Photo Courtesy of preservationnation.org
Ralph Williams relied on his own “driving while black” experience as a young man to explain to his 25-year old son the dos and don’ts of dealing with the police. For Williams, a 1965 graduate of Booker T. Washington senior high, his memories of being racially profiled by the police are still relevant and carry a painful historical element because they occurred during the vicious Jim Crow era.
He and his BTW classmates are joining with alumni from Northwestern, Carver, Mays and North Dade senior high schools to celebrate their 50th class reunion at a gala on Feb. 7 at the Miami Shores Country Club where their respective experiences will be brought to life in a dramatic production.
The retired graphic designer told the South Florida Times that experiencing both segregation and desegregation allows him to share unique black history lessons with his children and grandchildren. For example, many of the clubs that his son frequents are on Miami Beach, a location that was off limits for blacks when Williams was a teen.
“My father and my mother worked on the beach. My father was a janitor and my mother was a maid, I was stopped because I had to take them to work. I was stopped quite a bit on the beach and had to prove that I belonged there,” he said. “Blacks had to carry ID and provide justification for being on the beach, especially after dark. You were stopped periodically and had to show proof that you worked on the beach, not unlike apartheid in South Africa.”
While living in segregation had its obvious disadvantages, Rudean Jackson said the closeness forged within the black community was an enormous plus. The retired systems programmer, an alumnus of Miami Northwestern’s class of 1965, has bittersweet memories of growing up in a separate and unequal Miami.
Jackson said that as a child, she recognized that the facilities for blacks were dirty and unkempt, unlike those for whites.
“On the positive side of it, we were more community oriented back then. Because the teachers lived in the community with you, it would be nothing for them to come to your house and tell your parents when you were misbehaving. And the doctor lived in the community with you,” she explained of a time when neighbors looked after each other’s children.
Williams has fond memories of the Sir John Hotel, where celebrities like Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Sam Cooke performed; and he recalls when Martin Luther King visited The Hampton House in Brownsville.
Both agree that black history should be celebrated year round, not just in February.
“These kids assume a lot of times that the way that things are now is the way that they’ve always been. They’re standing on the shoulders of a lot of people who went through a lot of grief just to allow you the courtesies that you enjoy today,” Williams said of simple pleasures like going to the beach or out to dinner.
“We weren’t allowed to sit down at the restaurant counter. When we ordered food, we had to stand up. That included McCory’s and Woolworth downtown. We also weren’t allowed to go to any of the beaches besides Virginia Key. We were only allowed to go to one designated area on Virginia Key Beach,” he explained.
And certain parts of Miami were strictly off limits.
“People find this hard to believe, but Hialeah was a conclave for the Ku Klux Klan. There were places where we would not venture,” Williams shared. He said that he shares black history with his son, daughter and his two grandchildren, but that he must also offer guidance.
“I have to have a conversation with my son that white parents do not have to have with their sons. I talk to him about how to react whenever he’s stopped by a policeman. Just the little things that will keep him alive,” said Williams.