History and the people who make it: Joseph W. Welch: Part 2

Joseph Welch [W], WWII vet, Gainesville area civil rights worker and schoolteacher, was interviewed by Ryan Morini [M] in April, 2013; the first part of this interview ran in the September Iguana.

This is the 50th in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection. Notes in [square brackets] by SPOHP; interpolations in {curly brackets} by Iguana; raw language kept for historical accuracy.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

M: What was it like back in Gainesville {after WWII}?

W: Glad to be out [laughs]. I was college-bound. Government’s gonna pay all of our expense? Yes, I’m going. I don’t want any of the schools in Florida. So, I applied to Lincoln University in Missouri, Tom Coward and I.

I had been a cook at College Inn, the largest restaurant in Gainesville. During that time, the law school was in that area.

M: A white establishment.

W: Yeah. [laughs] The place was operated by a guy named Jean Ahrano. At the time I was a high school student; he put me to short-order cooking and to serve.

Joseph, he said, if you {have} any spare time, get my textbook and study. On the job. Guess what. When I became a civil rights activist, his is one of the first places I picketed. [laughs]

He recognized me. But he couldn’t do anything, because, prior to picketing, you had to get a parade permit. This gave you legal rights to the sidewalks in front of their places. We got some real light-skinned mulatto people.We would send them in the College Inn to get served.

They couldn’t tell whether they were white or black. And have them leave a note, to let them know they had been served there. We did that to a number of places. [laughs]

Another strategy that I used as chairman of Direct Action was that places that had curb service – I believe it was Humpty Dumpty on 13th Street – I got together a dozen or more automobiles. I would send three or four to be served {and} three or four inside. If ordered to leave, those four, I told them, you leave. Send four different ones. You couldn’t be charged because you weren’t the one originally told to leave.

M: How’d you get involved with Civil Rights?

W: I trace it back to being in the service. I was so like this guy – what’s his name? That fought for years to get in the University of Florida.

M: Virgil Hawkins. [Virgil D. Hawkins (1907-1988) applied to UF Law School. He was denied because of race and went on to fight for nine years, ultimately achieving victory at the US Supreme Court.]

W: My plan when I met Carlie and graduated {was} to teach for a few years, then go back and finish law school. But I got into teaching and I liked it so well, I never go back to law school.

M: When did you start working with NAACP?

W: Around [19]58.

M: What about CORE? [Congress of Racial Equality participated in Freedom Rides, desegregating Chicago’s schools, March on Washington, and Freedom Summer.]

W: Same time, both of them. We had professors from {UF} who belonged to CORE and worked along with us. Several lost their jobs as a result. Dr. Marshall Jones, he was very instrumental. Megan Webb, a white teacher. A guy – what’s his name? [laughs] He was very wild. He wanted me to go to Madison. Madison? You didn’t go around places like Madison and Quincy — those were the worst, racist places in Florida!

He had a nice Chevrolet, went up there. Man, they shot that thing with bullet holes. Just happened they didn’t hit him. One time, he ran for governor of Florida. He favored legalization of marijuana. I would never be with that. He be on Channel 4, I can’t figure that name.

M: You said teachers would give you money, but didn’t want their names on the lists.

W: They would not participate. Not actively. The little contribution they gave — maybe for buying refreshments for those who did participate. Or to test a place, to pay for service in a restaurant.

I would call ministers of white churches — we would like to worship with you. The pastor of a Presbyterian church, he welcomed us, says come right on! {One} of the persons that went with me on that is now a federal judge.

M: Stephan Mickle. [Stephan P. Mickle (born 1944), the first black student to graduate from {UF} and the second to graduate from {UF} Law School, was nominated by Bill Clinton to a district court.]

W: We went there, had a nice time. First Baptist Church downtown, they were very friendly. Gainesville wasn’t all that bad, not like some other places.

When I went to have a conference with the city manager about hiring policies, he asked me [imitates city manager] “What the hell are you talkin’ bout? You ever heard of the 99th Pursuit Squadron?”

He said they flew planes worth millions of dollars and they were lost, {every} single one. [The 99th Flying Training Squadron was the first flying unit for African-Americans, formed in 1941. Though able, despite all odds, to serve honorably, the unit received little guidance from other pilots, was accused by their white commander {of} being less effective than other squadrons, and was used by many as evidence of African-Americans’ incompetence.]

Then I listed demands. You know what? The guy came through and put every one of them into effect. For example, I said, you will hire first come, first serve. Promotion – seniority. You take the public works in Gainesville, most of the supervisors were black as a result of that. I only met with him one time.

M: When you were growing up, was it tough to go downtown?

