History and the people who make it: Gainesville Women for Equal Rights – Part 1

Jane Hiers [H], Jean Chalmers [C], Cora Roberson [R], Vivian Filer [F], and David Chalmers [DC] speak in April 2009 with interviewer Steve Davis about their time working with Gainesville Women for Equal Rights (GWER), one of the first integrated organizations in Gainesville. This is the 60th in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

F: I would start out by saying how intrigued I am that we were able to get together in the first place. It was unheard of for African Americans and Caucasian Americans to form any kind of formal group for this county. I’m not sure who actually started us together. I guess it was Bev Jones? 

R: Bev Jones, Joan Henry.

H: The original was Terry Ault, a faculty wife — or maybe her husband was a student. They were involved with the Students for Equal Rights. They were having a problem getting backing. Terry thought that getting the women together might be useful. She talked to Pat Creel, who is no longer with us; but she and Pat, whose husband was in the Religion department, got together. 

Pat included me, and we talked about getting faculty wives together. I called in Joan Henry, who had just quit smoking. And it’s been on my conscience ever since! Because she got immediately involved in the whole idea. We decided to get together as many faculty wives as we could. We met in what was the Student Union second floor library one night, and we had this amazing turnout. There must’ve been forty to sixty people there. It was full of interest and enthusiasm, and then it just took off. 

F: Do you remember how African American women were brought into that fold? 

C: Was it at the Presbyterian Student Center that we invited a whole group of you to come and tell us what it was like to be an African American woman — in those days, a “Negro” — in Gainesville. 

We were just absolutely thunderstruck at that parallel to the Gainesville Women for Equal Rights, or a little bit before that was the Human Relations Council, which was the local branch of the Southern Regional Council. And we had been meeting at the Negro library the third Sunday of every month for — well, we started in 1958, I guess. A lot of the members then from the Human Relations Council came over to GWER. That was Anne McGee, and LaKay Banks, and Donna Coward, and— 

H: Mable Dorsey.

R: Cora Roberson. [Laughter] 

C: Yeah. We’d meet at the Negro library, where the covers were torn off the books, and crayons, and anything that wasn’t “fit” for the White library went over there. 

That core of women put together this meeting. They told the faculty wives all of the problems of living in this segregated community. When I look back on it, it was so patronizing; the African American people would come to our Sunday meeting with their problems, and then we White folks would go talk to the city commission and the county commission. 

That really changed with the Gainesville Women for Equal Rights, where African Americans were talking to the city commission and the county commission together with us. 

F: That’s how we got that name. Remember? “Those damn women are coming again!” [Laughter] 

R: I’m glad we’re speaking the language of that day, where we’ll be using the word “White,” “Negro,” and “Colored.” Because I remember when all the water fountains, and restrooms, and what-have-you; you could go to the courthouse right downtown, but they didn’t allow you to go to the different stores. But only in the public places, they had the word up, “Colored.” 

C: Yes. For water fountains—

R: And those are the only kind of places you could go in. 

H: What had just been built was the new J. Hillis Miller Health Center. And they had the Black/White Th— 

F: Colored restrooms.

H: And they had water fountains right on every floor.

F: I want to talk some about that. But I was really trying to remember all of the ways we divided ourselves up into committees. Because I know committees did hard work. I was on the healthcare committee. But there was the education committee, and — 

DC: Employment.

H: Voter registration.

C: Tutoring.

F: Absolutely. To me, the power was there. People on those committees had vested interest and knowledge, about what it took to make that work. I think our role was, in coming back in committee, and putting down the next step, and then gathering the resources that it took to move to the next step, then selling it to the folk we need to go and speak with. 

I look back on that era as really self-affirming for me. Having always had a big mouth in school, and being always allowed to just say it, I always had the feelings — back to the time when I stopped letting White kids run me off the sidewalk, walking all the way across town. 

One day, I was not having that anymore, and we had that discussion. And I didn’t have to have it anymore, because they knew if they came out there what would happen. Well, I did all that as a teenager. 

But as an adult, there was no place to go to make a difference; it seemed, until I became a member of GWER. I know that’s where I needed to be, and I know the women who were there gave me the strength to go and do those things.

H: We gave each other strength.

F: That’s true.

H: Because all of us were weak in some ways! [Laughter] Some of us were more vulnerable than others, and I think that one of the telling things was how many Negro teachers, whose jobs were threatened, came and stood up for what they believed—and were able to do so. The rest of us were once removed from being fired, and having volunteer jobs from which [Laughter] nobody could fire us! 

