Death and Doubts

Ray Golden's hanging was a national curiosity. Maybe his legacy will be social justice.

Although Cohen ruled Ray's death a suicide and state law enforcers probed additional leads with no success, black people continue to believe that Ray was lynched. In an attempt to end the controversy, police even took the unprecedented step of distributing a five-page report describing the findings of state investigators to local businesses.

It didn't work.

Recently, a man about Ray's age standing under a shade tree on SW Sixth Street near where Ray used to hang out retrieved a copy of the report from his pickup truck. "They tryin' to downplay this thing," he said, clutching the report. "There's some fishy shit going on."

A.B. Burch and Ray Golden's father, Jackie, study their domino moves on the side of Bobby's Market in southwest Belle Glade.
A.B. Burch and Ray Golden's father, Jackie, study their domino moves on the side of Bobby's Market in southwest Belle Glade.
The rumor in Belle Glade is that police Lt. Curtis Stambaugh (left) had Ray Golden lynched for dating his daughter, Judi (above).
Colby Katz
The rumor in Belle Glade is that police Lt. Curtis Stambaugh (left) had Ray Golden lynched for dating his daughter, Judi (above).

Belle Glade is a tiny city of 14,900 people surrounded by thousands of acres of sugar cane. Situated on the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee, it's 44 miles from West Palm Beach and a world from the swanky gated communities, high-toned mansions, and stylish shopping enclaves of urban Palm Beach County. In Belle Glade, even a trip to a mall or a night at the movies requires an expedition east.

People in Belle Glade are proud of two things: the success of the football team and the richness of the soil. They grow athletes, people say, just like they grow sugar cane in the surrounding fields. Glades Central Community High School has won the state football championship five times, most recently in 2000.

Locals call the soil "muck" or "black gold." It's the color of crumbled deep chocolate, the result of centuries of plants rotting on the bottom of the swampy water that sloshed over Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades before the big lake was dammed. At entranceways to Belle Glade, signs boast, "Her Soil Is Her Fortune." If you spit on it, something will grow, people say.

But the town has received more attention for its horrendous work conditions and rampant AIDS infection rate than for the bounty of its soil or its phenomenal athletes. The world discovers Belle Glade, people complain, when something goes wrong. The rest of the time, even Palm Beach County forgets its town is there.

Edward R. Murrow drew a shocking portrait of Belle Glade's African-American farm laborers in the 1960 CBS documentary Harvest of Shame. In the 1980s, Belle Glade again gained national notoriety as the city with the highest AIDS rate in America. Teams refused to play the Glades Central Raiders for fear they'd catch the disease.

Now the death of Feraris Rayshon Golden has again brought national attention to Belle Glade. He has become a symbol of everything wrong with being black in Belle Glade. "Even with the remote possibility that this man's death was a suicide, you have to ask what created the conditions that someone would be so psychologically ill that he would take his own life," Martin Luther King III says.

Just a few blocks west of Main Street, the town's black community is a bleak terrain where row after row of three-story, long, rectangular apartment buildings sit on sandy litter-strewn lots. Some of the buildings look as though desperation has shattered them from the inside out. The glass is broken out of windows, leaving squares of dark emptiness where life should be. Graffiti covers grimy walls.

The occupied buildings don't look much better, but there are signs of life scraping along. Laundry is draped across railings like colorful flags, and doors are flung open to catch the fresh air in apartments with no air conditioning. In many of these places, the bathroom facilities are shared.

The standard of living is deplorable. The average wage among Belle Glades' blacks, who make up more than half the population, is less than $9,000 a year. More than 43 percent live in poverty. Many are employed in agriculture, trying to eke by a year on a season's pay. The average wage for whites, on the other hand, is $21,000.

Signs touting the fecundity of the soil anger Cartheda Mann. Her family settled in Belle Glade in 1929, the year after the city was founded, and opened a black-owned funeral home that is still in business. "It should read, 'Her Soil Is Her Prison,'" says Mann, a retired schoolteacher and secretary of the Glades Area Branch of the NAACP. "If we focus on the soil, we are focusing on great wealth for a small number of people. It enslaves the majority of her people."

A lot of people knew Ray Golden in the area. At the School of Choice in nearby Pahokee, which is designed for students who need academic help, he was known as a class clown. For homecoming one year, he dressed disco-fab -- platform shoes, bell-bottoms, the works. Like many African-Americans in Belle Glade, he never finished the coursework necessary for his diploma, retired School of Choice Principal Antoine Russell says. About one in three people over age 25 in Belle Glade has less than a ninth-grade education.

When he was 18 years old, Ray was sweet on a 14-year-old Pahokee girl, Chanta Smith. Her grandmother, Louizie Smith, wasn't too happy about the romance, especially when Chanta became pregnant at age 16. The couple's first child, Feraris Shuray, was born in December 1991. Ray was a charming funny kid, Louizie says, with a little of the bad boy in him. "He was one of the boys out on the street," Louizie adds. "[Chanta] was attracted to that. Girls are."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help