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A Southern Belle in Black and White

The last vestige of the Old South may be an ability to ignore racism when its presence is about as clear as Kentucky moonshine. And, perhaps, as potent.

Even after decades of civil rights activism, the Southern sentiment of paternalism and discrimination has never really died, particularly in a few geographically remote pockets. There is one such Florida locale 40 miles west of West Palm Beach in the swampy Palm Beach County city of Belle Glade. Here the Old South may be aged, but some say it's still alive, thriving even, as an ingrained part of this isolated town's culture. A handful of residents, however, are in federal court attempting to bring Dixie down once and for all.

"I thought it was the Old South, and I'll tell you I had a couple of graduate students working with me who said the same thing," observes Richard Scher, a political science professor and Southern historian at the University of Florida, who plowed through 100 years' worth of minutes from Belle Glade City Commission and housing authority meetings on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union. "I had the distinct impression that the clock had stopped in about 1950, and Belle Glade was stuck there."

Perhaps no one knows this pre-civil rights era mentality better than Albert Peterson, one of roughly 1600 farm workers who live in a low-income housing project called Okeechobee Center, which is located on the outskirts of town. Three years ago Peterson, along with several neighbors and black city leaders, filed a lawsuit against the city in the U.S. District Court. The suit alleges the City of Belle Glade has discriminated against the mostly black Okeechobee residents by repeatedly refusing to annex the project. Last year, a federal court judge ruled that the court doesn't have the authority to force the city to annex property. But the plaintiffs have appealed and expect to have a decision within the next 60 days. The decision could herald a turning point in Belle Glade politics. If the court rules in the plaintiff's favor and forces the city to annex the housing project, it could also mean the end of the city's white-dominated power structure.

The 50-year-old Okeechobee project is a circular maze of pastel-colored brick and concrete houses, which are completely unadorned by landscaping, decorative fixtures, or architectural design. But the houses are safe, adequately constructed, inexpensive, and therefore attractive places to live for the residents who can afford the $83-a-week rent for a four-bedroom home. But because the project happens to be located immediately outside the Belle Glade city limits, Peterson and his neighbors may neither vote nor run for city office. Worse yet the housing project, which is almost exclusively rented by blacks, is owned and managed by the Belle Glade Housing Authority, a seven-member board, which is almost exclusively white and is appointed by the five Belle Glade city commissioners.

The authority board is comprised of wealthy landowners who employ the Okeechobee residents as farm laborers. The board decides how much rent to charge Okeechobee residents, how to provide them with sewage, and how to maintain the homes. The city, meanwhile, determines the amount of each resident's monthly water bill. Two years ago the city decided to continue its tradition of placing a walloping 50 percent surcharge on water customers who live outside the city. Dave Wood, the city finance director, said he could find no record of the city's original decision to tack on the surcharge, but he indicated the charge is based on basic finances. In simplest terms, he says, it costs 50 percent more to send water outside the city.

Peterson grumbles about the preposterous rate hikes, but, like his neighbors on the outskirts, he mails his check to the city. Of course he can complain at city commission meetings. And he often does. But why should commissioners listen? Peterson is not a resident. So he can't vote in city elections.

One recent evening, as the sun set over the sugar cane fields and no-see-ums swirled in the muggy Lake Okeechobee air, Peterson, still in work clothes that smelled of earth and sweat, offered a brief lesson in how politics have worked in Belle Glade for as long as he can remember: "It's all about keeping power," explains Peterson. "They know it would be a big shift if this was to be put inside the city limits. It's about control."

Belle Glade has roughly 5000 voters, divided along racial and geographic lines. As of March, for only the third time in Belle Glade history, two black members sit on the five-person city commission. There have never been three. If the residents win the suit and the three-member panel of judges forces Belle Glade to annex the development, 900 black voters will be added to the mix. Okeechobee residents, Peterson reasons, can elect city commissioners who will appoint housing authority members who keep residents' interests in mind.

"You ever hear that old saying 'taxation without representation?' he asks rhetorically. "It's the same kind of concept."

It's been that way since 1947, when the authority board of trustees was established, ten years after the federal government paid for the construction of the Okeechobee Center along with a second project for white farm workers called Osceola. By 1960 Okeechobee had become notorious, a putrid symbol for what was wrong with America's farming industry, when CBS broadcast the classic Edward R. Murrow documentary "Harvest of Shame." The program chronicled the lives of Belle Glade farmers and migrant workers and showed footage of children in disease-ridden, rat-infested camps on the Okeechobee property.

A year later residents of Osceola, the all-white camp, decided they wanted police protection from the City of Belle Glade and requested annexation. The city unanimously approved the request. According to the lawsuit, Belle Glade annexed more than 85 parcels of white-owned land during the next three decades. But even as the housing authority brought Okeechobee to livable standards, the city ignored requests for annexation and forced residents there to pay for city services. To the well-entrenched city politicians -- even those who have been in politics since the days of "Harvest of Shame" -- the residents' plight is of little concern.

"The housing authority was not created as a corporation for the benefit of the tenants," asserts the city's attorney, John Baker, a 36-year Belle Glade resident with a Southern accent and down-home drawl.

Besides, even if the city wanted to annex the land it couldn't, notes Mayor Steve Weeks. The property adds nothing to the city tax rolls, and annexation would cost the city several hundred thousand dollars because the city would have to provide police protection. The mayor also contends that state law, which requires that annexed land border the town, prohibits the Okeechobee annexation. Residents insist the land borders Belle Glade, the city argues it does not, and the matter will be decided in court.

But even assuming the validity of Weeks' arguments, he and Belle Glade's powers that be have already convinced themselves that Okeechobee residents have adequate representation. As Weeks points out, state law requires at least one member of the seven-person authority board to be a project resident.

And this person is... ?
"I believe... it's a lady," Weeks stammered after rattling off the names of five other board members. "Ask Fritz. I'd be guessing."

Fritz -- Fritz Stein, that is -- is a lifelong Belle Glade resident and farm owner, a vice president on the board of the powerful Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, and a member of the Belle Glade Housing Authority board since 1967. He refused to comment for this story.

The tenant representative, however, is 59-year-old Mildred Thornton, a retired farm worker and also a lifelong Belle Glade resident. Thornton believes she does a fine job representing Okeechobee residents, although she has no particular experience qualifying her to serve on the board.

Thornton joined the board in 1987, when the then-mayor of Belle Glade knocked on her door and invited her. Until that day she had never even met the mayor. And as he banged on her front door that afternoon, she had no idea who he was. Thornton's evident lack of political expertise and savvy has led at least one political observer to question her ability to fight for Okeechobee rights.

"She just sits there," observes Peterson. "I told her she could be the most powerful person on the board because you have the people behind you. She told me, 'I don't know what's going on half the time.' Those are her words. What kind of representation is that?"

For his part, however, Weeks is convinced that Okeechobee residents are well represented by the authority and by Thornton, whose name he could not recall. "I think the people who are on that board look out for the people in the housing development," Weeks insists. "And they do a darn good job.

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Michael Freedman

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