History and the people who make it: Barbara Higgins part 2

Barbara Higgins [H], civil rights activist, was interviewed by Stewart Landers [L] in August, 1992.

This is the 55th in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection; the first part of this interview was printed in the September Iguana.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

L: The NAACP youth council starts picketing the Humpty Dumpty. There was an incident at the Florida Theater. Then in the fall of 1963, students started picketing College Inn and Gold Coast across from the university. And in October of 1963, the Gainesville Women for Equal Rights … 

H: I did not join them at the beginning. The first integrated organization I joined was the Democratic Women Club, when Judge Atkins’s wife was the president. 

I was at that time the only black member. They seemed to nurture me, they wanted me in everything. Judge and Mrs. Atkins had a maid and, having a maid, someone black, to serve me. I can’t describe how I felt, the first time I went out there and had lunch, and she served us. 

Well, I am getting ahead of myself, but when I became president of the Gainesville Women for Equal Rights was when the VA hospital opened. We knew that even the maids and the people in the custodial area, all of them would have a test for jobs regardless of what kind.

So, we began to get people ready for tests, because the anxiety would be so high until you just didn’t know what to do. We were not able to get one of the tests, but they knew about what would be on the tests. People in the dietary department would have to know the difference between an orange and a lemon. People could not tell us the difference, that the orange was sweet and the lemon was sour or the lemon was smaller than the orange. First, we would have a lecture on different things, sort of work them into the test. We would give them the test. Then we would say, take it home, read it over, think about it and then next week we will give you the same test. We did that, then the next week we would give them something else. That’s why a lot of the people were able to get hired at the VA.

Tell you one thing that happened during integration. When everything was segregated, all the people beyond Evergreen Cemetery was white, and those people would come to the store and buy groceries from my parents, and they would sit with my mother out front. Mama had four rocking chairs, and every night the people from all back in here would come up to the store and all the kids would play out in the road and Mama and all the other people would sit in the chairs. Even some of them had credit accounts with us.

L: Were these people who worked at the university?

H: Oh, no. They were just people. They were low-income whites, but they were, I guess middle class. Cause we called middle class then just above poor — now they call middle class a little higher than that. But integration came, mama lost a lot of her white friends because they didn’t seem to want to come then. I don’t know what happened. 

The only reason Mrs Buffay [spelling uncertain] [at the county agent’s office] hired me was the Civil Rights Bill. She told me the first time I went to get a job that she would hire me, but she first told me that the county commission did not give her enough money. She didn’t hire me because her friends would say something about it, if she hired me. 

The minute the Civil Rights Bill passed and it was okay to hire blacks, she hired me immediately. My first incident was that, she told me to take some papers over to a clerk at a circuit court’s office. I walked in, they were talking, so I waited until they finished. Then they came to the counter. I told the lady that Mrs. Buffay had papers to be filed. She said, “Hey girls, come and see Alma’s new girl.” And here I am on exhibition. That didn’t bother me. It doesn’t matter to me what people do, because when you have gone through the Civil Rights year, you don’t worry about it anymore. You are not what they call you.

L: How did you get involved in Gainesville Women?

H: I met some ladies out of the Democratic Women’s Club who were members of the Gainesville Women for Equal Rights. They had some black women already, school teachers. They, sort of, thought that people like me would bring the Gainesville Women Equal Rights down because I didn’t teach school. Black school teachers back in those days would work hard. Then the NAACP, Gainesville Equal Rights and all these organizations had to get them out of trouble, because when schools integrated, they were given new tests. We had to stand up for them. Then they began to come down to our level.

L: That was why I asked you earlier about where your family stood in the black community.

H: My dad was one of these kind of people, I don’t care who you are, he thought this was his castle. You didn’t come in and bother him. So, we did not get so much the brunt of segregation. He sort of sheltered anyone and he felt like he was just as good as the next one. 

