History and the people who make it: Gainesville Women for Equal Rights – Part 4

Jane Hiers [H], Jean Chalmers [C], Cora Roberson [R], and Vivian Filer [F] 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 63rd in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection. 

We regret to report that Ms. Roberson passed away at her home on September 24; David Chalmers, quoted in earlier GWER excerpts, passed away last month (see pg 16).

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

D: What was your proudest moment as a member of GWER? 

F: How many do we get? [Laughter]

H: How many moments do we get to count? [Laughter]

F: Yeah, that’s right! We each get a different one.

F: Just having people recognize who we were and who we were for — I mean, even the commissioners saying, “Here are those damn women again!” You know? That meant that we were doing something. The achievements of GWER started and really did a lot of the work for integrating this great Gainesville of ours. So, I guess my proudest moment is now. [Laughter] 

C: I think my proudest moment was when I admitted to myself and to the members that poverty was our issue. I remember standing up and making a little speech, and it was the first little political speech I ever made in my life. I was really nervous doing it, because I’d been very much a behind-the-scenes kind of person. It all came about with the poor African American woman that I had befriended, and been working with, and she had a slew of babies, and she was washing diapers – pumping water out of the well and washing diapers in a bucket in Rutledge. Just down the street, there was a washer-dryer. They wouldn’t let her in. 

I went [and] talked to him about this situation, and he said, “Jean, I’d let any African” – well, “any Negro in if their diapers weren’t so dirty! But I can’t let her come wash her diapers here because they’re just too dirty. She can’t wash them.” 

I said, “Well, she really doesn’t have a place to wash them. All she has is the well.” He said, “Well, somehow, you women – you damn women – are going to have to do something to get running water into all of the Negro houses. Then, maybe, we can be more equal.” 

You know, for just a funny little merchant, he opened my eyes. I remember coming back and saying, “We have to fight poverty. We can’t deal with racism until we do something about poverty,” and that’s where we started with the welfare board, and understanding. That’s when we really pushed to get water over to the northeast. 

In the northeast part of town, there were privies in the backyard. Water didn’t go there. The League of Women Voters was a little bit more conservative, but they joined us in many things, and one of the wonderful things that they joined us on was poverty housing. 

Nina Starr went and took pictures of all these dilapidated, terrible, terrible houses, took them up to the city commission with a slideshow, and showed slides of all of these terrible shanties in which African Americans lived, and they were all owned by members of the city commission! [Laughter] 

R: I tell you one thing that made me very, very proud, and made me feel like I was more of a part of the community. And especially the Black community — and I got that closer connection — was when we were deputized. We went on Springhill, we went on Sugar Hill, we went on Northeast Gainesville around Duval, and we registered all these people to vote. That did something to me, because I had never heard of anything like that. I didn’t know it could be done. But thank God for Alma Bethay. 

She let us be deputized, and we could go out and register people that were afraid to go to the polls. They were afraid, because sometimes they would be threatened, if not by the poll workers, by somebody in the community or on the outside. 

Some of them were actually afraid to go; they heard something about what happened in Perry, what happened in Madison, or Levy County, and they were afraid to actually go to the polls. 

In some places, I’ve heard that they would have a big old jar there full of marbles or what-have-you, and to test your intelligence, you had to look at that jar and tell how many marbles were in there. That was a part of the test. And when you couldn’t do it, you were “illiterate,” and you couldn’t vote. 

They had all kind of techniques to keep you from voting. When they would register, the person that was back in the back area, that was a Black person, would see them put their, where you just registered, in the trash can. Those kind of things just really bothered me. I feel that GWER caused a lot of that to be changed, not only in Gainesville, but in the county.

C: Well, Cora, another proud moment for me was when you ran for city commission. 

[Vocal outburst of agreement]

C: And did you run for city commission! [Laughter]

H: She was honored by [then Gainesville Mayor] Pegeen Hanrahan a couple of years ago. 

R: November the 11 was declared “Cora Roberson Day.” I was proud of that. 

F: What year did you run?

R: [19]68.

H: And you didn’t lose by that much!

R: Nine hundred and some votes.

C: And you were the first woman. Were you the first African American?

R: No, but really, the first woman to run for city commission. 

C: You sure did us proud.

