An Unpleasant Development

The plan to build Merry Place could rekindle an inner-city dream

An estimated 2000 African-Americans worked at the island's hotels, estates, and golf courses. From their arrival until about 1912, they lived in an area known as the Styx, a settlement in the vicinity of what is now the intersection of North County Road and Royal Poinciana Way, not far from Flagler's two hotels -- the Royal Poinciana, on Lake Worth, and the Breakers, on the ocean.

White historians describe the Styx as a squatters' encampment; blacks say the residents rented from white landlords. Whites always looked on the settlement as a place of squalor and lawlessness, an eyesore to be removed.

The fate of the Styx was long the most misreported highlight of Palm Beach history. Legend had it that Flagler, around 1912, spread word throughout the settlement that a circus was coming to the mainland. It was said he gave the residents free tickets and, while they were away, burned their houses to the ground.

Some of developer George Currie's street names haven't aged well
Michael McElroy
Some of developer George Currie's street names haven't aged well
Above, architectural renderings of Merry Place, which might have transformed the area. Below, Executive Director Laurel Robinson acknowledges that the housing authority  has not always served Pleasant City well.
Michael McElroy
Above, architectural renderings of Merry Place, which might have transformed the area. Below, Executive Director Laurel Robinson acknowledges that the housing authority has not always served Pleasant City well.

The reality was not so dramatic, according to T.T. Reese Jr., a white Palm Beach old-timer. Reese, whose father was director of the landmark Beach Club casino, reports that the proprietors, the Bradley brothers, bought up the Styx. In February 1912, they cut the area into 230 residential lots and ordered Reese's father to clear the neighborhood.

It was perhaps Florida's first gentrification. "I remember watching the squatters and their belongings going across the old wooden bridge with handcarts and other carriers," Reese Jr. told the Palm Beach Post in a 1994 letter. "After everyone had vacated the property, my dad brought in gardeners from the Beach Club and cleared the land, piled up the trash, and burned it on the spot."

The demise of the Styx was a blessing for George Currie. A white West Palm Beach attorney and developer and former mayor Currie had begun planning for a "colored" neighborhood in the city long before the 1912 eviction. His subdivision ran from 15th Street on the south to 23rd Street to the north, with Dixie Highway on the east and the Florida East Coast Railroad tracks to the west.

Currie (for whom a West Palm Beach waterfront park is named) dubbed it Pleasant City -- "a high class, colored sub-division north of town," according to a Currie Investment and Title Guaranty Co. ad in the Palm Beach Post of December 4, 1913. "He gave the streets names like Merry, Cheerful, and Contentment because, he said, the Negroes were naturally happy people," Everee Clarke recounts. "Nobody gave it to us, though. We bought it."

Black settlement in the area, and elsewhere in West Palm Beach west of the tracks, predated Currie's project. But with the sudden influx of families, Pleasant City quickly became the hub of black life and commerce.

On November 20, 1929, the gates of segregation officially slammed shut. A city ordinance marked off the "negro district" along boundary lines that to this day define Pleasant City and the adjoining black northwest neighborhood.

Through the Jim Crow decades of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, Pleasant City disappeared from the white press, and official notice of the black community was confined to the police blotter. "That's just the way white folks wanted it," says Paul George, a professor at Miami-Dade Community College. "Segregation meant invisibility."

Clarke remembers Pleasant City in that time as enterprising and largely self-sufficient. "Most people continued to work on Palm Beach, on the big estates and at hotels," she says. "But when they came home, it was a world of our own -- stores, schools, doctors, lawyers -- all black. We didn't have to go outside for anything."

Born on Merritt Island on July 6, 1926, Clarke spent her early youth in Jacksonville, where she lived with an aunt. She spent summers in Pleasant City on her father's farm near the railroad tracks at what is now 19th Street. "Daddy was a preacher," Clarke says. "But we got a lot out of the land. My brothers used to sell fruits and vegetables to whites on the highway. They'd go out at night and get turtle eggs from the beach -- it was legal, then -- they'd sell them too."

Clarke later lived years at a time in Pleasant City, attending the all-black Industrial High School, then Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. In 1944, she moved to Newark, N.J., where she worked at a General Electric plant and commuted to New York City's prestigious academy of performing arts, the Juilliard School. At Juilliard, she studied dance with Martha Graham, Anthony Tudor, Doris Humphrey, and José Limón. "I dreamed of being the first black ballerina at the Met," she says.

In 1951, she met and married Vospher Clarke, an electrical engineer, and they quickly had two daughters, Renee and Frances. Raising a family took precedence, and Everee gave up the stage. When she returned to the arts in 1960, it was as director of the Everee Clarke School of Charm and Dance, in Newark. "It wasn't just about beauty," she says. "We'd had black girls refused at a pageant, so we organized our own, 'Miss Teen,' and took it to schools everywhere. We taught poise and personal development."

Clarke was active politically, working on the New Jersey campaigns of black candidates for city, state, and federal posts. "In Newark, if you swept the steps of city hall, that was political," she says. "With politics and my school, I had so much going on up north...." But Newark decayed in the early 1960s, and in 1965, Clarke moved back to Pleasant City with her two young daughters. "This was home," she says. "It was a better place for the girls."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help