On March 25, 1982, Eva Williams Mack was elected the first black mayor of West Palm Beach in a unanimous vote by the city commission. Mack came to West Palm Beach in 1948 and worked as a public health nurse and as the first health specialist for the county’s school board before she and Ruby Bullock became the city’s first black commissioners in 1978. Mack died in 1998.
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This is Black History Month. In November, we quoted West Palm Beach historian Ineria Hudnell saying, “You don’t have to wait until Black History Month” to honor the struggles and accomplishments of the black community. Others have opined for a time when we don’t need a special day to single out one ethnic group’s accomplishments. Until then, we’ll carry on.
So let’s spotlight George Green of Delray Beach. Here’s a 1999 Post Time article:
George Green got more than one out of every four votes for the Delray Beach City Council. Not enough to win, but not bad for a black man in the Deep South in 1911.
Green was one of the pioneers of the fledgling town during a time of Jim Crow poll taxes and other forms of black voter intimidation. But in the town’s first election, on Oct. 9, 1911, Delray Beach’s blacks were not only allowed to vote, they put forward their own candidate.
Eleven of the first 57 electors were black, and Green was one of 10 people nominated for five alderman’s positions, coming in seventh with 16 votes.
Green’s family could well have been named Monroe. That was the name of his father’s master. But with emancipation, the name became a hated reminder, and the family became the Greens.
George, born in 1877 and one of six siblings, left the small town of Midway, near Tallahassee, with his wife in 1894. He joined a growing migration of Southern blacks lured to frontier South Florida by the promise of cheap and plentiful land.
Soon Green had a home in the neighborhood between Swinton and Northwest Sixth avenues, now called the West Settlers Historic District. He was a partner in a packing house that shipped winter vegetables to the north.
“My grandfather was quite a businessman for somebody who probably had only an eighth-grade education,” said Betty Jo Jenkins, a librarian at City College of New York.
“There was evidence of segregation, but I think the people seemed to have gotten along well,” Jenkins said. “They were all struggling to make it in this rather inhospitable area.”
Kidney disease felled Green at 50; he died in his family home and is buried, along with his wife, in Delray Beach.
Delray Beach pioneer George Green, with his wife Josie and children. He moved to Delray Beach in 1894 and ran a vegetable packing house. The Delray Beach pioneer got 16 votes to place seventh in the 1911 race for alderman. (Photo courtesy of EPOCH and the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum)
Update: Reader Edith B. Cowan of Jupiter caught a goof in our Dec. 30 column on Wallis Warfield Simpson and the Seminole Inn in Indiantown. “The Seaboard Railroad and the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad did not merge and become the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad until July 1, 1967,” she wrote. She should know; her father worked for the railroads both before and after the merger.
By Michelle Quigley
Thomas L. Jefferson, Joseph Wiley Jenkins, C. Spencer Pompey, Joseph N. Bernadel, Ulysses B. Kinsey, Solomon D. Spady, Cracker Johnson, Eva Mack, Edward Rodgers, Louise Buie, M.A. Hall Williams, Ineria Hudnell, Freddie Stebbins Jefferson, and Vera Farrington.
They were educators. Activists. Politicians. Business professionals. Men and women.
They broke through barriers, helped bring about social progress and made a difference for African-Americans in Palm Beach County.
They are some of the titans who should be remembered and honored during Black History Month. And every month.
Among them are Florida’s first black female mayor, the king of black West Palm Beach in the 1920s, the county’s first black chief judge, one of the first black doctors in Palm Beach County, and the first black woman on The Palm Beach Post editorial board. Two of them have schools named after them, one a bridge, and another a post office.
A half century ago this week, a former maid who’d dabbled in writing was buried in a Fort Pierce pauper’s grave.
It’s only in the past few decades that Zora Neale Hurston earned the adulation she never got in life.
Hurston wrote with passion and poetry and humor about the joys and turmoils of blacks living and dying far beyond the main roads of central and south Florida.
“Miss Zora’’ rose to prominence, was gradually ostracized by her own people and died destitute in Fort Pierce, only to be reborn only as an artist can be — through her work.
She was raised in Eatonville, north of Orlando. It was America’s first all-black town when it was founded in 1887.
Her mother once said, “You jump at de sun.”
Her mother died and her father, a tenant farmer and pastor, handed her off to relatives. She was a maid, graduated high school, and went to Howard University in Washington.
She was 30 when she wrote her first story in 1921 but lied about her age by a decade, making her an undeserving prodigy. She moved to New York in 1925 and was swept up in the Harlem Renaissance.
Her career climaxed with 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, a swirling trail of a woman’s journey to independence that climaxes with the Glades’ great 1928 hurricane.
But fame didn’t always translate to fortune; she never made $1,000 on a book and once was a secretary to novelist Fanny Hurst.
Two marriages failed.
Peers accused her of Uncle Tomism after she became a political conservative, decrying integration.
Her last novel, Seraph on the Suwannee, was published in 1948.
She was a maid, a substitute teacher, and a columnist for the black weekly Fort Pierce Chronicle.
She died broke in a Fort Pierce nursing home in 1960. Friends donated for her funeral.
In 1973, Alice Walker (The Color Purple) paid for a marker for her grave.
Eatonville’s Zora Neale Hurston Center was opened in 1987, a monument to the woman who prophesied: “When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world.’’
Special thanks to Post staff writer Scott Eyman.
Question: Who was Palm Beach County’s first black law-enforcement officer?
Answer: It probably was Wilbur Burney, the first black Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy and one of the first in Florida.
Even before he broke barriers in 1948, Burney had been an unofficial deputy, he said in 1983, two years before he died at the age of 80 in 1985 in West Palm Beach.
Starting in 1939, while driving a cab, “I was kind of undercover,” Burney said. “I wasn’t bonded and couldn’t arrest whites. They just wanted certain things done.”
Burney finally was hired, but he actually had been approached first by West Palm Beach Police Chief Truman Matthews to attend a training school. Sheriff John Kirk had nabbed him, though.
“Kirk sent his chief deputy to get me, but I was leery,” Burney recalled. “I said, ‘Just in black town?’ ”
He said the chief deputy showed him a badge and responded: “That’s what you’re going to be. You arrest anyone who breaks the law, black or white.”
Said Burney, “That’s what I wanted to hear. I was sworn in right there, and that afternoon, I marched in a parade in uniform.”
Burney said he was met with some resentment but that Kirk later sent him throughout the state to recruit blacks.
Soon after Burney’s death, the Sheriff’s Star, magazine of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, ran a feature about him.
Retired DeSoto County Sheriff’s deputy George Brown, of Arcadia, took the article to his sheriff. Brown had been sworn three years before Burney. DeSoto County, about to celebrate its centennial, promptly passed a resolution to recognize Brown, which only partially diminished Burney’s feat.
Burney founded the Florida Association of Negro Deputy Sheriffs in 1952, when the state had three black deputies who were banned from white organizations.
While Burney was the county’s first black deputy, individual police departments might have had black officers before that. Readers: Can you help?