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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
INTERVIEWEE: Rosa B. Williams
INTERVIEWER: Joel Buchanan
DATE: January 23, 1984
ROSA B. WILLIAMS
FIFTH AVENUE BLACKS, ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
INTERVIEWER: JOEL BUCHANAN
DATE OF INTERVIEW: JANUARY 23, 1983
PLACE OF INTERVIEW: 423 NW 6th PLACE
Mrs. Rosa B. Williams was born in Starke, Florida in 1933 and moved shortly
thereafter to Gainesville. The first part of the interview deals very
briefly with Mrs. Williams childhood and schooling. She attended Avery
Jones school in Gainesville, Bronson Junior High school, and completed
her education at the segregated Williston High school.
The next part of the interview deals with Mrs. Williams' employment after
her graduation from high school. She worked at a variety of jobs in
Gainesville, in the private and public sector, and as a domestic servant for
white people. Her work for Mrs. Jane Starrett introduced her to political
participation, and with Mrs. Starrett's encouragement, Mrs. Williams has
become one of Gainesville's leading black political activists.
The interview concludes with a lengthy discussion of Mrs. Williams' efforts
to promote racial integration in Gainesville, through her work with the
N.A.A.C.P. and the local Democratic party organization. Her efforts on
behalf of many successful local, state, and federal politicians is recalled
in detail. Mrs. Williams also discusses the role of blacks in the modern
political process, and the importance of political participation.
J: Good evening, Ms. Williams. How are you this evening?
J: Rosa, where were you born?
R: In Starke, Florida.
J: Can you tell me what year?
R: In 1933.
J: Can you remember anything about your childhood in Starke?
R: I was not raised in Starke, I was raised here.
J: When did you come to Gainesville?
R: Oh, probably when I was about two months old.
J: What were your parents' names?
R: My mother's name was Katherine Baker [any my father's name was]
J: Any brothers and sisters?
R: I have Leroy Corbert and Gilbert Lee Baker, who is dead. My half-sister
is Betty Cook. I have a half-brother, Willie Earl Williams, and another
half-sister, Marie Roberts.
J: Can you remember anything about your parents or grandparents?
R: My parents, yes. What do you want to know about them?
J: Tell me something about your mother. Where was she from?
R: She was from Willacoochie, Georgia.
J: Did she tell you how she got to Florida?
R: She came here with her sister.
J: Did she tell you anything about the way life was years ago when she was
R: They would talk to us about it [and they said] was really hard.
J: What do you mean you say hard?
R: They had a hard time with the economy. They worked on a farm most of the
time and they didn't have anything.
J: You say you were about two months old when you came from Starke to Gainesville.
Can you remember anything about Rosa Williams when she was a little girl?
R: I remember lots. My mother was having a real hard time raising us and we
were staying in the house with one of my mother's sisters and her children.
My oldest auntie came down here and we were having a really hard time until
I met my daddy, Roosevelt Hayes. He's not my daddy in blood, but he is my
J: He's the one that raised you?
R: We were having a really hard time until we met him and then things changed
J: Is there any activity or event you can recall that happened with you as a
little girl that stuck out in your mind?
R: I remember back then lots of things. We were very bad during that time.
I used to fight a lot.
J: Really? Do you remember anything about your birthday parties, Christmas...
R: Christmas was the most exciting thing because we had a fireplace in the house
and we used to get up to go see what was around the Christmas tree. As a rule,
we had a stocking with some candy, fruit, and a toy or a doll in it.
J: Did you get very much for Christmas back in those days?
R: No. The people that spend a lot of money now on their children were
completely happy with what they got back in those days. They didn't
expect anything else.
J: Rosa, where did you got to school?
R: I went to [A.Q] Jones. Then I went to school in Bronson and then to school
J: You really have been around a lot. Can you tell me anything about your schools?
