Transcript edited by Pierce Butler
This is the fifteenth in a continuing series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.
Dr. Sue M. Legg was interviewed by Stuart Landers [L] in 1992; bracketed interpolations are by SPOHP.
L: When and where were you born?
In Oakland, California, in January 1940. There was a big dock in Richmond. It used to be a whaling station. Then in the Second World War the Kaiser Aluminum Company built the Minute Men ships there. Those ships brought in enormous numbers of semiskilled and unskilled labor, both black and white. Richmond went from essentially a Standard Oil company town with relatively small population (I think under 20,000) to a town of around 100,000 in about three years.
After the war those people did not leave, and they hit the school system about the same time I hit the school system. For that reason, Richmond was integrated – not residentially, but through the schools – right after the war.
L: You went to college.
Yes, at Berkeley. The first year I lived at home. Then the second year I pledged a sorority, because that was the only way my parents would let me live on campus. That gives you a notion of the difference, culturally, of what it was like and then what it was like, say, five or ten years later. We, the girls, were pretty sheltered.
When I came to Gainesville, there was the Sears store and not much else, so I knew right away that I was not in Berkeley anymore. [laughter] It was Governor [LeRoy] Collins that got us here, and that was how you rationalized your reason for coming here. Florida was the “New South.”
The Gainesville Women for Equal Rights [GWER] thing was because of Pat. Pat Farris had come here from Alabama, and her husband had been forced out at [the University of] Alabama because he participated in the faculty demonstrations over the integrations of the University of Alabama. Pat recruited me.
Kindergarten Alert was [a GWER program for] helping families get their kids registered for school. We would go out in our cars and pick up mothers and their children. There were all these problems associated with getting low-income kids into school, like they had to get their shots and have their birth certificates. [There were] just these mechanical things that were rather large things for families to deal with, especially when the [head of the] family was a single mother. We just viewed it as sort of a voter registration drive except that we were registering kids for school. We did whatever it took.
L: Racial tension in Gainesville had been rising steadily throughout late 1967.
The police advisory board came out of that. The feeling of real frustration that we had [stemmed from the fact] that [William S. “Tiny”] Talbot, the superintendent, was going to take care of his constituency, which was not the black community, at the expense of the black community. To do that, plans were made to close the schools that were easy to integrate, like A. Quinn Jones and Sidney Lanier and those kinds of schools.
L: The black [schools].
Or the white schools that were on the border line of the black areas. They would be easy to integrate because both whites and blacks could go to school there, so they were just going to be made into special-use schools, vocational schools and this kind of stuff.
The notion [was] that if schools had to integrate [it was] the blacks who had to be the ones to do it. That was wrong as far as we were concerned. It would have very dire consequences for the town in the long run.
L: How did the commission react?
My impression at the time was that they were pretty desperate. There was real concern by responsible people, regardless of their racial attitudes, that the town was going to come apart. They were looking for any idea that could possibly be acceptable to both sides. They actually did fund some token stuff. But at the time, that they would do anything was amazing.
L: So you felt that this was a success?
A long-term success? No. At the time, as a way to make people in the black [community] feel that somebody was listening [and] that there was some voice, it was useful. I think we had an impact that helped defuse some of that violence, because it was so intense that it could have erupted so that it would have been years to heal.
L: A lot of black women were members of GWER. Do you recall any that were especially active?
Vivian Filer and Rosa Williams. Of course, Cora Roberson. She ran for city commissioner. I think the first black that ever ran for city commission. There is a whole list of them who were very active. Ann McGhee was the one who tried to pull me off the street when I was arrested.
L: That was April 7, 1968.
[It all happened] in context of [Robert] Kennedy’s being shot and [Martin Luther] King’s being shot. If you are involved in organizations, and if they are going to work, it is going to take the right personalities at the right time. King was one of those people. The impact of his death seconding. Kennedy’s death was kind of this whole notion of the end of hope. When that happened, we had the demonstration downtown. It was a march in honor of King. There was nothing intended in any way to be destructive.
L: It was purely memorial.
