell them," they said. "They are good tables and chairs. You
could sell them."
E: So you had to look for another building, then, at that point?
G: I did not look for another building. I am a little ahead of what happened that
night, after the auction. After the auction, I did not get to talk to her [the
woman who bought the building] because there were so many people. There
were just lines of people wanting to know what she was going to do [with this
and that]. I waited until 9:00 the next morning, which was Saturday. I stayed
up just about all night so I would be sure that at 9:00 on the dot I would ring
her phone. I asked her if she had any special plans for the building, and she
said, "Not really. I am just investing, and I thought that it would be a good
buy. My son might want to make a skating rink." I thought seeing how it is
such a beautiful building, to make a skating rink out of it would be murder!
E: Was this the building on Mission Avenue?
E: Oh, so it is the building.
G: Yes, that is the building. I asked her: "Would you mind talking to some
people about the building? Would you come to us, or would you let us come
to you? We have been working for weeks and weeks trying to get it for the
elderly." She said: "I will come over. I will drive myself over Monday." So
Beverly Holland, who was the director of the food services, went with me to
talk with her. We struck up a friendship that day. She waited until we got
enough money. She did not sell the building. During the time that we did
not have enough money, she was offered $300,000, and she still held out. But
prayer did that. Child, if your hand is in the good lord's, I am sure it is just
right where it ought to be, and nothing will happen to you.
E: So your hand was in the lord's, and you got the building.
G: Honey, I prayed every day, every night, all day, all night for the lord to help
us do this and help us to do that. And it happened. She said, "Pay the taxes,
just pay the taxes." I am trying to think how long it took us to get the money
together, but I know it took about six years for the whole process, before it
got all settled. We moved on pretty fast after that. The thing that impressed
me so much was the fact that nobody believed we could do it. Nobody
believed I could do it as chairperson. Then, after I did it, everybody was in
shock that I had done it, and I still do not understand any of that.
E: When did the building open? When was the formal opening for the Council
G: I should have that date on the tip of my tongue, but I do not. I would have
to look that up for you.
E: Well, I know I went to a sort of "thank-you" celebration, but that was after it
was opened, so I do not know the date, either.
G: That was the second celebration. That was a long time after. See, that all
came about after the presidential award. A group of people [had] decided
this was such an outstanding thing that I had done that the president needed
to know about it so I could be listed as one of those people on his list for the
presidential award or initiative.
E: Do you mean President Reagan?
G: Reagan [gave me the award for] community initiative. That celebration was
held at the Ponce de Leon [Hotel]. I guess we had been in there about two
years before that happened.
The one good thing is they were trying to decide what to name it. The board
wanted to come up with a name, and somebody suggested that since I had
done everything almost single-handedly, why not name it the Rosalie Gordon
Center? Some people were very happy about that. I think this one that you
attended was one of those where they were saying we are sorry that we did
not do that, but we wanted you to know that we appreciated your work.
I did not care what they named it. I was so happy, I was so glad that it went
through all right and that it was a success. I did not care if they named it the
Timbuktu. Whatever they wanted to name it [was fine with me]. I did not
do it for the honor; that is the point. I did not do all that work for the honor.
I did it because I wanted to do it. That was my contribution to the people
that needed me. I am just like that. I did not want the award. I do not care
what they name it. Somebody said, "They are going to name it [in your
honor] after you die." I said: "I do not care if they name it after I die. That
is all right."
See, I did ask the people that objected. I was curious. [Someone was asked:]
"Off the record, I wonder what bothered you about the whole thing because
you were one of the few people that really knew who did it and how it was
done. You were here. You were on the board. First you were a worker, and
then you were on the board, so there is nothing that you missed." The person
said she did not want to talk about it. [laughter] She did not want to talk
about it, so I know what it was. It is going to have the name of a black
woman in [a] community that is not predominantly black. Her name is going
to be on the top of our building? It will never happen here.
E: Do you think that was the reason?
G: I do not have to think about it. I know that is what it was.
E: I did not realize that.
G: A lot of people are very prejudiced in this place, and a lot of people manage
to hide their prejudice. You do not really know what they think until they get
in a bind, and then they come through for you. She said she did not want to
talk about it.