R: Bless you. And you’d almost gotten in trouble; I thought maybe Charlie – that’s my husband – would’ve just thrown me out to the wolves! [Laughter] Because the way this happened, I was working up at Kirby-Smith, and I came home. Was a car full of Women of Equal Rights waiting for me. When I drove up, the girls jumped out the car, “Hey! Hey!” They asked me, “Cora, don’t you want to run for city commission?” I says, “No, not really!” [Laughter] 

H: Joan Henry was one of them.

R: I said, “No.” “Well, we want you to run. And blah-blah-blah-blah-blah,” they just kept saying, “This is the time right now for you to run. And they’ll be closing at five o’clock, so come on, let’s go on down get registered.” 

[Laughter] I said, “I don’t mind doing it, because I think there’s a need here.” I said, “But my husband doesn’t get off from work, working at Koppers Company” – because he hadn’t gone to college then – I said, “He’ll be home at five o’clock.” 

She said, “That’s too late. You got to get there and register before five o’clock.” 

There I was between a rock and a hard place. I said, “I’ll just suffer the consequences. I’ll just go on.” 

So I did, I got the children back in the car and went down, and I registered. When I got back home, I think he was there, and I told him what I had done. I told him it was the Women of Equal Rights that thought I did! “Don’t blame me, blame them!” [Laughter] I said, “I didn’t have much time, and I’ll withdraw if you don’t approve of it.” 

He said, “No, don’t withdraw. If this is something you want to do, I’ll support you.” That strengthened our relationship wonderful. Not that it was weak, but that just kind of did something to me, that I made a big decision like that without discussing it with him, and he approved it. Then it was run, Bertie, run! Dr. Weber here at the university was my campaign manager. Now, I had a lot of people backing me then. 

H: Well, I have to look back on all of these things and say that every day, we were doing things. We walked through a lot of muck, and we fought a lot of battles, and we had a lot of successes, and everything just, every day was a day that felt hopeful and good that we’d done the right thing, we were going in the right direction, and the grace of God and the guardian angels were with us. 

R: Do you remember the time we went down to, in Levy County — we went down there to a park. Everybody was surprised when we arrived, an integrated group with all these Black and White children. When our children got in, our integrated pool emptied on the other side. They took all the White children out of the pool. Mmhm. 

F: They did that regularly in Gainesville.

R: They took all the White children out of the pool. They couldn’t swim together, but yet, here was Black and White over here, swimming together. So, we ended up just taking our children out and leaving. Yeah. We were insulted, so we left. 

C: What a handicap, eh?

H: What freedom now! What freedom now.

F: But the whole system was a handicap. 

R: But people just take it for granted.

C: It was a handicap for everyone.

F: It was! The double bathrooms, the double this, and the double that.

R: That’s right, it was really a handicap!

F: It really was. But you know what? The greatest loss of all of this is the humankind loss. Think of the generations who really were people who would have felt the humanity, humanistic part of each other, had they not been practicing this whole slavery, enslaved people, thing. 

Because I know that people haven’t changed. We still are the warm-blooded human beings we always were. Except one ethnicity decided it was better than the other, and therefore lost all that. 

Because when I tell my stories, I talk about the human love and warmth that African women brought to nurture European children. 

Because, Europeans were a little more stoic. So, when I do my stories, I say, “Think about this. This is an African American story. But it’s about an African woman who came to America, who is giving love to the children on the plantation that aren’t hers.” 

These are White children. But her children way on the back forty, somewhere over there, that she left this morning, know that she loves them, too. So, when the story says, 

“Bedtime’s come fu’ little boys. Po’ little lamb.

Too tiahed out to make a noise, Po’ little lamb.

You gwine t’ have to-morrer sho’?

Yes, you tole me dat befo’, Don’t you fool me, chile, no mo’, Po’ little lamb.”

The little White child heard that. When I do this in schools, and White children and Black children are there, they all hear it. Because it’s all full of love. 

It’s all Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s work. He wrote it from the words he got from his parents, who were enslaved people. He wrote it as a free man. But he wrote it to tell the story about the nurturing and love. 

So, no matter where we go from here, if we stay in contact with what makes us human, which is love and sharing, the rest of it is just happen. Because we already proved we have the mind and the strategies to do it. That’s my prophecy. [Laughter]

See a full video of this interview by searching for “GWER 2009” at youtube.com. Find 14 related interviews at https://tinyurl.com/Iguana1128/ 

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