R: Yeah, when I was teaching elementary and high school [at] old Lincoln, you were supposed to be reappointed for the next year. When they passed that form out, they had down near the bottom, the organizations that you are affiliated with. 

GWER, I believe, was on there, and NAACP. It was suggested that we not check GWER and NAACP. But I checked both of them, and they were looking for me to be fired. But nothing happened.

F: You were hoping to get tested!

R: Mmhm! I was going to test it. “I’m a member. What are you going to do about it?” Ann McGee was one of those persons, too. And Gladys Alexander was working in speech therapy, she probably had to sign one of those same sheets. Maybe all Black teachers, I guess, but I know we did over at Lincoln, which is now A. Quinn Jones. We had to sign! 

C: Well, you put your jobs on the line! Boy, what a lot of courage, eh?

F: Lot of courage! Hearing those issues discussed in our meetings, and allowing people to opt out if they chose to, was one of the strengths of GWER as well. 

I remember talking very openly and real earnestly about who is sacrificing what to move us to this next level. That was really very important for me; at that point, I had not gone to college. I was a nursing assistant; I thought, “Nobody is going to fire me from anything I can’t get anywhere else.” At that point. But I worked at Shands at the time, and I remember being on the healthcare committee, along with Mable Dorsey, and Alice Howard.

F: And Mary Webb, who’s out in California setting the world on fire. She’s writing and teaching at Berkeley. When we met — we knew our job was big, because it involved so many steps. One of the steps had to do with the doctors’ offices, and the second step was the hospitals. Mable was pregnant with Rodney. She chose to stop going in the little back door. 

R: Sure did!

F: And her obstetrician, she was going in the front door. I was going to Dr. Black on 4th Avenue, and I decided that was my last day in the cubbyhole. It was organized. We decided who was doing what. 

So, the same week that we went out to do that, I did go out in the front. In the front, there was a fish tank, and windows, and magazines; I just was amazed, because all we had were four chairs in a little room about as big as a bathroom, and a window that you poke your head through to tell the nurse that you were there. That was it! I never went back to that back area. Nobody would send us away, either; they saw the news by then. That happened. 

Also, we challenged the dentist. Black folk were going to Ocala to the Black dentist. I was riding the bus to the railroad station, to go to the dentist in Ocala. Because we had one Black dentist for all of Gainesville. And then, we’d come back to the big committee with our reports, and where we needed to go, and we encouraged others to do so. 

One of the dentists in town that I finally took my boys to, who are forty-six and fifty-one now — they’ll hate me for that one —  but they were small. And my friend, this member of GWER, she and I were very close, and she was on the committee. She said, “Vivian, if you want to take the boys to the dentist, why don’t we try my dentist?” I said, “Okay.” So, she called, and she asked the receptionist if this dentist accepted Colored patients. The lady was just flabbergasted; we were listening, and she just didn’t know what to say. My friend said, “Well, go and ask him.” It was Dr.— 

F: Machaud! They got him on the phone, he said, “I take any patient that makes an appointment.” So, we made an appointment for my boys to go there, and they loved it! He treated them like little angels. And besides, at the end of the visit, they could open the bottom drawer and pick out a toy. To this day, they talk about him, and how much they loved him. 

Years later, when I taught nursing, Dr. Machaud’s daughter came in as my student. I told her, “I loved your daddy!” It was just so wonderful to have this generational connection. 

But I think the most important piece for our committee was the hospitals. The Equal Rights Commission was there, but we GWER decided to challenge it. We sat in that office — four of us, two Black women and two White women. “You must integrate this hospital because you receive federal dollars under the Hill-Burton Act.” 

This man, after he turned three shades of red — there’s nothing in this room as red as that man was, when we told him that! — he finally said, “Yes,” and he left. What he did was to take the signs off the water fountains and the bathrooms. [Laughter] 

R: “Colored” and “White.”

C: But still, the Black babies were born on this floor—

F: The third floor was our floor.

C: —the White babies were born on this floor. And those babies were transported up and down in the public elevator! 

F: Yeah, I know. My babies were born there.

C: Yeah! And when the Ladies’ Auxiliary raised money for sterilizers, they got two sterilizers: one for Black babies’ bottles, and one for White babies’ bottles. You know, it was just absurd!

To be continued in the September Iguana. See a full video of this interview by searching for “GWER 2009” at youtube.com. 

Find 14 related interviews at https://ufdc.ufl.edu/oral/results/?t=gwer.

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