Geri Clark's Destiny

Davie's first black elected official has had to conquer the town's racist past... and her own fear

And it is in the near invisibility of the town's black community, in the remains of long-outdated codes that keep blacks from the east side from mixing too much into the life of the community.

Baldy, Boocat, and Richard Clark stuck together as kids, growing up in the late 1960s. Marching down the footpaths of the east side playing army. Hunting deer and wild hog with their dad, Isaac Sr., on the edge of the Big Cypress Swamp. Isaac Jr. (called "Baldy" because he had no hair when he was born), Isiah (nicknamed "Boocat" because he fought like a cat), and Richard grew close. "Just push him," Isaac hollered up when Richard froze on the roof of the family home, clutching a black garbage bag for a parachute. (After taking the plunge, Richard returned to the roof to jump again.) Only a couple of years separate the Clarks' three oldest boys. That gave them a natural confederation. Plus, their mother's words were always in their ears: "Y'all stay together."

Geri and Richard on their first date — his prom, 1984
Geri Clark
Geri and Richard on their first date — his prom, 1984
Davie's country lifestyle -- pickup trucks, cowboys, 
and ten-gallon hats -- gives downtown a "rednecks 
welcome" feel
Sherri Cohen
Davie's country lifestyle -- pickup trucks, cowboys, and ten-gallon hats -- gives downtown a "rednecks welcome" feel

Richard remembers those days as idyllic. The area around what is now Potter Park, at SW 57th Terrace at SW 42nd Place, was a sleepy, country place, just the way Richard thinks a place should be. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins all lived within tromping distance. One road led in and out -- SW 56th Terrace. Pathways connected the houses. There were a couple of bars -- the Joy Club and the Ace of Spades -- and a pool hall up on Orange Drive. Willie Bell ran a sundry and a beer joint. As long as the kids stayed in the neighborhood, nobody really bothered them. "We was just down here," Richard says. "It was nice.... Months would go by and we wouldn't see a police."

But the boys were educated to understand that their roaming had limits -- if not by the fussing of their mother and grandmother, then through the stories of other kids who crossed the color line. "When I was a kid, you didn't do a whole lot of traveling uptown," Richard explains. "The [police] would take you to the jailhouse and whup ya' if they found you up there." Blacks went to the back door of the post office to buy stamps, to the back door of the pharmacy to buy drugs.

In 1970, the wall that separated blacks and whites cracked. That year, Fort Lauderdale lawyer George Allen filed a lawsuit claiming that Broward County was in violation of federal desegregation orders. At the time, 17 Broward schools were all black, and five were 99 percent black. When Richard entered first grade in 1972, Davie Elementary School had been integrated. And some people didn't like the idea of mixing races.

On the way to school, the Clark brothers cleaved together. "We always walked in a crowd," Richard says. They were mostly safe that way, but not always. "The people that bothered you were the young teenagers," Richard recalls. "They would ride by, throw stuff, yell things, chase you down."

One afternoon when Richard was pedaling home along Orange Drive, a white man knocked him over and threw his bike into the canal. "All because of this," Richard says, tapping his skin. "I've thought about it a lot over the years," he says, "and I still can't figure out to this day what I did to that man."

By the time they were teenagers, Isiah and Richard had grown into popular, athletic young men. Isiah played football at Cooper City High School. Richard lined up for Western High. "My boys could play ball," Mary Clark says. Richard was the only black football player on the Wildcats. He was a gifted athlete.

Colleges noticed. Letters arrived from the University of Florida, the University of Miami, Purdue, and other schools. At Western High, the football coach told Richard that if he worked hard, a football scholarship to college was a real possibility. "Richard was an uplifting, positive kid," remembers his coach, Joe Melita, who is now in charge of investigations for the Broward County School Board. "He had a lot of raw talent. He was big. He was strong."

But near the end of Richard's junior year in 1983, tragedy struck the Clark family. Their home burned to the ground. "I come jogging up there after school about 5:30 or 6 to find out I had nothing," Richard says. "Only the clothes on my back."

Richard missed practice that summer. He worked instead. In the fall, the team took a vote and decided to keep him on the roster. "We all knew what he'd been through," says Steve Galor, a teammate and friend of Richard's since ninth grade. But to Richard, it seemed as if Coach Melita had turned on him. "He kept asking me if I was sure my head was in it, off-the-wall nonsense like that," Richard says.

When the team lost its first game to South Broward, Melita gave a speech, Richard recalls. If everyone was a true part of the team, he said, they would have won the game.

Richard lost it. Words were exchanged on the field, more in the locker room. "We was fixin' to go blow for blow," Richard recalls. Galor and another player separated the two. The next day, Richard was kicked off the team. The scholarship offers disappeared.

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