That is right. Except in Bev[erly] Jones’s mind and a few other people. I knew nothing about that ahead of time. Bev approached Pat Farris and asked her to participate in what was to be a symbolic sit-down downtown. I do not remember the street.
Pat did not want to do it by herself. I said: “All right, Pat, I will do this, but on the condition that we have a long discussion afterwards about what the point is, because we are not going to accomplish anything by this.”
She said: “It is just going to be a protest, and it will be broken up immediately, and that will be the end of it.”
Well, that is not what happened at all. Evidently, Bev and Marshall had distributed fliers all around ahead of time. The police were all waiting for this thing to happen. We got out into the street, and we were not out there more than two minutes when the police cars came. They literally dragged us into the cars. We were treated in a way that you would not believe. I was not beaten, but these policemen were loaded for bear. We went squealing off to the police station so fast it was lucky we did not get into an accident. It was not very far, and there was no hurry. But this guy was in a hurry. That was the intensity and the emotion about it all.
Ann McGhee said, “Sue, don’t do this,” and she was trying to drag me off the street. I said: “Ann, I have told Pat I will do it. It is a symbolic thing. Do not worry about it.” Of course, right at that moment the police came.
L: Did you go to trial?
I got to pay the fine.
L: Had you been very active in people’s campaigns?
Yes. GWER had a group of us. Shirley Conroy, Joan Henry, Pat Farris, Jean Chalmers, and I were the core group that actually organized people’s campaigns: Cora’s and Neil Butler’s and Ed Turlington’s. We did leafleting and got volunteers and raised money and wrote letters and did all of those things.
There were a series of television programs done [by the] public TV station in town. We were asked to do one on school integration.
I read a statement on the air that the executive committee of GWER and I had written, and that had to do with the feasibility of a 70/30 racial balance integration of the schools.
What we were concerned about was if you had only a relatively few whites integrating into the black areas of town and a few black students integrated into the whites, you were going to disrupt housing. You were going to have a lot of “white flight” from those areas that were going to be integrated on the east side of town, and the whole town was going to end up going north, which is exactly what happened.
My argument at the time was [that] this was a small town. Bussing was no big deal in a town like Gainesville. It was relatively easy to integrate the schools. If you have the parents and the community involvement, kids would be just as safe in one school as in another. So I thought it was better to balance things out as well as we could.
L: So in the mid 1970s you are back in school, and the Gainesville Women for Equal Rights seems to be sort of falling apart.
Jean went back to college. Others went to work. I did both. The thing that bound us together – the school integration – was down to [small problems]. The issues then were things like, in some of the rural schools they painted a stripe down the middle of the hallways. [They had] a black side of the hall and a white side. There was asinine stuff like that going on. But it was not the kind of thing for an organization to deal with.
L: How would you judge what GWER accomplished, looking back on it now?
It is wrong to think that the organization failed because it did not survive. It was created because of the need of the time, [and] it served that need extraordinarily well. I do not know what would have happened if there had not been a GWER, but I like to think that we kept some communication open and helped defuse at least some tension.
We were faculty wives and black school teachers. We were all going to have small children that had to go into these schools, and we wanted these schools to be a lot better than they were. We certainly did not want them full of a lot of racial tension and everything else. This was home; this was where we were going to raise our families.
We were effective because we were thorough in our homework.
I remember specifically when Jean [Chalmers] and the rest of us went to Tallahassee for the welfare reform lobbying effort. We were invited to go up there and do a presentation. Jean did that. She sat down at the table with the others, and the men there clearly were uncomfortable and almost at the point of contempt. By the time she finished, there was genuine respect in their voices. That happened to us in a number of situations…
I cannot remember a time when we were caught off guard by someone being able to tell us that we were misinformed. May- be there were times, but I cannot remember them. We made people very uncomfortable because when there would be question-and-answer sessions [it became quickly evident that we were prepared to respond to even the toughest questions].
We used to have these panel discussions. When you get a couple hundred people coming to them [there are a lot of questions, and] we had the answers, and peo- ple would make statements that we could refute. People just were not used to that-informed a community group.
A full transcript of this interview is available at http://ufdc.ufl.edu/ UF00093318/00001.
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