R: I really liked Bronson because we had one room and you had one teacher all day
long. You could relate more to that person. That teacher knew your ups and
downs, when you weren't feeling well or if something had gone wrong. You did
not have a change of teachers.
J: What was the school day like? What time did it start? What time did it end?
R: [It went from] eight o'clock to around three.
J: How far did you live from the school?
R: About as far as from here to the post office up town.
J: Two or three miles?
R: Mm hmm.
J: Can you recall any of your teachers?
R: Well, Reverend Eliju Mobley, who's dead now. You know him.
J: What was your favorite subject in school?
J: Why history?
R: I just liked going back in the past on into the mileniums, slavery times and
all that. Anything concerning the past, I was very much interested in it.
J: I guess that was a black school?
R: Uh huh. It was not integrated. We had to pass by the white school going to
the black school. When you got up to the seventh grade in Bronson, you
either went to Archer or to Williston.
J: If your school was in one room, did you have a library?
R: The teachers were such good teachers that we did not need a library. We
studied the whole day, and took an hour to eat lunch. You really studied.
If you didn't get your lesson done they would be around to see your parents.
Mobley had a room with us.
J: That meant you had to be a good little girl.
R: Uh huh.
J: What was lunch time like?
R: You would sit around and eat lunch. I mostly stayed off by myself. I've
always been reading something.
J: You had to bring them to school.
R: Yes. I've never cared being around younger people. I've always been inter-
ested in reading about older people.
J: Do you remember how long you went to school during the year?
R: It was eight months.
J: Well, after you finished school, you were here in Gainesville, and I assume
that you did a variety of things. Tell me some things you used to do.
R: No, I came here before I finished school and I went to night school for a
while. Then, I stopped; I went back to night school and that was where I
J: You finished in night school? Was that at Lincoln?
R: Uh huh, when it first started to offer adult classes. It was during the time
when the was going down there and how long ago was that, a good while
J: Too long. What kind of jobs have you had?
R: My first job was at Alachua General Hospital. I ran the elevator.
J: Can you recall what you got paid to do that?
R: Twelve-fifty a week.
J: And how many hours did you work a day?
R: About eight or nine hours.
J: That's all you did, sit in elevators?
R: Uh huh.
J: What did you do after you finished that?
R: I worked as a maid for a family for about fifteen years. She was the one
who pushed me to go out and do things and get into lots of integrated stuff.
I was the first black person to get a card to the library in town. By her
pushing me and pressuring me to do it, I was the first black person to join
the Democrat Club. At that time, it was all white.
J: Who is this person you're talking about?
R: Jane Starrett. She pushed me to get into all those things.
J: Working with this lady, in a sense, helped you.
R: Yes. I never was treated as a maid with that family. She would pick me up
and the first thing we would do, after she dropped her children off at the
school, was to sit down and eat breakfast. I always ate breakfast at the
table with the family. They used to go out of town for two or three weeks
with the University of Florida. He was the director of the University of
Florida glee club at that time. They were gone about two or three weeks.
I had a choice of keeping the children at my house or at their house. The
children went back and forth from my house to their house but I never was
treated as a maid. I did not do the hard cleaning work, they paid someone
else to do that. They paid someone to do the washing and the ironing. I
kept the children and prepared their meals. Her children call me their
Then I left there and went to Bell Nursery as a cook. Then I left their
nursery and went to the Community Action Agency and when I left the Community
Action Agency, I went to
J: That's where you are now?
R: No. I worked for .John Gebhart and I had our big blow out on the
twenty-fourth of September. I left there and took a month's vacation. I
start with the state on the fifth of November.
J: What are you doing now?
R: I'm with the HRS.
J: I didn't know that. Rosa, it's known in Gainesville that you are very involved
in black-white causes. Can you tell me what made you get involved in that?
R: I think I was about seventeen years old and lots of people have asked me
that question. I got mad about something, I can't remember what I got mad
about. That's what happens when you stay home and don't get involved in
causes. I made a commitment to myself that from that day on that I would
get involved in community things.
