History and the People Who Make It: Rosa B. Williams

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler

This is the fourteenth in a continuing series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.

Rosa B. Williams, long-time Gainesville community organizer, was interviewed by Joel Buchanan [B] in 1996.

B: Where were you born, Rosa?

In Starke, Florida. My mother was a housewife. When I was small I can remember her working out … taking in laundry at her house. But she never worked out after I got bigger. My father, … Roosevelt, first he was cutting cross ties, then he worked at a sawmill and then when he came here to live, he worked two jobs, Alachua General Hospital and the University of Florida.

B: Did you have a responsibility on the farm?

Yeah feeding the pigs, cows, chickens, doing everything else. We planted peanuts and all but we did have to go out and cut okras and potatoes. We used to make about 25 cents for a little basket.

B: What was your first job?

Working at Alachua General Hospital running the elevator, for about five years.

B: What did you make a week?

$13.50. That always stuck in my mind. I went to work as a maid [for] Deborah and Jane Stearic, until the beginning of the ’70s. She’s the one that really started pushing me out there. She used to go to the library and pick up my books for me. She said one day that she wasn’t going to, and I was going to go myself. And when I say “push,” if it had not been for her I wouldn’t have went to the library and insist that I get a library card, which I was the first black person which finally got one. It took us about two or three months.

Then when the Democrat Club was home around here, she was insistent that I go to their lunches and things and I was the only black person, you know.

B: Do you remember what it was like trying to get that library card? Were they nice to you?

Well they wasn’t rude but they would just ask me so many questions which they had to check out like what church, what organizations I was a member of, some neighbors they had to verify that I live where I say that I did.

B: Were you active in the Civil Rights Movement?

Yes, I was very active in that. The Gainesville Women for Equal Rights, and there were a whole bunch of us. We had sometimes more whites than we had blacks. It was during the time when Reverend Wright first came here. He was the pastor of that church and we was meeting down there like every day.

B: How did you become a member of the Gainesville—

Women for Equal Rights? I think it was Jean Chalmers who finally asked me, and Barbara Higgins who come in at the same time, she was the first black president of the Gainesville Women for Equal Rights, also.

They was out actually recruiting black women because they was working on Civil Rights issues. You know, getting it so blacks could sit at the counter, go to the library like I had did, integrate some boards.

At that time some of the black members didn’t think that Barbara and I should have been over there because we didn’t have that high education.

I didn’t even deal with it, you know what I’m saying? My old saying is that Rosa takes care of herself. So to me, it was just like rain falling. I don’t worry about what people say. I don’t have time to. And I say I must be doing something good, if they’re taking out their energy time to talk about me.

B: They were also in charge of helping to establish the first black daycare center, is that correct?

Ah, it was a day school… We had our classes in a mobile, out there by Lincoln Middle School.

B: What was your role in the NAACP?

I was one of the vice presidents for a long time. We had a large membership and a very good organization. We used to meet on Sunday nights downstairs at old Mount Carmel Church. That place would be packed.

B: Tell me some of the places that you picketed.

The College Inn, and the Walker House. Jean Chalmers and me would go into places to see if they would serve us, some of them wasn’t going to, or some of them would say, “Tell Jean we’ll serve her, but we don’t have to serve you.” We both would leave. And then a black and a white person would go and apply for a job, the black person would go first and see what the company had to say, and then an hour later, the white person would go and apply for that same job, and then we would compare notes, and there were some that we needed to be working on, and we’d start working on that also.

B: Was your life ever threatened?

Uh-huh. I had peoples call to my house, but I got to cussing them out, they didn’t call me back.

B: Were you ever afraid being on the picket line?

No. I was just hoping wouldn’t nobody spit on me or something, no. At that time, Joel, that age and time, you don’t be scared. Because you was out there with a whole bunch of other people, and everybody was out there, we knew, for a right cause.

B: When you left the Stearic’s, what did you do then?

I went into Bell Nursery Daycare Center and the Community Action Agency.

B: How long did you work there?

The Community Action Agency? Probably about five or six years. I was there way before Oscar and them came. Me and, um, Reverend Kimmon and Don Red and Helen Cesaire and Elizabeth from Archer, was about ten of us was the first blacks who they hired at the Community Action Agency. At the time, they didn’t have an office, it was in the courthouse. Harvey Weston was the administrator.

I was the Supervisor of Outreach. That’s how the Hawthorne Daycare Center got started, the High Springs Daycare Center, the Archer Daycare Center, the Newberry Daycare Center, the Northeast Daycare Center, they got started from the outreach workers.