E: Speaking of that, in what ways do you think St. Augustine has changed the
most as far as integration? [I ask that] because it is still very segregated. On
a social level there is almost no integration yet.
G: I think people that are very prejudiced have to die because it [prejudice] is
something [that runs deep]. It is very hard to educate people to think this
way, so if they do not already think this way and nobody is helping them to
change and they are not making any effort to change, how will the change
It is just like the schools. The children all sit down and eat together, the
black ones and the white ones. When I was transferred to the white school
and was over the student council at Ketterlinus--I always carried a student
council wherever I go; I set up one here at Excelsior, I set up one at St.
Augustine High, and then I went down to Ketterlinus and set up one there;
I always tried to have a good student council wherever I am--I asked the
president of the student council if he would take a black person to lunch. We
would just have a day to take somebody that did not look like them to lunch
as my guest. He said he could not do that. And he is the nicest president
you would ever want to have. He is the hardest worker. But he could not do
that; he could not do that because he did not think that would go well with
the kids. He did not think it would go well, so he did not want to initiate that
kind of thing.
E: What year was this?
G: This was 1974 or 1975. It was sometime in the 1970s. Now, today in the
1990s, if you go into any of the schools, most of the little black boys are
together, and the little white ones are together. Small children, large children,
middle-size children. Just go to the teachers, the adults, and see how many
black ones will integrate themselves, how many white ones will integrate
E: Not many, I think. At least when I was substituting in the schools I did not
see that there was any integrating.
G: I will not go into a crowd of people and single out a black person to talk to,
but most black people will, and most white people will. Very few white
people will come in a room that is filled with black and white people and talk
to a black person because it is difficult for them.
G: I do not really know because I am not one of those persons. I do not have
a feeling about how a person has to look. I do not have a thing about what
I should do or say. I just like people. I have some very close people that I
love that do not look like me, and vice versa. So I would not be a good judge
as to what goes on in their minds. But I will say this: they are very adamant
about it. They are very determined that you do not have this change because
they do not do anything to make it happen. I do not know how much
integration has really taken place. I think the churches try a little,
organizations try a little, the schools try a little, but I think what most people
really want is that it will not happen.
E: You go to St. Paul's church?
G: No, I am Episcopalian. My church is down on the corner of Lovett and
Martin Luther King.
E: So do white people go there?
G: Yes. They do not "go there" as such, but when we have special occasions and
invite them, they come. But very few white people just show up for services.
They do sometimes.
E: I have turned up a couple of times for something at the church down the
street here, St. Paul's ...
G: It is predominantly black.
E: ... and the only time I have seen a white person is when it was a political
[function], when one of the commissioners or somebody like that had to be
there. The church that I usually go to downtown ...
G: Which is white.
E: ... I think I have seen a black person there once from out of town.
G: So the churches are not doing it. I think the black people are as much to
blame as the whites. I also think that there was so much water over the dam
about the civil rights thing that a lot of people have not gotten over the
bitterness. Black people really had an opportunity to see first-hand what
some people thought about them. It is one thing to think what somebody
thinks about you, but it is another thing to think somebody is going to jump
out of the bushes and hit you. That is the differences. Some black people
were turned away from churches downtown because they had shown up for
services. The excuse of the Episcopal church was that they were not
Episcopalians, that they just showed up there because they wanted to prove
something, which might have been true. A lot of black people went to a lot
of churches trying to prove that they could not go.
Be that as it may, it left a bad taste. That was an unkind thing to do. Now
that people can go everywhere, a lot of people will not. In the South it is
crazy; it is really crazy. My church is a mission, and it is poor. I cannot tell
you how I wish it were not as poor as it is, and I cannot tell how happy I
would be if I did not have to struggle every day just to keep the doors open
at my church.
E: Do you think it would be less poor if it were not segregated?
G: Of course. It would be less because there would be more members, there
would be more people giving and more people sharing. All I need to do is
move my membership to Trinity, but I do not want to do that either.
E: Trinity was, for a time at the turn of the century or somewhere earlier,
integrated, was it not?
G: Not to my knowledge.
