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Wednesday, July 06, 2022

‘This is our home’: Gainesville multigenerational residents recount the evolution of a segregated Gainesville

The civil rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s changed the city’s racial atmosphere, but the fight for equal rights is still ongoing

For Paula Sanders, home is a quaint one-story, white and red accented cinder block house. It’s been home for 54 years.

Growing up, she was neighbors with Gainesville legends like Judge Stephan P. Mickle, the first Black federal judge in the First District Court of Appeal, and Dr. Cullen W. Banks, the first Black person with full practicing privileges at Alachua General Hospital, which was torn down in 2009.

She still lives in her childhood home in Lincoln Estates, a southeast Gainesville neighborhood rich with history. It was a model for Black equitable access to home ownership amid the civil rights movement.

“I know where it came from,” Sanders said. “I know what it was built from. I know the foundation.”

Over the decades, she has watched the city integrate while erasing the prominent Black culture that once thrived. 

“The true trailblazers are no longer here,” she said.

In response, multigenerational Gainesville residents must take it upon themselves to preserve their heritage through food, photographs and oral histories. For some Black residents, they experienced the hasty integration of schools and the inequitable transformation of the city. 

In 1967, Paula Sanders was born into a Gainesville where racial tensions were high and integration was in its early stages. The 54-year-old is a fifth generation Gainesville resident. 

She attended P.K. Yonge, a K-12 school, surrounded predominantly by white people, she said. When she came home, though, her life was “very Black”  —  friends, family, church and the all-Black restaurant she frequented.

She spent weekends roller skating with friends at the speed rink in northeast Gainesville, she said. Over spring break, she participated in a dance contest in a large annual “sport-a-thon” event hosted for thousands of Black students in Gainesville.

“It was like the Olympics of the best athletes from all the Gainesville schools,” she added. “This gave us a time to come together and celebrate us.”

Growing up in a transitional period in United States history, Sanders remembers subtle changes in Black residents’ lifestyles during the civil rights movement in Gainesville.

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Sanders recalled regularly walking up to the front door of her grandfather’s shoe store on the corner of Main Street and First Avenue, greeted by the pungent smell of shoe dye. When she was young, shining shoes was a service predominantly provided to white people. She noticed Black businessmen visited the store more regularly as she grew older, though.

“As time went on and I grew up, you noticed that the climate of the store changed,” she said.

When Sanders attended UF as a student in the 1990s, she was enrolled in a small, predominately white program in the College of Health and Human Performance. She felt isolated pursuing her degree. 

“You got to choose: ‘Am I going to hang out with the Black students, am I going to hang out with the white students or am I going to hang out with the students that are going to help me get my degree and get out of school?’” she asked. “It was very, very segregated.”

Her father, Bill “Willie” Sanders, was the first Black faculty member in the UF College of Medicine. He started working for the Health Science Center in 1957, a year before the university integrated. Students thought he was a janitor, his daughter said.

After working as an anatomy lab technician at the university for a few years, he applied to become an undergraduate student. His application was denied because of his race, Sanders said.

In 1962, Willie became one of the first six Black undergraduate students to be accepted into UF.

“He was often overlooked, ignored, disrespected by students, even though he had on the white lab coat,” she added. “They just didn’t think he was supposed to be in that place. They weren’t ready for that.”

Willie faced unbelievable stories of blatant discrimination outside of UF’s campus, Sanders said. Her father told stories about his drives to South Florida to fetch cadavers for white medical students to practice on.

“He would always get stopped because he was a Black man driving a refrigerated truck,” she said. “And it was nine times out of 10 the same freakin’ cop.”

Willie Sanders had to prove his intelligence for white students and faculty to respect him. Now, the university and faculty honor his legacy with a scholarship dedicated to making significant contributions to a diverse student body.

He’s also celebrated by Paula and her family every Father’s Day in her childhood home. Her family gathers to admire old pictures of him, teach younger generations about his legacy and enjoy soul food together. 

Sanders hosts most annual family holiday gatherings in her childhood home: Easter, Fourth of July, you name it.

“This is our home,” she said. “This is where we belong.”

At least 12 other houses line Sanders’ street, and each has been occupied by the same family for about 50 years. Her neighbors are her tribe — a community within a community.

From the first to the last block in her neighborhood, Sanders knew every resident. Now, she said, it’s not quite the same. 

Low-income white families are moving into Black neighborhoods. Sanders said her neighborhood welcomes and accepts everyone in the Lincoln Estates community, but the newcomers isolate themselves and do not interact much with the old-timers.

She said East and West Gainesville are two different cities

As UF consumes more of Gainesville, historically Black neighborhoods dwindle. 

UF history professor Steven Noll grapples with a Gainesville where remnants of a racist past endure — in Gainesville’s schools, neighborhoods and history.

In Gainesville and the South, white developers are continuing to impede on and carve up Black land, Noll said. Black settlements and land ownership in northwest Gainesville near Millhopper Road have been reduced and replaced with upscale housing developments.

These complexes are “built on the backs of Black labor” following the fight for land ownership during the Jim Crow era, Noll said. 

“To say: ‘Oh no, we’re past that’ is putting our heads in the sand,” he said. “We’ve got a ways to go still, and I think it’s important to understand that.”

Otis Stover, a 70-year-old fourth generation resident, said these changes have led to further disconnect with his family’s history. 

Stover lives in East Gainesville in a neighborhood called Kincaid Road — about two miles away from his childhood neighborhood. He and most East Gainesville residents have been firsthand witnesses to the “great gentrification” devastating the city and its Black culture.

Stover’s ties to Gainesville began with a covered wagon — transportation that carried his ancestors from South Carolina to Fort White, then Crystal River and finally Gainesville in the thick of Reconstruction.