J: Can you tell us some of the things you were involved in? Or some of the
things you have been involved in? Tell me about some of the activities
that were happening during the '50s and the '60s when you first got
R: We had lots of picket lines in town. We also had a lot of whites protecting
us. We would send a black to apply for a job and they told us that job was
taken or there wasn't a job. Then one of the whites would go in and they
would get the job. We would start picketing that place to see what we could
do about it. We did not bother with anybody who was out there for foolish-
ness or to fight because we were serious. If the University of Florida profes-
sors and their wives had not come out to help us, I don't know what we would
have done. We were on the picket lines together. Murphy's was the first one
to integrate in this county. Byron Winn, at that time ran for city commission,
and he decided to integrate the Primrose. When he did that, the white business-
men up town told him they would break his back for that, which they really did.
You know, they ruined him here in this town.
J: Oh, did they?
R: They never forgave him for that integration. He won a seat with the black
votes the night of the city election. He was up there with us because whites
were so mad when the University of Florida helped us. Some blacks don't under-
stand that because black people have good jobs these days and nice homes with
cars and all that. They think everything is fine. In a way, it's worse now
than it was before. During that time, we were looking for things and we were
more aware of things. People tend to sit down and forget about the other person
but during that time everybody was out there fighting for everybody.
J: Can you recall some of the places that you all picketed?
R: At the College Inn most of all and at this place across from Sears. The
Waffle Shop and the ten cents store uptown. I remember those places.
J: Was there ever any time that, you know, in reading about the '60s you see about
the fire hose and did you ever see the policemen beating people?
R: No, we never had that around here. One night, some blacks went inside the
Waffle shop and they put out the lights and threw black coffee on them. The
youth NAACP, I think, had a little run-in with the people at that place here
on Thirteenth Street. We never had that. People would come out and take our
pictures and ask us to leave but we did not leave.
J: When you say the group, what group are you talking about?
R: [The] NAACP.
J: Did you ever go to jail?
R: No. A bunch of us were taken down one night when Martin Luther King got
killed. We had a rally to Mount Common and then we marched from Mt. Common
to Thirteenth and University, from University to the courthouse square. We
got out there and sat down in the road. The police took all of us down. There
were over thousand of us up there. We went in the road so they didn't know
what to do with us. They didn't have any room for the women and men folk, so
they let us go. We wouldn't go until the other people got out.
J: Was your life ever threatened?
R: No. I've gotten more phone calls lately since that time. The phone calls
I've gotten are in the last five years.
J: What were things like for black people back in those days, in the '40s and the
'50s? Can you remember?
R: As long as you said, "Yes Maam" and "No Maam" to certain whites you were
okay. But if you questioned anything, that's when the hell started to fly.
You were one of them, "uppity niggers."
J: You were considered one of the uppity niggers?
R: At that time, yes. Here's a way that you can always get around that. Just
S go ahead and ignore it. Helagain, we had the right community from the
University of Florida behind us.. Everything we have gained here we owe to
the faculty, the staff and their wives.
J: Have you seen a change?
R: I've seen a change in the way things were around here. Integration opened
up the water fountains, restaurants, motels and the movies. Things have
gotten a little bit worse than it was back in those days because you knew
where the people stood. Nowadays you don't. They write about the poor and
this is so beautiful. Behind the scenes, it's worse.
J: Can you tell me some other things that you were involved in?
R: Yes, the NAACP was one of them. The Gainesville Women for Equal Rights was
the force behind integration here in this town. That was half black and
half white. At the time I first joined it, some of the black teachers did
not think I was good enough to be a member. They refused to pick me up to
take me to a meeting. One evening I called and wanted them to pick me up
and they told me that they weren't going. If they were going they probably
would be late. The lady who was having the meeting, a white lady, said,
"I will pick you up." She picked me up and got me back to the house about
twenty minutes before the meeting began. The same person I called earlier was
sitting there. When they saw that I had the respect of the whites from that
group, they were friendly. At that time, my feelings were hurt and I did not
want them to pick me up or take me. I let the whites do it.