E: Well, when I was working on my Twine research I saw the marriage
certificate, and the Twines were actually married by the Episcopal minister.
G: That is because they did not have a black one.
E: Well, they were Catholics later, so one of them must have been Episcopalian.
G: One of them could have been Episcopalian.
E: There are a lot of black ministers in town. Surely they would have been able
to find a black one.
G: Yes, but perhaps they were not going to have a black minister marry them.
See, the black ministers were not Episcopalians--they were Catholic. So if you
were Catholic or Episcopalian, you were married by a white minister because
there were no black ones. That is how that was.
E: That reminds me of something else I wanted to ask you. You said you did
not know Richard Twine, the photographer, because he had left town before
you came. But you did say, when I asked you about his sisters who were here
in town for a long time, that one had lived down the street from Excelsior
E: How would you describe the family?
G: They were just to themselves all the time. They were just very quiet people
who did not associate with people in the community much, or did not know
others. I guess you would say they really did not know other people. I did
not know them, and I think I have been pretty outgoing in this community.
I have been a pretty busy bee.
E: I think so.
G: And I did not know them very well. I do not remember what they looked
like. But they did not come to the school or to any of the activities that we
had. The school was, I would say, the center of any social activity, like plays,
contests, speaking engagements of all kinds, musical events. I never saw them
there through the years. So I would assume that they were two old ladies who
were just always happy to be at home. Some people live that way--to the
store, back home, and to church.
E: And that was it.
G: Yes. I have not found anybody that says any different.
E: Well, we may not find anybody that knew them very well, then.
G: You may not. It is just hard to tell where to go from there. I cannot help you
at all. It is terrible.
E: Well, to sum up, are there things that I should have asked you that I did not
about your life or projects or things you have been involved in, things that
were important to you?
G: Well, this black studies library...
E: That is right. We have not talked about Echo House.
G: Echo House is very important to me. I do not have a grant.
E: Describe your idea of what you want to do and where.
G: This is what I really want to see happen: I feel that black children are not
getting any knowledge about their own heritage from any other place. There
are people that live here that do not know that Bethune-Cookman College is
in Daytona Beach and is a black college, and they have never been there.
They are old, and they live in St. Augustine.
E: You mean that older black people do not know that?
G: There are some old black people that live here that have never been there;
therefore, young black people here have no concept whatever of where they
came from or what they [their ancestors] were like or who was out there that
did a good job before them and was black. So I think it will give this little
city a lift if that could really happen, if it could come to pass. That would be
a black heritage thing.
E: So you would like to have a library with exhibits and books and films?
G: Yes, I would like to have a library and memorabilia of all kinds, and just
make it a center for everybody.
E: And you have a building for that down on Martin Luther King Street.
G: That is right. I have the building on Martin Luther King, but I do not have
a grant. I do not have money. I really do need a grant, and I really do need
money to help with the day-to-day things that I am not able to do. I am not
able to do as much volunteer work as I have done in the past.
E: I think if you had all the energy that you put into the Council on Aging ...
G: I could do a lot more. I do not have that kind of energy anymore. Because
of the drug thing in Lincolnville I cannot get the volunteers that I could have
gotten at one time in my life.
E: Because people are afraid to be down there?
G: They do not want to come because they do not like people hanging around.
They do not like that, and I do not like that either. Until we take the
building back, what we are going to do is sit around ourselves and look stupid,
and they will go away to some other area.
E: How did you describe that plan? Six or seven old ladies were going to sit
down there and chase them away? [laughter]
G: Just sit there and look stupid all afternoon, and they will get disgusted. They
cannot have a drug transaction with these old ladies sitting there looking at
them. So we worked it all out.
E: So who are your cohorts in this?
G: I really do not know yet. A lot of people have talked, but when it comes time
to sit down there and do the work, now, that is another thing. I think I can
depend on at least twelve old ladies to take turns, three or four at a time.
See, you have to do this all day. It is not like you could put in two or three
hours because the minute you leave they will be back.
E: Would you be in the building, or would you be just sort of hanging around
G: We would be in and out, hanging around, just like they do. They do not come
in the building, but they break windows and do damage and sit on the fence.