He cherishes documentation that recognizes his great-grandparents settled in the city and purchased land around 1904, though he believes his roots in Gainesville date back to the 1890s. Today, his children and grandchildren continue their Gainesville lineage.

As a child living in a segregated Gainesville in the late 1950s, there were boundaries Stover quickly learned not to cross. He recalled countless instances where he experienced overt racism — in department stores, convenience stores and the movie theater.

“There are places around town, when I pass, I can still see where the color-only signs were hanging,” he said. “I can still see where the color-only water fountains [were] at the old courthouse.”

These agonizing recollections are juxtaposed with fond memories growing up in Springhill, between Depot Park and Williston Road, which is a historical African American community in the city. He considers himself lucky to have grown up in such a nurturing neighborhood — with children, teachers and his school’s dean all within blocks of his home.

“Everybody took care of everybody else,” he said. “If you had a need, somebody in the neighborhood would be there to help.”

Stover graduated from Lincoln High School in 1969, one year before the school integrated. 

When the class of 1970 went home for Christmas break, the school was closed, and the students were bused to Gainesville High School in January as part of the county’s abrupt, disruptive attempt at integration.

“It was ugly,” he said. “How would you like it if all of a sudden your world had been turned upside down and there was no time for preparation?”

Fights broke out and the Confederate flag remained raised. Some days, he would have to excuse himself from class at Santa Fe College and hurry to Gainesville High to escort his younger siblings home safely. 

Garlenda Greene-Grant, a fifth generation Gainesville resident, attended segregated elementary schools in the city. When she transferred to integrated schools in fourth grade, it was her and her cousins, making up the only three Black children in the classroom. 

“Because we were the only Black kids and we came from a segregated school, they automatically put us in the lowest grade,” Greene-Grant said. “When I was at A. Quinn Jones, I was in the highest classes, and then to automatically go down to the lowest classes, that was an insult.” 

In order to make integration work, Gainesville took the children from the west side and bused them over to the east side and vice versa. 

Not everyone in Gainesville agreed with integration. Greene-Grant’s family took certain measures in the interest of her safety. 

“My uncles cut a path through our property to get to the school, so we wouldn't have to go through the white neighborhood to get there,” she said. “Because they wanted us to make sure that we were safe enough traveling through — because everybody wasn't happy with the integration.”

Despite the danger she faced during integration, Greene-Grant always felt safest roaming her grandfather’s hundred acre farmland in West Gainesville. 

Aside from keeping hogs on the property, Greene-Grant’s grandfather planted his gardens in long rows of fruits and vegetables, including corn, peas and watermelons. 

While her mother, aunts and uncles helped with the harvest, Greene-Grant and the other children played hide-and-seek in her grandfather’s corn patch. 

“We were supposed to go out and help him,” Greene-Grant said. “But all we did was run him crazy.” 

In the summer, the white sand in the field was hot. Barefoot, the children had to hop across the ground. Aside from hide-and-seek, they also played baseball, softball, kickball and other games. They rotated from house to house. When they’d go inside at day’s end, the children would be filthy, especially if they had been in the corn field. 

“My mom would fuss all night long because she had to get that sand out of my hair,” Greene-Grant said.

In the late 2000s, Greene-Grant built her home in the field her grandfather farmed, in close proximity to her uncles, aunts and dozens of cousins.

“The boy next door married the girl next door, and then it all became our family,” she said. 

She reminisces on her aunt’s mouthwatering biscuit recipe. 

“You know how Dunkin’ Donuts seem like they melt in your mouth?” Greene-Grant said. “That's how her biscuits did. They were so good, and she cooked them every Sunday.”

While Greene-Grant cannot make the biscuits herself, her brother and cousins continue to bake them. Instead of the biscuits, Greene-Grant prides herself on being able to cook cabbage the way her aunt did. 

“She always put a bell pepper in it to give that flavor,” Greene-Grant said. 

Greene-Grant is doing her best to preserve the recipes, photographs and stories of her family for future generations, but the city hasn’t done the same for historically Black neighborhoods and areas with Black-owned business. 

“I know Mama went down to the Black businesses that were down on Fifth Avenue,” Greene-Grant said. “There were grocery stores, tailors, shoe shops and stuff like that down there that they used to go to.” 

Greene-Grant worries at this point there may be no recovery from the effects of gentrification. 

“It's catering more to students, especially with all those high rise apartments,” Greene-Grant said. “It's not catering to the community, the Gainesville residents, because it's too expensive. It is just ridiculous.” 

While integration introduced some positive changes in Gainesville’s Black communities, like better education, Greene-Grant said there were certain things that were lost. 

“When integration came and opened the door, I think we flew out too much,” Greene-Grant said. “I'm saying we … deserted what we had built. Now what we’re left with is nothing. We have no Black community. We have our churches, that's it.”

Greene-Grant said she hopes Gainesville students and new residents will consider those who are less fortunate and establish equity.

“You have to preserve all race history here,” she said. “Black people have a strong presence in this county and country, and it shouldn't be erased.” 

While the loss of Black enclaves and culture in Gainesville may seem irreversible, it is through the individual efforts of multigenerational Black residents that the history can be preserved. 

Contact Carissa Allen at callen@alligator.org and follow her on Twitter @carissaallenn. Contact Eileen Calub at ecalub@alligator.org and follow her on Twitter @eileencalub.

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Carissa Allen

Carissa Allen is a third-year journalism and political science double major. She is excited to continue her work on the Metro desk this semester as the East Gainesville Reporter. In her free time, you can find her scuba diving, working out or listening to a podcast.


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