History and the people who make it: Barbara Higgins

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

This is the 54th in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

H: My dad was a cook on the train and the man who was opening the White House Hotel here, on Main Street where some bank is now, he was on the train and the food was good, so he said, I’d like for you to come and cook for me. I was on the way, so by the time they got into Gainesville, I was born, January 14, 1926.

L: You mentioned a sister?

H: Yes. Most people thought we were twins. My sister died last year of cancer on October the 18th, and so now I am alone. She was two years older than I am.

Okay, they came as a cook at the White House, both of them, and then this guy bought the Thomas Hotel, so he moved over to the Thomas Hotel. Then, he began to work at a restaurant, right across from campus, the College Inn.

This was way back, in the early ’30s when the university was all boys. My mother, at first she taught school, and on the side, Daddy would bring home the boys’ white shirts and she would do the shirts like for 25 cents per shirt. He started working for the law fraternity in the fall and in the summer, he would go to Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Ocean Grove, for many years. 1939, when the World’s Fair was in New York, at the end of that summer he sent for my sister and I to come to New Jersey. We stayed with him for a week, and then he carried us to New York to see the World’s Fair, and that was really exciting.

L: Before we get too far, can you give me your parents’ full names.

H: My daddy’s name was Albert Higgins and my mother’s name was Annie L. Higgins. My mother was from Hartford, Connecticut, but her family moved back to Georgia. She was in boarding school in Cordele. That is where she met my dad, cause his train was running from Cordele to somewhere. She was teaching school when she met him. 

On week-ends she would be riding the train to go home, and when the car would pass the [men] were all hanging out the window and they would whistle and she just despised that. After she had gotten on the train, he came into the car one day and saw her and started talking and she didn’t like him at all, but eventually she did. So they got married. They stayed there in Cordele and he still worked on the train and she still taught school.

L: Were you in Gainesville during the Second World War?

H: I was in college at Bethune-Cookman, in Daytona Beach. We only had about 7 boys in the whole school and about 350 girls, all black. Mary McLeod Bethune had come to Daytona Beach with $7.50. She bought this home and started a little private school, and there was a school called Cookman in Jacksonville, so they sort of merged.

L: What year did you start Bethune-Cookman?

H: 1943.

L: And you graduated?

H: [19]47.

L:  1947, with a degree … ?

H: In business. I wanted to be a secretary. No one told me that black women or girls, would not be able to work as secretaries anyplace, so there was no job for me. What I had to do, was to substitute teach at La Crosse, and then finally a lady who wanted to teach school was secretary in an insurance office. She decided she was going to go back to college, and someone knew that I wanted a job in business, so they told her. So then I started working in Central Life Insurance, a black insurance office and insurance company here in Gainesville. Then they moved to Ocala, and they weren’t paying me enough money to go to Ocala, because when I first started work, about [19]49, I was only getting $16 a week.

I got married after [19]47. Everything was segregated at that time, and there were no black businesses that needed a secretary unless it was an insurance company.

L: Were there any black doctors, dentists … 

H: No, Dr. Parker was the only black doctor we had, Dr. Cosby’s father-in-law. Dr. Cosby’s the dentist.

1932, was when my grandmother died. Well, my grandmother had 188 acres of land in Georgia, and she sold it all but 40 where the house was. She put the money in the bank in each one of her children’s name. 

After she died, we all went to Georgia to the funeral. Americus is where she was, Americus, Georgia. There was a judge in Americus, and she had told him if anything happened to her what to do. So, he gave each one of the girls their money, and the boys, because Mama had three brothers. 

Daddy had already bought this land here, so he began to build. They built a two story building, and he started the grocery store with the money which my grandmother left. He went from this grocery store to one on the corner of Depot and 5th Street. The little store out in Copeland now, he built that. He was on 8th Avenue, you know where Tom Coward has his laundromat. At one time we had four grocery stories. He moved farther down on 7th Street and 5th Street. He had that whole block in there: a grocery store, a barber shop, a pool room, and a restaurant.

L: Was your family somewhere near the top?