E: Now, do you think you would be safe doing that?
G: Oh, yes. They would not attack us or anything. It is just that we do not like
their being around. We classify them as undesirables. If you do not know
them, they seem like strangers with nothing to do. Some people do know
them, but it has been so long since I was in the classroom I would not know
anybody that young. So I am trying to find some grandmothers that have
some grandsons out there. [laughter]
E: I think that is a good idea. Have you heard of the women's groups that do
this thing called "Take Back the Night"? The women go in a huge group and
sort of march down the streets that are dangerous and sort of take back their
freedom to walk on the streets.
G: Yes, that is right.
E: This will be a grandmothers' march to take back the neighborhood. [laughter]
G: Take back the neighborhood, that is exactly what it is.
E: That is great.
G: There is a young woman that I am going to try to get as the chairperson, and
the first time we talked about it, she said: "Let's just do it. They will be just
as curious to know why we are there as we are to know why they are there."
E: They will, indeed.
G: She said, "They are there because they are sending us a message." I asked her
what the message was, and she said, "The message is that we need you." I
said, "Anybody that is on drugs does not need me because I do not know what
to do." In the first place, I am so afraid.
E: Of drugs? Of people on drugs?
G: Yes, I am afraid of the people on drugs because they do not know two-thirds
of the time what they are doing. This is the part that scares people.
Sometimes if they are fond of dying. I do not think we have anybody up there
like that. See, they have arrested so many people, and they are not in the
area anymore. So these young people who desire to hang-out are not that
bad. They are on their way, but there is a long distance between death and
the beginning. Some of them could get well if they had care. But where are
we sending them? This woman that used to work for me had a son that was
on [drugs]. She took him to Jacksonville twice, and nobody would take him.
E: And we do not have a center here.
G: No. You talk about the Charter House and all these things you see on
television, but you have to have a lot of money. Most of those places are
E: That is what I thought.
G: She said, "Where would I get that kind of money?" I said, "I thought they
would take in the poor," but she said, "No, ma'am, they do not take in the
E: They are private organizations.
G: Private, very private. So if I could get Echo House in some kind of shape so
that I know it would go on in the event of my demise, I think I could be
happy. I really do.
E: Oh, I do not know. I think you would think of some other project.
G: You do not trust me?
E: Well, I think as long as you are breathing you will have some project to work
G: I am sure I will. It is just that I want so much to accomplish that. I can
envision the carriage people bringing the tourists up to Lincolnville, bringing
them down Martin Luther King, and saying, "Now, this is the place where a
lot of black people put a lot in here to preserve their heritage." So many
people tell me they have memorabilia that they want put in the house, but I
do not dare take it because I am so afraid it will get lost with these crooks
breaking windows and coming in when they get ready. So I have to have bars
and alarm systems and all the stuff that goes with security. Plus I need a
director. I need somebody there all the time, and that person has to be paid.
And the person that is paid needs an assistant that also needs to be paid, so
you are talking about some money. But like I said, I might go to see
[comedian Bill] Cosby and tell him what my situation is.
E: Now, I forget your relationship with Cosby.
G: Johnnetta Cole, who is the president of Spelman [College in Atlanta], is
married to my brother's son.
E: This is your brother in Washington or the brother that is in Carolina?
G: This is the brother that is in Carolina. Cosby gave Spelman $20 million, and
I was there the night he presented the college with the $20 million. I was also
back there for the wedding when Cosby was a guest and made a toast to the
bride and groom.
E: You did not ask him for money then?
G: No, no. They did not even allow you to ask him to pose for a picture. But
I told a friend that I did not think I could leave the place until I got a picture
of Cosby. She said, "You really do have to ask" I said: "I had to go back to
St. Augustine, and I have to have a picture of Cosby and me. You know I
do." She laughed and I laughed.
Johnnetta had told us the night before that he just wanted to be a guest at the
wedding, that he did not want to be a celebrity. But you know how people
do. They made him a celebrity anyway. But it did not take anything away
from the wedding. Do you want to see pictures of me and Cosby?
E: Sure. I am going to have to leave in a few minutes, so let us end this.