History and the people who make it: Gainesville Women for Equal Rights – Part 2

Jane Hiers [H], Jean Chalmers [C], Cora Roberson [R], Vivian Filer [F], and David Chalmers [DC] speak in April 2009 with interviewer Steve Davis [D] about their time working with Gainesville Women for Equal Rights (GWER), one of the first integrated organizations in Gainesville. 

This is the 61st in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection; part 1 of this excerpt appeared in the July-August Iguana.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

C: Alachua General Hospital, of course, was owned by the county. And the county government was fighting with the doctors. Two county commissioners: G.M. Davis and Sid [Martin], were friendly to our cause. The two of them said, “We’ll get even with those doctors. We’ll appoint Jean Chalmers to the Board of Trustees.” [Laughter] Here was this committee member who’d caused so much trouble, and they put me on the board. You should’ve seen the faces of the men when I walked in. And I stayed on that board until 1982.

F: We’d know who we could count on. We had women, strong women, in strategic places who were not afraid to really go to battle. It took a lot. They wouldn’t call y’all nice names in the newspaper. You weren’t discussed in favorable ways in other places, either. But we created a bond, and were empowered. I remember the nights in those rooms, when smoke was a complete haze. I mean, there was a balloon above our heads from the smoke!

C: You know, I would go from GWER meetings over to the Millhopper Nursery School where nobody smoked.

F: Smelling like a smokestack, and you hadn’t had a cigarette! [Laughter] 

C: I was at [a] Millhopper meeting the night that Martin Luther King was killed. The phone call came, and I was the only person in the room that cried. And I just wished I could be back in the smoke-filled room! [Laughter]

D: Vivian, in the panel discussion at the Matheson, you had a quote that I thought was interesting. It was: “Just because it might appear on paper, doesn’t mean that it actually gets done.” In the process of desegregating Alachua County schools, the devil is in the details. People can say that they’re going to desegregate, but there are ways that they can slow or frustrate the process. I was wondering if you guys had any comments on that.

R: One thing in particular was that we – Colored teachers – were paid less money than White teachers. You know how we found that out? By talking, being friendly, with teachers, as we would meet in that place where we charged all of our supplies. 

Teachers from different schools would come in, and they’d say, “Excuse me, but what are you paying for?” Say, “Our supplies that we use for the children.” Say, “Are you paying for those out of your pocket?” I had a large bill every month – and other teachers – where we would buy the materials to use with the children. We had to pay for it. They said, “You shouldn’t be doing that. The school system is supposed to be paying for that!” It took a while for it to change. 

Some of the White teachers at Kirby-Smith, they spoke up for us and at A. Quinn Jones, we soon stopped doing it. I think Williams and Duval elementary schools maybe got that privilege a little bit later. We had connections with these teachers, especially at Kirby-Smith. They would tell us what was happening. They would tell us how much they made, and we would say how much we made, and they would say, “That’s ridiculous!” Now, these are special teachers. We met there almost on purpose, so that we could talk to each other. This was just a kind of off-the-record meeting. When we meet with you, it was like a big sisterhood. But this was people just feeding us information, because they were learning and we were learning. 

F: They were your Watergate. [Laughter] 

R: We were learning from them how we were not treated equally. And they were learning how it worked, because they were unaware that this was happening. We came back to the then-formed education committee, and they thought they would investigate, because you can’t go by hearsay; you got to really know what you’re doing. Jean, were you a member of that group that went up to the school board after hours, so you could look at the records and see?

C: Right. I think, John Dukes let us in.

R: And let you see the records, and found out that what we had told you was true: we were not getting equal salaries.

C: Right. There was no Sunshine Law in those days.

R: I remember volunteering to babysit for some of you guys so that you could go over there in the evenings and check those records. A lot of times, we couldn’t be out front, because nobody listened to us. You had to go in and see that things were done, and we had to just be supportive sometimes, that included babysitting while you went to take care of business. Because if we tried to, nobody had any time for us.

C: This went through right into the [19]70s. I remember speaking in front of the school board. I was working for the county government. The County Commission called me and said, “As long as you’re on the payroll of the county, you cannot go and scold the school board!” [Laughter] 

F: One hand doesn’t know what the other hand’s doing. Those are really good examples of ‘just because it’s written doesn’t mean that it’s done’; the other part of that is finding out that it is written. 

Somebody like Mr. John Dukes would’ve been the person who would clue you in. He was a Lincoln High School graduate who went to the Service, and to college. He came back into Gainesville with the idea that he wanted to move his school forward—which he did. 