W: You had no accommodations downtown other than a black-owned restaurant, a barbershop, that’s all. But, when we began working on restaurants – Minute Drugstore and Woolworth, we didn’t have any problems. They readily served us. They were waiting for us to come in. For those who resented our presence, to embarrass them, we would leave sizeable tips. [laughs]

We were sworn to do things peacefully. At one of our churches, we set up a lunch counter and duplicated the real situation. They give you a bottle of ketchup, shake it,  and actually poured the ketchup on the person. [laughs] You gettin’ angrier by the minute. But you settin’ up to be peaceful. So you didn’t respond to those things.

M: You were a teacher at the time — where?

W: Mebane in Alachua [A.L Mebane Middle School, then a high school], from 1956 to 1970. Then I was assigned to Newberry High. I really enjoyed working there. I was the only black male that taught at that school for twelve years or more, so I was really known.

When I first went there I spent two days orientating the kids to what I expected. I’m not your black teacher. Or your white teacher. I’m your teacher. I didn’t have any problems.

One of the white students at Newberry asked the principal, Mister, have you hired any nigger teachers to come to this school? He said, no, I have not any niggers, but I talked to blacks to come here. He said, I better quit school here because my daddy told me a black man can’t teach a white man nothin’. So he dropped out. [laughs].

I was chairman of my department, and teaching all the senior courses so he had to come by me if he wanted to remain. He had no choice.

M: You were doing a lot of activist work while you were at Mebane. Did you teach that in the classroom?

W: At the black school, I was guilty of that, yes, because I wanted these kids to develop values. In the white school, I did not do that. I enjoyed teaching at Newberry, despite its history. They had an area there called Lynch Hammock.

[Lynch Hammock, now known as “the Hammocks,” was where five blacks were hanged by a lynch mob. Another was shot to death. They are known today as the “Newberry Six”. See: www.gainesville.com/article/20050904/DAYBREAK/50904013?p=1&tc=pg]

M: Did people ever talk about Lynch Hammock?

W: Oh no. The principal, I had his ear. If I saw racial friction, I’d say, Bo, we oughta summon the Inter Club Council, all the student leaders. We talked to them, then had them go talk to students. When they would have racial incidents at other schools, we weren’t having them at Newberry.

We had an activity program of practically every field that you can think of, medicine, teaching, carpentry, anything.

I had a group of students come to me in the pre-med club: “Our science lab, we do not have a single microscope. What can we do?”

I said, get your parents, and go to the school board and tell them you want to transfer to Gainesville High School. If they wanna know why? You gettin’ an inferior education because of lack of equipment. They went down and as a result, trucks began running over each other to deliver microscopes and all other scientific equipment that you need.

The old Lincoln High School, and the old Gainesville High School, both opened in 1923. Gainesville High has 56 critical ed classes, a library, unlimited scientific equipment. At Lincoln, we had one microscope. We had no cafeteria; sets of encyclopedias, but no library. Separate, but always unequal. [laughs] In high school, I never attended school for nine months. White kids attended school nine months. I attended school eight months. I was expected to work during harvest for the farmers, which I refused to do.

M: Did you keep a garden when you were growing up?

W: Yeah. We raised all kinds of things in my backyard. I had also flying jennies and swings and merry-go-round I built myself. I kept a backyard full of white kids, they could play croquet, merry-go-round and swings, up in the trees.  I grew up every day interacting with white kids. I lived within a block and a half of Gainesville High School and I couldn’t attend Gainesville High School. [laughs] But, we associated with ‘em.

M: There used to be some jukes in Porters. Do you remember much about that?

W: Yes, there were quite a number. The persons who owned those – the letter carriers – {were} “big shots” among the blacks because they had higher income. Those places were out {on} north Main Street, called the Pistol and the Rainforest and things of that sort. Big jukes, where blacks congregated and even white police officers were afraid to go after dark, where Gainesville Shopping Center is, back towards 39th. All of that was black-owned.

M: What happened to it since then?

W: These shopping centers came into being. Down 23rd there –  a group of blacks which, I won’t give names, but a group you probably would know. They bought up a bunch of land because whites were building in that area. They were afraid that blacks were gonna  build residences in that area. Those guys bought that to get money out of it, and they did. Whites were willing to pay any kind of money to make sure no blacks built {there}.

M: The Klan had a presence in Gainesville. Did that ever come up?

W: I’ve seen them parade down University Avenue but we never had contact with them that I can recall. Because – I can’t think of the guy’s name — he was very arrogan, he didn’t give a durn whether you were green, white, purple or red. People feared him, too, on the other side. There was several like that. I probably mentioned to you before, a policy that if a black man was able to disarm a white police officer, take his pistol and whip him, they would not arrest him. Johnny Johnson, he did just that. They didn’t even arrest him.

Search for “Joseph Welch” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu for the recording of this interview.

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