History and the people who make it: Gainesville Women for Equal Rights – Part 3

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 62nd in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection; other parts of this excerpt appeared in the July-August and September Iguanas.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

C: Remember when we investigated the Department of Welfare? 

First, we found out that one of the county commissioners’ parents were on welfare. So we thought, “Well, we’d really like to look at the rolls and see who’s on welfare.” And we never could. I won’t mention her name, but every time we went, there was some reason we couldn’t see the rolls. 

Then, we heard that she was off at a convention in the Bahamas for welfare directors, and we said, “Right.” Put on our white gloves, went down, and said that Ms. So-and-so had said that we could come here and pick up the policy of the welfare department. The girl said, “Oh, okay. Here it is!” 

So, we sit down and read the policy, and — “Alachua County Department of Welfare is to serve the needs of the poor White people of Alachua County.” 

We went to [Alachua County Commissioners] Sid Martin and G.M. Davis and said, “Here’s the policy! Get rid of her.” And they said, “Okay, but we need another vote on the commission. If you help us get Edgar Johnson elected, we will fire the director of welfare.” We said, “You’re on.” 

We made little walk maps; Grace Knight helped us with that. We went door to door campaigning for Edgar. He got elected, and they fired the director of welfare. That’s how we got the Welfare Department integrated. But everything that got integrated took intelligence, hard work, chicanery, and a lot of acting. 

H: And perseverance. Just the perseverance, not to let it go.

C: Then, when we took on the state welfare department — it was just as bad, but it was statewide. 

We researched welfare policies in Holland, and Canada, just all over. We’d go up to Tallahassee, I remember we had a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer box just full of file folders. There we were with our rubber thong sandals, and our little cotton dresses. 

We always went up as an integrated group, and when we drove through Perry, if a Black person was driving, the White people would duck down. If a White person was, the Black people would duck down. Because it was not safe to drive through the town of Perry with Black and White people. 

The head of the committee was a League of Women Voters woman from Tampa, she was wonderful to us. We got to the point that, a couple of nights before every committee meeting, they call us, and say, “What do you think of these wordings? What do you think of this idea?” So, we really helped. GWER members really helped write that state law. Yeah.

H: I remember the night that the GWER board met at my house to entertain Chief of Police Joyner. There were twenty-six of us there. He walked in, and his eyes got like that—“This is your board?” [Laughter]

I had persuaded him to do something about what they were doing in Atlanta, in community policing, and he sent one of his lieutenants up to get training. He brought him that night, to introduce us around. 

He was using us as a wedge, which he could move in behind and do a few things that would not pull him apart when he went back to what was a very racist department.

C: I remember that meeting, or was it the next one, where we had then done some research on what he was paying the sheriffs. We compared it with other departments in more progressive cities, and we presented him with this payroll, and we said, “A man can’t support a family on what you’re paying them.” 

He said, “Oh, really? Is it low? I didn’t know.” He was a wealthy man! He didn’t know that you couldn’t live on two thousand dollars a year. He was genuinely shocked. He was getting some pretty rough people who were bitter because they were underpaid, and they were probably poorer than you, Cora, as an underpaid African American schoolteacher. [Laughter] 

F: It really was some interesting times.

C: We used to all march. 

F: Yeah, we’d all march. I remember my husband calling home from work and saying, “I understand there’s going to be a march on University Avenue. And they’re going to sit in the center of University and Main Street. Please don’t let me see you on the six o’clock news.” I said, “Well, don’t turn on the TV, because if they march and sit, I will be there.” [Laughter] I didn’t make it to jail, but I was always out there trying. Mmhm. [Laughter]

C: Now, when David went to jail, it was with the Student Government for Equal Rights, wasn’t it? David? What organization sent you to jail? It wasn’t GWER, but it was—

DC: Not organizational. Dan Harmeling, and Brownie had gone, and sat in in jail. Dr. King was there, and they wanted White people, White bodies; they weren’t getting any attention. So, the two students, who were both members of the Student Group for Equal Rights. Then because they went faculty went: Marshall Jones, and Jim Brown, and several others. Because they’d gone, then several others of us went. Jean and Felicity Trueblood were ready to go next. But this was not organization. 

C: Most of the jailings were just individuals going off, getting into trouble. 

H: There were other ways in which we had interactions back when the rest of the country was pretty much on fire after the assassinations.

H: I came back from the summer having left as vice-president of GWER, to find that the president had moved away in my absence. [Laughter] Sarah called me one afternoon and said, “You have to know something: there are carpetbaggers coming from some of these Northern cities where they’ve had a great time bagging up goods in these fires that have been going on. They’re thinking about setting fires here in Gainesville. And they’re thinking about the city manager, and the district attorney. You have to know that, and I can’t talk any longer. Goodbye.” 

What do I do? So, back to see Chief Joyner again. [Laughter] And said, “I have no idea where this is all coming from, or how much truth there is to this, but this is what I’m told. So, I’ll leave it with you to decide what you’re going to do about it.” We did have some fires. 

C: Carlene Hussey’s house was bombed. Carlene was the attorney that helped us — she’d write our amicus curiae briefs for us — and her home was bombed. I’ve never quite known what happened there. It was about the same time Carol Thomas was in prison. 

H: That was a little later, in the [19]60s.

C: Let me see. Jim would’ve been two years old, because I took care of Carol Thomas’s children the summer she was in prison. That’d be 39 years ago! [Laughter] Yeah. It was easy to get put in the prison.

R: You could get put in prison for just eating at a lunch counter downtown. 

C: That’d be ‘69, that summer of ‘69. 

The November-December issue of the Iguana will wrap up this GWER oral history transcript. 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.

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy. SPOHP needs the public’s help to sustain and build upon its research, teaching and service missions: even small donations can make a big difference in SPOHP’s ability to gather, preserve, and promote history for future generations.

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