Baby Doll

Sara Lee Creech of Belle Glade tells a long-forgotten chapter of civil rights history

Although the Creeches lived in a segregated world, Sara says, her mother was not a segregationist. "I was not reared a segregationist," she says. "Many Southerners were not. If I had ever made any disparaging remarks, my mother would have known how to deal with it."

Mary Creech taught her daughter by example. Creech remembers when a homeless white boy showed up at the school with all his belongings tied up in a sack. He had traveled from Florida because he had heard about the teacher training school at the university and wanted to be educated there. Mary Creech gave the boy a job in the kitchen and saw to it that he was able to attend the university's practice school, which Sara also attended. "That's the way my mother was," Creech explains.

When the State of Georgia closed the A&M schools in 1933, Sara and her mother moved to Lake Worth. Sara finished her education in Belle Glade, where she attended Pahokee High School, graduating in 1935. Because the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, there wasn't money for the young girl to attend college. It hurt, she says. "I always expected to go," Creech says. "I had grown up in that environment." Instead, she attended a business school in West Palm Beach and then worked for an accountant.

Harvey Poole Sr. met Sara Creech in the Jim Crow 1940s. "Sara Creech is a woman without a malicious bone in her body," he says.
Colby Katz
Harvey Poole Sr. met Sara Creech in the Jim Crow 1940s. "Sara Creech is a woman without a malicious bone in her body," he says.
Many publications ran stories on Sara Lee. At top, from Life, are examples of some 
of the 500 photographs Creech took to help design the doll. At the bottom are pictures from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of Eleanor Roosevelt's tea.
Sara Creech
Many publications ran stories on Sara Lee. At top, from Life, are examples of some of the 500 photographs Creech took to help design the doll. At the bottom are pictures from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of Eleanor Roosevelt's tea.

In 1941, they moved to Belle Glade, where Sara built a home next door to her brother R.Y. and started an insurance business. Mary grew flowers. Because there were no florists in town, people stopped by to purchase them from Mary. That lead to a second business, Flowers by Creech. The Creeches sold their blossoms to black and white churches, funeral homes, and individual customers.

African-American radio announcer Harvey Poole Sr., who has known Sara since the early 1940s and is 88 years of age, was an early customer. Poole's wife favored a multicolored rose that the Creeches carried. "It was the peace rose," Sara recalls. "And it was a beautiful rose."

Driving into Belle Glade on U.S. 27, one sees acres of sugar cane carpeting the view all the way to the horizon. At the edges of the fields this April day, plumes of brown smoke rise into the sky. There is an acrid smell to the air. Cane is being burned to boil down the sugar in the stalks and to incinerate the tough outer husk.

In the Lawrence E. Will Museum at the Belle Glade Branch Library, an exhibit is dominated by the 1928 hurricane, Seminoles, and migrant labor. Edward R. Murrow featured the area in a 1960 documentary called the "Harvest of Shame," which chronicled the horrendous living conditions in the migrant camps. It wasn't a popular broadcast in Belle Glade, where many people thought Murrow exaggerated the workers' misery. "It caused quite a stir among the farmers," Creech recalls. Her take was different. "It needed to be said," Creech comments. "[Murrow] could say it, where the people who lived there couldn't. And he did say it."

Times changed, but Belle Glades' misery didn't. In the 1990s, the town suffered from the highest AIDS rate in the United States. Today, the community is home to Big Sugar and football. Belle Glade's Central High School has more current players in the National Football League than any other high school in the nation. But gut-wrenching poverty still wracks much of its population.

When Sara Creech and her mother opened Flowers by Creech, Belle Glade included just 3806 permanent residents. But it was growing. By 1950, the population had almost doubled to 7219. It was a segregated world. White businesses lined Main Street. Black establishments were located on Second Avenue. A canal that drained east from Lake Okeechobee marked the color line.

Farming fueled the economy, and race divided the work force. Whites owned the farms. Blacks worked them. White laborers toiled in the canning plants. Blacks picked crops. During season, migrant camps would swell with black laborers who followed the harvest up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Relations between the white farm owners and black laborers were uneasy in the 1940s, says Harvey Poole, who at the time sold insurance to migrant workers. If the black laborers thought the price for their work was too low, they would walk out of the fields en masse. "They'd say, 'I'd rather starve,'" Poole recalls. "It was probably the largest un-unionized union in the United States." Although many of those who picked crops were illiterate, they knew the price the produce earned in the marketplace. The workers wanted to share in the bounty when times were good.

In 1944, labor unrest reached a peak. The workers left the fields and refused to pick the crop. The harvest threatened to rot in the fields unless a compromise could be reached, Poole says. Two prominent whites, the Rev. J.O. Jameson and businessman George Royal, held meetings with two prominent blacks, funeral home owner W.C. Taylor and businessman J.T. Houston, to discuss the dispute. As a result, the four men suggested to area farmers that crew leaders be designated from among the farm laborers to negotiate wages and other issues with the owners. When told of this plan, the workers returned to the fields, and the crops got picked. The crisis averted, the four men continued Sunday breakfasts to discuss other racial issues. Eventually, they asked others, including Harvey Poole and Sara Creech, to join them.

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