I was involved in that and then I was involved with getting the Junior Elks
here. I started to work at the Community Action Agency. I got lots of the
community groups going on out in the county as well as in town. We had recrea-
/ tion set up for the young people on the weekend in the old black schools which
had closed down. People from here in town would go out to help keep them open.
We had dances and fairs and I got interested in senior citizens. I went to
their doors doing shopping and things for them.
J: What do you feel has caused people to have the respect for you that they have?
R: They know I'm fair and I'm honest.
J: It is said that if you want to get anything done in Gainesville for blacks,
you have to see Rosa Williams. Why?
R: Most of the blacks know I'm fair and honest. I don't just go to them when I
need them or when election time comes. I go to Willa Mae: Hart's place,
Fletcher's place, I go to Lo's Grill. I go anywhere. I don't go just when
I want them to do something for me. I keep in touch and you may see me
sitting down there drinking in the back alley with some of the winos or some
high on drugs. I'm right here all the time. When it's our elections, or I
need somebody to go up to City Hall, I stay in touch. If something is going
on I invite them, I send them word. It's up to them to participate or not.
J: Are you saying you deal with the low man on the street and the teachers?
R: Uh huh.
J: You have a feeling to work with both of them? How do those people who are
important people appreciate all the work you give the lower man?
R: They don't have any choice because I'm not going to change just to please
them. It's a fact that you can depend on the little man more than you can
some of these so-called important people. I hurt my foot one time and I was
on crutches. I could not take water to my bed, in the night, to take my
medicine. I could have had this house full of money but that wouldn't have
done any good. So money and prestige is not the important thing. It's the
people you associate with and the friends you know. If you really want some-
thing done, get the little people. If you notice in the election, the people
knockingon doors are not doctors and lawyers.
J: It's the working class man?
R: Uh huh.
J: That's true. Rosa, you are constantly involved in all elections. Now,
the black vote is important. Why do you feel it's important and what have
you done to help the people get the votes?
R: I go out and campaign and try to get them to vote. Black people need to
start going to the polls. Burning down a building or cussing some people
out, that means nothing. Everything is political. If you let those political
people know that you will see them at the polls they will learn to respect you.
They will at least try to represent something you want. Now, whether you vote
for who I'm supporting or not, go to the poll and vote. Make that a habit.
J: Can you tell me some of the officers or elected officials you have worked for?
R: Uh huh. I'll start with the city. Jean Chalmers and Courtland Collier, I
worked really, really hard in those two elections. Thomas Howard, Leveda
Brown, and Jane Walker, I worked really, really hard in their elections.
Stephan Michelson did not have one but I worked really hard on getting letters
sent out to Governor Graham and petitions signed. Buzzy Green and Chuck Chance,
I worked really hard in their election campaigns. Peg Nattress, Barbara Gallant,
and Charles Chestnut. I worked really hard on their campaigns.
J: Any of the past ones?
R: Aaron Green the first and the second time he ran for a city commission seat,
and Neil Butler. I worked real hard for Buddy McKay up in Tallahassee. Also,
Jon Mills and Sid Martin. I worked hard for Sid and Governor Graham and
J: Have any of these people that you worked for ever been at your home?
R: Dick Stone has been here. Governor Graham was here. All of them have been
here except Carter. He was never here but his son was here.; Lawton Chiles
was here just before the election. Buddy McKay called my house his second
headquarters in town.
J: How do you feel about that?
R: I don't feel one way or the other. There are things that I like about them.
That's one reason why I don't mind going out and working for them. I see
them all through election time. For instance, every Sunday night when Sid
Martin got back from Tallahassee he'd call. I don't know how many people
he calls, but he calls to let people know what's been going on up there and
what he plans to do. Jon got me to agree to set up some meetings here with
him, Sid and George. I don't want them to come by here just to say they
will come. I want them to come because they respect me as a person.