H: Well, we didn’t consider our self as such. We were not hobnobbing with the big wigs, because Daddy didn’t usually do that. When he died everybody said, Mr. Al, he never enjoyed himself, and I’d say, well we cannot say that, because he enjoyed himself when he was making a dollar. Therefore he enjoyed himself. That was his life, he wanted to make another dollar, another dollar, you know. He never closed up. He would close up the other stores, but this one here. He only closed up on Christmas day to come up here to eat and he’d stay closed for about one hour.

L: What church did you go to?

H: We go, we still do, to Spring Hill Baptist, over near Lincoln Middle School. My mother was one of the pillars, as we call it, of that church.

At that time, we had only social clubs that we could be in. The first thing I was a member of, was the Ultra Modernist Club — a social service club. As time went on, I was very active in the civil rights movement. My daughter graduated [from Lincoln High School] when the black kids went to the Florida Theater, to have the sit-in or the stand-in. That was [19]63. 

Then we all got involved in the NAACP, which I became secretary, was secretary for 18 years. And I was president and then Rev. Alexander was president. He was an older minister and the young children in NAACP did not want him because he didn’t want to do anything. But he accomplished things in his own way.

Charles Chestnut and a few of the others went on to the university and had a sit-in at the restaurant on 13th Street, Humpty-Dumpty, that’s what it was. That is when I really got involved. 

They began to have meetings and demonstrations on how to protect yourself. We had people from the university to help us, and I think that has a lot to do with our progress, being in a university town. Teachers from the north, who really wanted to do something. Now quite a few of them wrote books on us, but they still taught us a lot, cause we were really green. We didn’t really know what was going on.

L: Did you ever get involved in a organization called the Council for Human Relations?

H: Yeah, we used to have meetings every third Sunday at what is now the Rosa B. Williams Center, but was known as the Community Center at that time or the Recreation Center.

That was teachers from the university. They just wanted to come together, have pot lucks, talk about problems — they would try to see if they could help us to solve them. It accomplished a lot, and quite a few of us was upset when we disbanded because they thought that maybe we had done all we could. This particular group would work with the county and city government. We would meet with them one on one.

After this insurance company moved away, I started working at the county agent’s office. That was one of these separate [but] equal things, and the county agent’s office dealt with “4-H-ers” and farmers and Mr. English Green was the county agent. I guess he passed about 4 months ago. I worked there, but it was only a half-day job, so then I worked at the hospital as a nurse’s aide, from 3 to 11. When Shands opened in 1958, I left Alachua General and applied to Shands because Shands was paying more money. I got the job at Shands — it was just three blacks they had hired, the other two was midwives. I was working then from 4 till 12. Then I started working 12 till 8 on the midnight shift.

When I first started, all of Shands was on [the] third floor of the hospital. That was the only floor that was finished. Then the Christmas of [19]58 they had finished the fourth floor. So, we moved everything but O-B G-Y-N up on fourth floor, and I remained on O-B and G-Y-N on third floor, as a nurse’s aide. 

You could have a baby for $45. You could stay until you were really well. They would leave the baby in the room with the mommies. There [was] a young girl that had a baby. She was 12 years old, and I was supposed to teach her how to take care of the baby. But when she got tired of the baby she’d turn over. The baby could cry or whatever and it wouldn’t matter — she was treating her like a doll. 

I got very upset about that and sent my daughter off to boarding school cause she was 12 years old. She wanted to know: “Mother why do I have to go?”, and I said because mother works all the time to try to make things better, cause we were trying to buy a home. He had two jobs and I had two. So I sent her off to boarding school, to Camden, South Carolina. Boylan Haven Mather Academy, it was a co-ed school. I hated to take her all the way to South Carolina, but that was the closest one I could find. She went for two years.

She didn’t want to go, at first. The next year she was glad to go because she was one of the people who welcomed the other group to come in. I came home one night, and she was waiting up for me. She said, Mother I want to come home and go to school. I know why you sent me away, because of something that had happened on your job. She said, they taught us all about sex and everything at boarding school, so you won’t have to worry. I said, well, okay. So she went on and she was Miss Lincoln.

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

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