1.27.2009

Planting a seed

One of the joys of my life is correspondence. For many years my early morning routine was to sip hot coffee while writing letters to friends and family.

The wonder of email is that you can exchange words with folks far and wide, folks you’ve never met, and call them “friends.” Quite often, these distant friends share more about themselves than persons you’ve known most of your life. That is a phenomenon of the medium I’ll leave to the appropriate disciplines to dissect.

Occasionally, an email comes along which is worth sharing. The sender of the following wishes to be signed “a friend.”

***

B.J.,

Your Jefferson Young story (LINK) took me back to images and shocking experiences in Gadsden County, Florida. (The largest, although second poorest, county in the state, it's northwest of Tallahassee.). My husband and I lived there for several years. Gadsden was the only Florida county to vote for Geraldine Ferraro. There, many people had no running water or electricity. Some people still plowed with mules.

I volunteered in the local 'alternative' school where, to my horror, I discovered that the teacher couldn't pronounce the vocabulary for English class. Worse in its own way, she was an African-American woman and graduate of Florida A&M.

I have many, many stories from those Gadsden County days. The beef I'd purchased from the local IGA had birdshot in it.

One day my husband and I were having a sandwich in a beat-up eatery on the town square in Quincy, the county seat. We were sitting next to a grimy, massive picture window facing the square. Quincy had seen happier, more prosperous days. In the '70s, droves of local workers in the shade-grown-tobacco industry had been let go. Beyond mowing grass and other dead-end jobs, there'd been no local jobs for these workers ever since, and no public transportation to afford people an education and opportunities elsewhere.

In my view, Gadsden County represented a continuation of Florida's brutal history of haves and have-nots. Blacks weren't even allowed on Florida beaches until the 1960s.

The town square suffered from years of neglect. You could see that Quincy had been stately at one time - and might be so today. (Let's hope so.) But in the late '80s or early '90s when we were there, it felt bleak. While eating our sandwiches by the grimy window, a parade of stretch limos shot by from around the corner, one right after the other. There must have been eight or nine of them. We were stunned, mystified. Later, we found out that Quincy, Florida, a place where time stood still, had the most Coca-Cola millionaires per capita of anywhere in the USA. Bigwigs from Atlanta were coming to town to call on the big shareholders following the debacle of Coke Classic.

We found out that in the ‘30s or so, the president of the Quincy State Bank, maybe the oldest bank in Florida, was a very likeable, popular guy. He'd told his bank customers that there was an exciting new company in Atlanta called Coca-Cola, and recommended that folks consider buying some shares. When my husband and I lived there, the third generation of Coca-Cola shareholders had no financial concerns.

I have lots of stories from Gadsden County days. Living there was an experience almost out of this world. It would be fascinating to see the place today.

As someone new to that community, its ways mystified and often shocked me. Still, it is important to note that, beneath the surface of some deep-South ways that threw me for a loop, great love and respectful relations went on there, too. A particular experience comes to mind.

A dastardly Miami group with colossal bucks came to the county to promote a medical waste dump with the promise of “good jobs.” Several dozen residents rallied in that extremely rural place. People from all walks of life - white and black, educated and uneducated, some with financial means and some with no means whatsoever - joined together to stop this destructive proposal.

We became a splendid, rag-tag activist group with only nickels and dimes on our side. We were up against huge money and who knows what else. An overarching concern for the welfare of the people and the community spurred us on.

The consequences of this proposed social and environmental nightmare were frightening to consider. Among other things, it would have polluted the air and local streams with mercury and other highly toxic substances that would have wound up in human bodies, including tiny ones; many people fished local streams for food. Nor were these good jobs at all. Off the top, they were very dangerous jobs with great risk of hepatitis C.. Also, if the monstrosity had been allowed, a medical waste dump for the entire Southeast might have been grandfathered in afterwards.

Our rag-tag group pulled together, did massive research at FSU, talked with professors, knocked on doors of homes and shacks alike, held public meetings galore. Thankfully, we had some good coverage in the Tallahassee paper, and that helped. We also experienced some astounding serendipity along the way.

A video of a South Carolina news broadcast about the gory details of a medical waste dump dropped in our laps from out of nowhere. In it were references to things unholy to the African-American community which, up to this point, had been keen on the promise of good jobs. We duplicated this video and circulated it to local parishes. Looking back, this was the turning point. Still, the stakes were huge and the work hard, exhausting, overwhelming, inherently terrifying. We kept at it anyway.

In the end, I'd say that a miracle happened. The stretch limo and Miami gang left town for the last time. Goodness won! The Miami folks and some local politicians got caught on the same plane together. According to Florida's Sunshine Law, that was a major no-no. This entire experience also taught me exactly what Margaret Mead meant: "Never doubt that a small group of caring citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

As new life comes into the White House, perhaps this is a symbol that a ruthless, cruel part of American history has finally died so we can move forward. I couldn't agree with Obama more about embracing diversity, that, indeed, diversity is colossal strength.

Sign me “a friend.”

***

Thanks, friend!

***

So, what of Quincy today? It has been designated an “All-American City.” In 2006, Gadsden County was named USDA Rural Development Community of the Year.

Apparently, my activist friend and her rag-tag group planted a seed of civic consciousness, giving credence to anthropologist Margaret Mead’s assertion.

3 comments:

Papamoka said...

That my friend was a very moving post! Thank you.

Frodobelowthegnatline said...

Tell your friend to look for someone with bare feet someday. Frodo will stop by for a barbeque and a RC Cola in that diner.

Gregg Sutton said...

I came to your blog a couple of days ago and have been reading your articles. Your friend’s can-do activism is going to be required in every little town in this country if we are to survive this economic nightmare. What we don’t need is the damn Republicans forming ranks and fighting recovery nail and tooth. Good article.