J: Do you feel they appreciate you?
R: Uh huh. They did me some personal favors, there's no doubt about that.
J: Rosa, there was a big concern when you supported Lou Hendry. How did you
feel about that?
R: I was mad with the things some people were saying and I was talking about
suing some of them until the election was over. During the civil rights
movement, Lou Hendry was one of the deputy sheriffs who arrested people that
Sunday at the courthouse. After Lou got to be sheriff, he made a complete
turnabout. Lou Hendry has always been fair to me since that time and to
blacks. I know warrants have been issued for people and Lou would have his
men call me if he thought I knew them and tell them to turn themself in.
Anybody who works with me like that is good enough for me to support.
J: I guess you've seen a lot of this.
R: Just like George Wallace has changed.
J: Yes, that's a good example.
R: Take George Wallace back in his racial days. I know some black people around
here I trusted less than George Wallace because I knew where George Wallace
stood. He didn't make no bones about it. You don't know where some blacks
stand because they tell you one thing and then they go and stab you in the back.
J: Rosa, give me one election that you know where your efforts were the turning
points in that person being elected. Would it be Representative Mills?
R: Jon Mills was one of them. I can only speak in the black community. Jean
Chalmers, Courtland Collier, Aaron Green this last time, and Neil Butler.
J: Where do you work out of? Do you use your home or your office?
R: I use my home. I started working for Governor Graham at his headquarters
the first time he ran but it was so packed full of people every night that
half of us worked from my house. You have been here to my house during
R: You can't sit down or put a meal on this table here. It stays full of
work. I do everything from my home.
J: Are you paid for your efforts?
R: No. I don't want money. Once somebody pays you off you're through.
J: So it's volunteer work.
R: Uh huh. I stay away from money because it can get you into problems.
J: Do you feel good about what you've done?
R: Uh huh.
J: Do you plan to run for an office?
R: No. Not even a dog catcher.
R: My patience is too short and I don't like the campaigning. During football
season my opponent would be campaigning and I would be watching TV. [laughter]
J: Do you think having an all white board hinders us? Do you feel Mrs. Chalmers
is doing her job for us?
R: I think we have some good white people which can represent us just as good
as the blacks can. Sometimes, the white people represent us better than
some black candidates do once they get up there. If a white person is
really concerned, sometimes they go further. Jean Chalmers has really been
going out in the community talking with people, seeing what issues come up
to city hall, before she takes a vote.
J: Rosa, you talk about the things that you wanted but that you weren't involved
in. Tell me some of the things you're doing now.
R: Okay. I'm on the board of directors at Shands. I'm on the new board of
directors for the Girls' Club. I'm on the board of directors at Planned
Parenthood. I'm on the board of directors at the Hippodrome theater. I am
the Chairman of the Democratic Executive committee. I am the chairman of the
Concerned Citizens for Juvenile Justice. I am on the board of directors at
the Concerned Citizen Awareness Group. I had an absence of leave from the
Dental Clinic Executive Committee and I'm back on there now. I am the first
Vice-President of the local NAACP. I am a member of the Elks. I belong to
the Eastern Star. I belong to the Pall Bearer Lodge. I belong to a concerned
citizen awareness group. This new group just formed the Wilhemina Johnson
Resource Center, I'm on that. I'm on the governor's commission.
J: My goodness, you're on a lot of things.
R: I'm chairman of the Debonair Social Club. I left out some.
J: Uh, my goodness, how do you find time to do all these things?
R: It's easy because some of these groups meet at noon. I'm a member of
the League of Women Voters. The local NOW group wrote me a letter stating
they wanted to recognize me as the Lady of the Year but they have to write
the national chapter to do it.
J: NOW? Excellent. Did you receive a very large award last year?
R: Yeah, the community service award.