My daughter, went to Fisk University in Nashville; she also went to A&T in Greensboro, North Carolina: both black schools. She got her Master’s degree from University of Ohio in Athens. She always said, “Mother, I never knew how bad segregation was until I got in Athens.” She made it through that and when she got out, I was a little upset because she wasn’t the same girl that had gone there. It had changed her.

They had a colored Welfare League and the regular one downtown. The one downtown would only give black people money when they had given it to all the whites. Then they would bring, I’ll say about $200 down to the black Welfare League, and they would give people like $7.50 and $10.00 and $12:00. Of course at that time it was a lot of money. 

Sid Martin, we really learned to love him, because he helped us to get things all ironed out. We got all of these constitutions from the different parts of government — we read them, we found out where these laws had been on the books for years. We felt it was time to get them changed. So, they changed the welfare. 

We went into trying to get clerks at the stores. Maas Brothers had just come here and all the people that they hired had been white. We were in there, about five of us, and talked to the manager. 

A girl from the university had come in and she had on jeans and just a regular shirt. She was hired. This black girl came in, which we did not plan, but she came in, all dressed up in a suit. He did not hire her. We really got on those kind of things. 

L: You put pressure on Maas Food?

H: We did. They were slow in hiring, but they did hire. Then we began to go to grocery stores. The Ministerial Alliance’s really fixing to get on Publix, because Publix [did] not have any [black] cashiers.

L: When you were president of Gainesville Women, were you close to Joan Henry?

H: Joan was president before I became president. She really was the light in my life. I wanted to be as good a president as Joan was. She really helped me too. 

When I became president, I asked them that we would have three coffees, in different sections of town. At these three coffees I was able to meet all the members. I would ask for their help. Ask them what they would like to do. The board meetings were fantastic because we could bring up problems like, for instance, someone would come to me and say (and people still do that), “I’m having a problem at my job and can your organization help?” I would call the person in charge of that and they would get right in on that.

We integrated the Boys Club. We had a little problem with them. They even got a Mr. Grant, who is black. They hired him from out of state, to help organize at the Waldo Road Boy’s Club, as the director. But soon they got enough money to build the southeast Boy’s Club. They put Mr. Grant here, then they built the one over there.

L: They kept the Boy’s Club segregated by simply moving them farther apart?

H: No, I’m not saying that. But, they were pretending, I’ll put it that way. It was going to be one Boy’s Club, but then they put this one way out here, and quite a few blacks live out there but most of them are older people. They really have to bus kids in for the northwest Boy’s Club.

L: How many jobs were you working at this time?

H: At one time I was working three. I was working at Chestnut Funeral Home. I was Charles’s granddaddy’s secretary for, I guess, about five years. I did that from 1 until 5. And I’d come home and sleep. I would cook dinner and maybe go to bed until 11. I’d get up and go to Shands at 12 and work until 8. Come home, change clothes and go to the County Agent’s Office and work from 8:30 until 12. I did that for five years.

L: Gainesville Women for Equal Rights just sort of disintegrated in the mid-early 1970s. Why do you think the group fell apart? 

H: I think we got complacent. We felt that things were much better, that they were going to do alright — they didn’t need a group like ours. That’s what happened to the Human Relations Advisory Board. Things were better. I was on the Human Relations Advisory Board for the city, during the time they integrated the bars. Now if I had my husband and you had your wife, they would take those kind of groups, but not mixed couples. People kept coming in and saying, we want to go to ABC. They had this big one on 13th Street, and they would not let them in. 

Ed Johnson, the editor for the Gainesville Sun, was on the board. Ed Johnson said, well, Mrs. Bryant (because that is what I was) we can go to ABC. Ed, let me tell you, I don’t really go to bars and he said well, couldn’t you go with me this once? I said, okay. We had planned to go on Thursday evening. About that Tuesday they integrated, so I didn’t have to go against my good things that I believe in, cause I have never been a bar person. 

L: So, Gainesville Women accomplished a lot of things? 

H: Yes, they are the ones who turned this town around.

Full transcript of this interview can be found at https://ufdc.ufl.edu/oral/results/?t=barbara%20higgins. 

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