B: And Bell Nursery, one of the oldest daycare centers in the Fifth Avenue community.

I’m not sure about that because St. Augustine was maybe older.

B: So you worked there as a cook. When you left Bell Nursery and Community Action Agency, where did you go?

I stayed in daycare, this was in the head AfourC office. Alachua County Coordinated Child Care. They was the one who was funding these daycare centers. So I went in the office along with Armani Frankfield. Certifying the peoples, you know, when they applying for daycare.

B: Was the Community Action Agency, when you were there, pretty much a black organization?

In town, but out in Hawthorne, Archer, Waldo, and all of those places it was mixed. And Grove Park even was mixed.

B: Why is it that you’re enjoying what you’re doing now?

Because its giving me a chance to work and do something for some peoples who did not ask to be born the way they are, and they are the most forgotten bunch, you know.

Tacachale have a hard time getting money out of the state, but the prison system get everything what they want. These people, you know, they just born like they was. They enjoy the same thing what everybody else enjoy, and I just like getting volunteers to make things more better for them.

B: The black-on-black taskforce that you chaired, do you feel that you’ve been very helpful through that organization?

Yes, mm-hm. That organization is for to help organize and support other crime watch organization. We call it Departers Against Crime, where we place somebody with a child with need, to go to a basketball game, to take that child out somewhere.

B: As the director of the United Gainesville, what have you all done there that’s important?

Porters Oak Community Center. The county give us the old Bridge House Building, and so we proceed to remodel it with the help of the city, and I’m really proud of that because the Porters area has not had the recreation facilities they deserve to have. Also you didn’t see them make laws to small business and things, I’m really proud about that, just knowing we have helped someone expand their business or begin a new business.

B: Give us the name of a few of those people that you have been very instrumental in working on their elections.

Jimmy Carter, Bob Graham, and around here in town, Leveda Brown, Charles Chestnut, Kate Barnes, Neil Butler, that was the first time I put so much effort into an election. Sid Martin. All of his. Jon Mills, yeah. I just go door to door and get other peoples to go knock on doors or pass out literature and encourage them to go vote for them. Now I get money from the candidates to get these kids who go door to door. But I’m never paid.

B: This year I had the privilege to attend your legislative barbeque at your home. What started that, and why is it held at your home?

They came here for one weekend for an FSU game, and I forgot which one it was that said something to me out there in the President’s Box, said We all should have some real food sometime when we come down here. I said, Well, we’ll have to think about that. I said, but you need more than one person to do it. So we just started talking and making plans for the next two years when FSU came here again.

B: How do you feel when you have the President of the University of Florida, all the legislative body at your home for a barbeque?

I just like doing it you know for the peoples to have a representative for what come from out of town. We have lots of help. Lots of people pulled in to pull that off. The University of Florida, Shands Hospital foot the bill for everything.

I was the chairman of the Democrat Club. We didn’t have to go by the same rules as the Democrat Executive Committee. We could endorse peoples or do whatever we wanted to do. We could go out actually in the community and do more things.

B: Now were you very much involved when we had our first black chief of police Atkins Warren. I heard that you were on a selection committee for that.

I was. For Wayland and Atkins.

B: Do you think that Atkins was helpful when he was here?

He was helpful when he first came here, but he got caught up in the circle … lots of people got caught up in. Here’s Atkins, and here’s about five or six captains or lieutenants, and the actual policemen cannot get to Atkins. And that was Atkins downfall, I think.

B: Jimmy Carter visited your home, is that true?

Yes, uh huh. You know the peoples living in the community most enjoy when I have these big affairs because they know they going to be able to come there and get some food, all that beer was left, I give it away to people in the neighborhood.

B: Have you ever been offered a position to aid these persons in office?

Yeah. I was not interested in that.

B: You still live in the Fifth Avenue area, and people talk about it being a ghetto and so-forth, why are you still where you are?

I like the area and I like the peoples there. It’s center, it’s easy to get anywhere you wants to go. A long time ago, we used to have all kind of running around, people shooting, and doing this-that and the other, but the area is getting back to being what I used to know.

B: How close were you to Sid?

Real close. That means we call each other every night.

B: What’s this brochure about the Rosa B. Williams Scholarship at the Shands teaching hospital and clinic?

Its about a $100,000 scholarship that’s going to be used for anybody that’s going into any of the medical fields. They just told me about it about two weeks ago.

B: You have a building named in your honor, there’s a scholarship in your honor, what about the Rosa B. Williams Street?

No, [laughter].

B: You don’t want that?


A full transcript of this interview is available at http://ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00014806/00001.

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