He organized our first National Honor Society. Those of us – Janie Williams, Vivian Filer – that whole group were Lincoln High School’s first members of the National Honor Society. He made a way, because nobody’d done this: get a bus to take Black kids from a school on a trip. He took us to Tallahassee, to the legislative sessions. He also planned that to be the very night that they had a play on campus: Carmen. I never will forget that. We were able to go see Carmen Jones. 

Not only that, he was engaged to Bernice, and she was in college at FAMU, so we were able to go on a picnic where he brought his fiancée. For us, that was unheard of. We’d never been on a trip, we hadn’t been on a bus, we didn’t have a clue as to what happened in the Senate or House of Representatives; had never been on a college campus; had no clue what it meant to go to a stage play. That is the kind of thing that John Dukes brought to Gainesville. 

When we graduated as his first class, we were the first that he led into organizing an alumni group. So, the class of 1956, every five years, had an alumni celebration, up until we celebrated our 50th year a couple of years ago, and that was our last one. 

He always came to speak. He never stopped reprimanding us. He never stopped telling us – but he always did “Out of the night that covers me / Black as the pit from pole to pole / I thank whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul.” 

He meant that. He meant us to have unconquerable souls. But you know, Cora, my hat goes off to all of the teachers like you who, not only did you take funds out of your pocket, you took love out of your heart.

D: Was there any intimidation on the UF campus, of people involved with civil rights? Were jobs threatened by your activism? 

F: [Laughter] Did your husbands tell you to stay home?

C: The husband of our president was Marshall Jones, and he lost his position at the University of Florida because of it. He was the faculty advisor for Students for Equal Rights. His wife, Beverly Jones, was one of the founders of Gainesville Women for Equal Rights, to help support Marshall’s students. Bob Canney lost his job; people lost their jobs in the University of Florida because of involvement. 

Dan Harmeling had a job at the library, and he was arrested up in Quincy, I think, at a demonstration, and his grant was taken away. A lot of students lost their aid; they weren’t expelled, but they lost their student aid, they lost their grants, and for some it meant that they couldn’t keep going. 

The faculty wives didn’t have any problems, because we didn’t have jobs. The old rule in Florida – many states during the Depression – was you could only have one member of a family work for the government, because they wanted to spread the jobs as broadly as they could. That was still the practice at the University of Florida. So, you had all these overeducated women that couldn’t get a job, had time on their hands; it was the worst decision the state ever made, because it meant we all had time to become radical! [Laughter] If they’d given us jobs—and indeed, with GWER, as soon as we all got professional jobs, the organization sort of petered away. 

R: That’s right. 

F: A lot of women left whatever side of town to go into the home of a faculty person to be the maid. That was real important. In some instances, I know that they were told, “Was it your daughter out there doing this?” Or “Were you involved in things” that were civil rights-related. Those were trying times for some people on that level. I don’t think it stopped anybody, because my mom was one of those, and I never stopped. 

C: Yeah. But then, the other side, Rosa Williams was Jane Sterritt’s maid.

R: That’s right! That’s right! [Laughter]

C: Jane got Rosa into the Council for Human Rights, and I remember Rosa had such a stutter, she could hardly talk. Rosa would stand in the kitchen rather than come out and meet with us all. Rosa and I were appointed to a covered dish committee. That’s when the two of us became friends, 1959. I remember saying to Rosa, “But what if everybody brings meat, or everyone brings a salad?” She said, “If you’re doing the Lord’s work, He’ll straighten out the food.” [Laughter]

F: And she knows how to straighten out food!

H: Yes. Yes. She worked at Bell Nursery as a cook for a long time. And she was a great, great help.

F: That’s another big, empty spot as far as African American children were concerned, because there was no organized daycare. We kept them in homes. I remember when they opened the daycare center, Mr. Lenard – what was Lenard’s mom? Ms. Bell. 

R: Jackson. Lenard Jackson, but she was Bell.

F: That was a big deal. There, we started organized daycare.

C: It was Bell Nursery that inspired us to integrate United Way. United Way would only fund White organizations. To be a member of United Way, all you had to do was contribute. So, a whole group of us contributed money to the United Way. Then came the annual election of officers, and we all marched up there with Rosa! [Laughter] We were all sitting in the audience, and they presented a slate, “Are there any nominations from the floor?” “Nominate Rosa Williams.” “Second.” “All in favor?” “Aye.” “Rosa Williams.” [Laughter] United Way, and Bell Nursery got United Way-funded. 

To be continued in the October Iguana. See a full video of this interview by searching for “GWER 2009” at YouTube.com.  Find 14 related interviews at https://tinyurl.com/Iguana1114.

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