R: That was based on my getting the Concerned Citizens for Juvenile Justice
J: You've been involved with the police department, too?
R: Uh huh.
J: What would you like to tell the young black minds out there to do or not
R: Get up off their duff, stay off street corners and off of dope. Get an
education in their head and stop thinking about parties, dancing and shooting
pool. Do something for themselves, even if it is nothing more than go to the
library and read. Learn something about their community.
J: What would you tell them not to do?
R: Not to get hung up on dope and have all these babies. Young girls and young
guys need to keep their lives clean because prisons are full of young black
people. Stay out of trouble. Trouble is easy to get into.
J: Rosa, you still live in the Fifth Avenue area and this is supposed to be
the worst part of town.
R: It's not.
J: Can you explain that?
R: It is in peoples' minds. The same thing that happens here in Fifth Avenue
can happen in other parts of Gainesville. You just don't hear about it.
J: All these people you have named, Governor Graham, George Kirkpatrick, all
have been here to your house?
R: Uh huh. They are not scared to come here day or night. The white people come
here all the time. Nothing has ever happened to them in leaving my house.
Some of my white friends stay overnight here. The city public works committee
and I meet at my house a lot. I've had parties here where people had to park
down by the train station. I think if you go looking for something then
something will happen. Those riots down on Fifth Avenue. Those reporters
that got hurt knew they should not have gone down there. I went down there
myself but I was on shaky ground. I went because I had a duty to go. Any
white had no business going down there in the first place.
J: They took a chance?
J: Do you think we're going to see more changes for Gainesville in the future
or do you think it's going be just like it is?
R: I like Gainesville. I wouldn't choose any other place. I think Gainesville
is a really nice place to live. You're not going to see any changes until
the people in Gainesville realize that not everything is rosey and peachy-
peachy. That's one part. Another part is things will change if people start
working together and stop fighting each other. Start recognizing people.
J: Rosa, do we have another Rosa Williams in Gainesville? Does anyone follow in
R: Yeah, there are lots of people around Gainesville who do that. Everybody
does their own little thing.
J: If you had to do your life all over again, would you do the same thing
you're doing now?
J: What would you change about it?
R: I wouldn't change anything.
R: I have enjoyed doing everything that I have done. The only thing I would
like to do over would be not to marry some guy. I would have never married
J: Let me ask you a question. I saw Ben Hooks, the president of NAACP, on
television the other night. He was mentioning about the involvement of the
NAACP. Is the local chapter doing very much?
R: A lot of members are involved in different things. I think we are going to
get better. Some things we have done you can't put in the paper because they
are behind the scenes. We need to be more visible in the churches and in the
J: How about Reagan.
R: Some are completely satisfied with him but I think you will see a lot of
people going to the poll. I think this time the poll will stay open past
seven o'clock. I think the people will be in line.
J: Do you think Reagan has really hurt the poor community.
R: Yes, he has. He had put people out of work. That's the biggest thing.
I'll soon be forty-eight years old and I have never seen so many people
out of jobs. You watch t.v. and they are standing in line to get jobs
and food. It's not just the blacks but whites, too. This has hit every-
body. He has hurt the black most of all. Because blacks sit here and talk
about it. At least the white groups, like the farmers, get up there and
fight. They may lose but they go down fighting. We sit here and wait on
somebody else to do it for us.
J: Do you think if Dr. King had not been killed he would still be in the
process of demonstrating?
R: I think so, yes.
J: His life was really definitely a loss to the black community?
R: Uh huh.
J: Did you ever have a chance to see him when he was alive?
J: Did he ever come to Gainesville?
R: I don't think so. He was at St. Augustine.
J: Do you think the NAACP has been helpful to the black causes?
R: In some cases, I think that they could do more.
J: That's my next question. Have you ever had any candidate call you and get
upset because you were not supporting him or her?
R: I've had candidates say, "I'm sorry, I was hoping you could support me."
I have not lost any friends because they understood where I was coming from.