It was around 1960, I was around 6 years old, and we lived in the southern part of Florida, outside Ft. Lauderdale. Our community was brand new, as the state was coming into one of its times of expansion in population. My father had accepted a position as a minister in a small city that was built by the Rockefeller family for fixed and low-income families. As my father made a take home salary of $72 a month, we qualified. My mother had to go to work the previous fall, shortly after my baby brother was born due to the fact that even in 1960, $72 did not go very far for a family of 4. So my mother was a first grade teacher. Still, even with her added income, we wer considered low income.
Why did my parents pick Florida with this being the situation for a growing family, and a low-income for my father. Well, partly because he was told as he grew his church from 12 families, his income would grow. Partly because my father had been stationed in Miami are during WW II, and he always had wanted to live there after that. Actually, I believe that was the primary force driving the move. If Daddy was not happy, nobody was happy, and this was to be his dream come true place.
In some ways, this was an idyllic place. Our city was close to fields of vegetable, and the Everglades. I went to school from the start with students of many races, not just white-faced students. Mexico, Cuba, Jamaica, African-Americans, and a spattering of students from other areas of the Caribbean. We not only went to school, but we played. We rode bikes, roller skated, the boys played army or Davy Crockett, and the girls with various dolls. The older children would sit outside and play board games under the shade of porches or trees. We would pick fruit off the trees of homes in the neighborhood for our snacks, with the blessing of the owners. We all drank water from the garden hoses in our yards, and we chased the fogging machine down the street, much the chagrin and protest of our parents.
For all of this interracial harmony with the children, there were still the ugly signs, especially in the larger cities, that this did not extend to the adult world. There were the segregation of bathrooms (something my family paid no attention to, and we would use the colored only ones), drinking fountains, and the bus seating. I always liked to sit in the back of the bus because the seats were higher and I could see out the windows. As a result, my family did not endear ourselves to good ol’ southern values.
What many people do not realize is Florida gets many hurricanes during the season every year that are not the category 4 and 5, and largely go unnoticed by the rest of the country. This does not mean that they are any better if you live in a low-lying area or in a shabbily built home. This is where most of the seasonal migrant workers who worked in the vegetable fields lived. Even a major tropical storm would cause migrant camp housing to collapse into a heap if tar paper, splintered weak boards, and cardboard.
My father had a heart to help others. So after his church building was built, he would find like-minded people who would go with him to gather up as many migrant workers as they could, and bring them into his church to ride out the storm. They provided blankets, food, and water for the people, and had emergency lighting for if and when the electric failed, a common occurrence. Needless to say, this action did not go over well with some of the people who believed in segregation. In fact, part of the reason my father left the ministry was he had a non segregated church, and this did not let it grow as large as had been hoped for, and ultimately he lost his church. But that is another story for another time.
After one of the lesser hurricanes, and the clean up was done, and life had returned to normal, one night I heard a commotion in our front yard area. I figured it was just some noisy neighbors walking by. However, eventually curiosity took over my awakened 6-year-old self, and I went to the window. There was a group of about a half-dozen people dressed up, I thought, early for Halloween. They seemed to have on ghost costumes, and they had put a cross in our yard. Odd, but my dad was a minister, so not a problem. But then they did something really different. They lit it on fire. At that point, I went to get my mother. I was yelling, and while I was initially okay with the goings on, I had become frightened. My mother was watching the news, and my father reading the paper. David, my infant brother, was asleep.
My mother took me to the window, and I will never forget how she calmed me, and tried to protect me from what I later learned was a vileness in our front yard. She got down by me, held me, and answered my questions with a few sentences. “Deborah, it is because we are good people that they put that cross on fire in our yard. They want to make sure others know we are good people.” We stayed there, watching the ghosts carry on, the cross burn until it was ash. And we went to bed. I learned later what really happened that night. But still like what my mother said. It was a light for good people to know where we lived.