Racial segregation and discrimination in Orlando?
That was a long time ago…or was it?
by Nina Wilson Jones, Member, CFP Anti-Racism Committee and Washington Shores Presbyterian
On May 25, 2020, in plain view of the world via a Facebook post about 10 minutes long, a man was tortured to death by police, and no one could look away. Not least of all Black America, nor our co-workers, associates, and acquaintances among BIPOC. Our centuries old shame and unbelieved truth of domestic terror became front page news for the world to see - a Black man was lynched that day. And regularly dismissed claims of injustice, disadvantage, and unfairness – even life or death threats – were finally believed. But we’re lucky here; we live in Orlando, home of the “Happiest Place on Earth.” Nothing like that awful strife happening in the world ever happens here. And if it did, it was a long time ago, right?
The attached image of the precocious little girl in the Easter dress and stockings is a comfortable reminder that in the recent past, especially in Orlando, things are different. The fact that she grew up here is proof. That photo isn’t that old; she’s had a nice, comfortable family life. She’s dressed for Easter and even went to a local Presbyterian church. Orlando isn’t like what we’ve seen on the news recently. And even if it ever was, that was a long time ago, right?
Would it surprise you to know that the little girl in the picture isn’t 60 years old? How about that she got that Easter dress from Ivey’s department store in downtown Orlando (a local predecessor to today’s Dillard’s), where her Mother told her not to look any white adults in the eye, touch anything in the store and never leave her Mother’s side. She had to wear one of her Polly Flinder dresses to go to this fancy store, where the elevators were operated by nice Black people in uniforms who pushed the buttons for you once you told them which floor you wanted to visit to shop in the store.
They had to go to the back of the Children’s department, where a different Black lady measured her and selected dresses in her size for her mother, who couldn’t browse freely in the store. They were not allowed to try the dress on in one of the fitting rooms that the white Mothers and daughters were using. And as her mother paid for her dress, she was reminded that it couldn’t be returned if it didn’t fit well. Her Mother sewed so she was grateful that her little girl would look extra nice for Easter Sunday and an upcoming photo appointment. And as they left the store, she overheard white sales representatives say how pretty she was for a little Black girl. There are such nice people in Orlando, right?
How about the nice home that little girl enjoyed? Sure, it was a stable, two-parent household in a neighborhood safe enough that neighbors walked into each other’s unlocked homes to borrow a cup of sugar for a cake they were baking for dinner, despite there was a public housing project right across the street. The little girl had a hand-me-down bicycle from her older sister and lots of dolls and toys to play with her friends. She walked to Sunday School most weeks because the Presbyterian church was at the other end of the street from her home. She didn’t know anything about redlined, racially segregated neighborhoods, with racially segregated public schools that were deemed inferior to the other public schools in town. Her parents were educators in those same neighborhood schools and her parents knew all her principals and teachers. She and her sister were definitely going to college because their parents were first generation college graduates. It was going to be a continuation of a proud legacy that her parents began at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Their neighbors were business owners, physicians, attorneys, policemen, ministers, and other teachers. They all lived in one community because they wanted to; she didn’t know that they were legally required to live west of Division Street in Orlando. Or that her father had to be nice to the President of the small bank in her neighborhood because that was the only bank he could get a mortgage for their home or a loan for a car. Her father kept the 1930 Model A Ford he got from his father because it was a classic car. It wasn’t because he couldn’t get a second car loan, even on two teachers’ salaries.
She had no idea that she was already a baby in her parent’s arms, well into their mid-thirties, before they could vote in this country. Her parents were the exact same age as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and grew up knowing that despite being hard-working, law-abiding citizens of Orlando, they were deemed second-class by federal, state, and local law. They entered public buildings through back entrances, if at all. They did not go anywhere further than the high school or church after dark, not just because there wasn’t anything else to do in Orlando; they couldn’t go anywhere else safely in Orlando after dark. And when her big sister wanted to see if the water in the public drinking fountain downtown that had a “White Only” sign over it tasted different than the one that had a “Black” sign, she didn’t know why her sister got scolded for even mentioning it. No Orlando policeman would ever arrest or shoot a teenage girl, not even a Black one! The stories on the news back then about growling police dogs, open fire hoses on kids, church bombings and why her grandparents didn’t allow them to cross certain fields in the Seminole County country where they lived didn’t seem to be so scary because none of that happened here, right? Dr. King wanted non-violence; but why did they shoot him? He always knelt and prayed wherever he went, even to the PC US General Assembly. His wife and daughter looked so sad in the funeral pictures; they sat in church just like she and her Mother did on Sundays in Orlando, with her head in her Mother’s lap, rubbing her head softly.
How about when she won all those academic college scholarships, yet chose to go to the family’s alma mater, and her white high school counselor told her that she was wasting her education now that there was integration? The counselor was just looking out for her, right? And even after she completed college with high academic honors, rose through the ranks of one of the top three banks in the country, and came home from Texas to lead a business development team at a national conference for affluent minority professionals, she shouldn’t feel slighted when the regional executive at the Orlando downtown bank refused to meet with her, despite corporate protocols. It was just a scheduling mix-up with his secretary, right? It had nothing to do with the call to headquarters she had to make that they in turn, informed him that his calendar was in fact clear, to meet with the national business development executive who was in town to bring banking business to his Orlando office. He just couldn’t seem to remember how to make the small talk courtesies of welcoming home a fellow banker, a native daughter, reminiscing about intercity rivalries with her high school, that he could see from his corner office.
How about her neighborhood Presbyterian church? Wasn’t it full of family friends and traditions like Women’s circle meetings, church picnics, choir practices, Vacation Bible School, Easter egg hunts, Youth lock-ins and summer camp away from home? She attended Communicants classes at age twelve and they learned Robert’s Rules of Order so they could follow the congregational meetings with their parents. That was certainly a safe haven from the rest of Orlando beyond Division Street, right? Did it really matter that her church was established because the First Presbyterian Church downtown didn’t want Black members in the 1950’s? Despite what it says in the Bible about everyone being equal in God’s eyes (Revelations 7:9), those good Presbyterians couldn’t contradict the segregation laws in the South (even if the Orlando Mayor was a Ruling Elder of the church). That was too risky for any church leaders; not worth the risk for even for the Black community leaders in her congregation who were certified trade professionals, multi-degreed legitimate heirs of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois’ Talented Tenth, members of the Divine Nine sororities and fraternities, and Jack and Jill of America, Inc. A separate but equal church for them was better, fair, and just, right?
Except that all this fondness for nostalgia right now is willfully blind to the harsh reality that the good old days weren’t always good for everyone. And maybe not even all that good. Don’t be deceived that because people comply with ‘the way things have always been’ doesn’t mean that suffering isn’t occurring, injustice isn’t prevalent and that you as a Christian, don’t need to personally get involved with changing things right here in Central Florida.