Fifty Years After a Pompano Beach Riot, Police Shootings Illuminate Racial Tensions
Pompano Beach residents protested a fatal police shooting this past fall.
Antonia Noori Farzan
On a hot summer day in June 1966, Norman Wade was shopping in the Russ Supermarket in Pompano Beach when the store's owner reached out and slapped him. Wade, who's black, was 10 years old. The store owner was white.
Racial change was in the air; two years earlier, the Freedom Summer had galvanized the civil rights movement. The year before, Martin Luther King Jr. had led the Selma-to-Montgomery March. And in Pompano Beach that day, a slap inside a supermarket sparked hours of rioting on the streets of the sleepy beach town.
Fifty years later, not too many people in South Florida remember that summer's violence. Arthur Marks, the store owner, is apparently long gone. Norman Wade has passed away. Russ Supermarket has been replaced by a weedy vacant lot where roosters peck.
Across the street, outside the Next Level Barber Shop, no one in a group of Pompano Beach natives in their 30s and 40s recalls hearing about the riot. "Maybe try the old guys who hang out down by the food store," one suggests.
Farther down Martin Luther King Boulevard — which in 1966 was known as Hammondville Road — a handful of graying men sit in an open lot on folding chairs under a shade tree. They remember a bit more.
"Pompano was on a curfew for about a damn month," says Willie, who is 67 and wearing a 82nd Airborne Division cap from his Army days. "We had to be in the house at 9 o'clock — that's what I remember."
"You're in a black neighborhood and you slap a black kid... We didn't like that," says James, a heavyset 57-year-old in painter's clothes.
The riot might be ancient history, but both men are still hesitant to give their last names. "?'Don't open up old wounds,' that's what people will say," James explains. "I still have to live here."
Compared to the Watts riots, which took place in Los Angeles the year before, or the McDuffie riots that would erupt in Miami 14 years later, the Pompano Beach uprising was relatively small and short-lived. But it's more relevant than ever after a year that saw racial tension rise around both the United States and Pompano Beach, where Gregory "Clyde" Frazier, a 56-year-old black man eating chicken wings in his backyard, was fatally shot by Broward Sheriff's Office deputies.
The largely forgotten story of the 1966 riot, activists and historians say, suggests how Frazier's death wasn't an isolated incident but rather the latest injustice in a long line faced by the black community in this city of 100,000 just north of Fort Lauderdale.
"There's nothing new under the sun when it comes to the relationship between people of color and the police," says Shay Chery, a local activist who has been campaigning for police reform.
That history begins at the first half of the 20th Century, when Pompano Beach was nicknamed "the Bean Capital of the World." Black migrant laborers whose parents had been slaves came from all over the South to work as sharecroppers, working long days in the hot sun for poverty wages. They lived in cramped houses that often lacked running water, on the less desirable side of town farther from the beaches.
"There was a man by the name of Mr. Jones who would drive around in his truck, picking up kids on their way to school, and take them out to work in the bean fields," says Chris Williams, a 42-year-old Pompano Beach native. "That's how come my daddy never learned to read."
Sarahca Peterson, a poet and activist who grew up in Pompano Beach, adds, "Most blacks worked the bean fields, kept their heads down, and didn't cross Dixie. Those people who decided to send their kids to school rather than to the fields were harassed by other blacks for thinking they were better. It was programming, to a T."
When developers paved over the fields to build tract housing in the 1950s and '60s, some migrant workers decided to stay and get jobs in the tourism industry, and quickly found there was little room for upward mobility. Jobs listed under "Help Wanted — Colored" in the Palm Beach Post were usually only for dishwashers, laundry attendants, or cooks.
By June 1966, the town was poised for racial unrest.
The trigger came when Marks slapped Wade. An angry crowd gathered outside the store, leading Marks to ask for police protection when he closed. That's when residents took to the streets, smashing store windows and throwing rocks and bottles. The next morning, business owners rushed to board up their stores as more fights broke out.
"No matter what they tell you, not everything is OK in a colored town," Congressman Alcee Hastings, then a young attorney, told an Associated Press reporter. "When you have people living in squalor and seething desperation... you have the exact situation they have in Watts."
One resident, W.K. Johnson, whom the AP described as "a slum-born Negro," further explained that the riot was "a rebellion against conditions." Police harassment was endemic in the black section of Pompano Beach, he complained. "You can't realize the indignities forced on the Negro by a few bigots on the force."
City officials apparently learned little from the rioting. The city manager blamed the disturbance on out-of-town agitators, and the city quashed all protest by importing at least 150 police officers from seven agencies. The Florida Star, a black newspaper based in Jacksonville, reported that black men who played no part in the riots were being beaten with clubs, and women were dragged from their homes and arrested. In total, 27 people ended up facing charges.
Marks was fined $25 — $185 in today's dollars — and closed the store after the incident. The building was later torn down. And life in Pompano Beach went on.
In 2006, Norman Wade died. His passing was marked by just a two-line notice in the Sun Sentinel, noting he was 49 years old. No one seemed to remember he had once been at the center of a civil disturbance that briefly forced the city to confront its racial division.
"He was good people," James says of Wade, who was known on the streets as "Cooter" because he was openly gay — a relative rarity in Pompano Beach, which in many ways is still an old Southern town. "All of us accepted him. Cooter was liked by everybody. He didn't have any enemies."
Today, Pompano Beach is still divided along racial lines, with the majority of black residents living on the northwest side of town in faded pastel concrete-block houses. On Martin Luther King Boulevard, corner stores with bars on the windows alternate with dusty vacant lots. Nearly 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
Many of the problems that boiled over in 1966 — particularly relations between a mostly white police force and the roughly 30 percent of residents who are black — were never really addressed. And they reemerged in a big way this summer thanks to a fatal shooting.
Frazier was drunk and acting rowdy early in the evening September 9. His sister called the police, but by the time BSO officers arrived, his family says, he'd already calmed down and was eating chicken in the backyard.
For reasons that are still unclear, the deputies opened fire. The incident report shows that less than a minute had elapsed between the time they'd arrived on the property and the time they shot Frazier dead. "I never would have called the cops if I'd known this was going to happen," his sister, Deborah Frazier, told New Times. "They just came in and started shooting right away."
The killing made national headlines as the Black Lives Matter movement focused attention on police violence against blacks. But Pompano Beach's black residents had known all about the problem long before Frazier's death.
In the days and weeks that followed Frazier's killing, Pompano Beach residents once again took to the streets — this time to peacefully protest police violence. But several months have passed with no answers about what happened. The deputies who fired the fatal shots are still on paid leave.
"Everything is still eggshells and hair triggers," Chery says. "The conditions haven't changed; they just look like they have."
The old-timers sitting and chatting in the lot off MLK Boulevard agree that little has improved in the 50 years between Wade's slap and Frazier's shooting. "No, not really," Willie says. "White gon' be white. Black gon' be black."
A man with short dreadlocks and a black hooded sweatshirt walks over. His name is Matthew Mosley, and he's 60 years old — the same age Norman Wade would be if he were alive today.
"That wasn't right," he says. "That man slapped that boy for nothing. But a lot of things like that happen here. They shot that guy over there, Clyde. He was my friend. I saw him that morning, and that night he was gone. A lot of things like that happen in Pompano."
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