Published Articles by Doris Weatherford

Swimming Pools

August 14, 2017

It will take a while to get to swimming pools because that needs a lot of context, so please hang in. You may remember that I’ve said I’m cleaning my study. I’ll be doing that for months. In lieu of writing another book this year, I’m going through files and boxes with the aim of throwing out dust-and-mold collectors. Most is old research material and much of it now is available on the internet, so lots of paper goes into the recycling bin.

Yet I host daily debates with myself about what to keep – and the most ambivalence comes when I discover something I never used. This also can be delightful, as I love reading the unfamiliar. That actually happens quite often, and I don’t think it’s a sign of senility but instead information overload. For years now, I’ve had the experience of reading something I wrote and saying to myself, “I didn’t know that.”

Such memory disappearance again appeared last week when I opened a packet from Dr. Gary Mormino, my friend at USF St. Pete. Gary has sent things that he knows would interest me for decades. I already had pitched the envelope when I got around to really reading its content, so I don’t know when he sent this transcript from the National Archives. It was the written record of an audio record in 1971 of an interview with Dr. Carita Doggett Corse of Jacksonville. A generation earlier, she had headed the Federal Writers Project (FWP) here in Florida. She was one of very few women to hold such a position, but she had the credentials and was hired – despite being a married woman with three children. She did an exceptional job, and Florida probably had the nation’s best FWP branch.

The FWP was designed to provide employment to white-collar workers, and most states took this opportunity to publish tourist guides. Some delved deeper into history and sociology. Rather surprisingly, Southern states showed the most progressive attitudes, as project directors hired writers to interview elderly African Americans who had grown up in slavery. These “slave narratives” ultimately made up seventeen large volumes of typescript. Unfortunately, they were largely neglected until after the civil rights movement a generation later.

Florida’s FWP not only produced slave narratives and books with good photographs, but went further by holding public expositions of drama and dance, as well as making phonographic recordings of diverse music, including that of Seminoles and African Americans. The person most responsible for the latter was Zora Neale Hurston, a Floridian who was the first African-American woman to graduate from New York’s prestigious Barnard College; she went on to work directly with Columbia’s Franz Boas, who is considered the founder of the field of anthropology. Although Hurston died in poverty, her Florida-based novels now are mandatory reading in many college courses. If you don’t know Zora, google her.

Swimming Pools, Part Two

In the days of segregation, nothing was more forbidden than for the races to be in the same water. When the Navy trained men to swim during World War II, federal officials had to fight with local ones to gain access to the ocean around Miami for African-American sailors. In the long coastline of our state, only a few beaches -- mostly in swampy or rocky places – could be used by blacks. Many traveled hundreds of miles to American Beach near Jacksonville, the only desirable place where they could swim in peace.

Swimming pools in cities were even more improbable. In the late 1960s, Hubby and I lived in a (private) Virginia apartment complex near the Pentagon; it was integrated while we lived there, but only because the military was so key to the local economy that it could insist on a non-discriminatory rental policy. Yet I never saw an African American enter the pool. That was prior to air-conditioning, and I’m sure some wanted to swim in the cool water, but I suspect they chose not to bring on conflict. I regret to say that I never thought about their absence at the pool. We also used a pool on federal land, at Fort Meade, Maryland, where my brother-in-law was stationed, and in retrospect, I’m sure that pool also never was shared by the two races.

In Florida, there was less attention to pools than to beaches. On July 4, 1961, Eula Gandy Johnson made national news, including a photo in the then-popular Look magazine, when she encouraged black teenagers to “wade in” to the Atlantic. The City of Fort Lauderdale sued her, and even though the courts ruled in her favor, she – a widow with three children to support -- suffered loss to her businesses. But others followed her lead with “swim-ins,” modeled on the era’s lunch-counter “sit-ins.” And that brings us back to Carita Doggett Corse and Zora Neale Hurston.

A Decade Makes a Difference – And Yet

Again, please forgive me for beginning with an aside – but asides are context. To explain, the National Archives preserved a double-spaced typeset of the conversation between Dr. Corse and Dr. Robert Emory Hemenway, a white Kentuckian who was the first literary scholar to show any interest in Hurston’s work. The 1971 interview was in Corse’s Jacksonville home and barely a decade after Hurston’s 1960 death. I like the way the transcript reveals real talk and will quote it as such. But, for context: (1) Then as now, academic experts often are jealous of each other; (2) people often give themselves credit for something they didn’t do (or at least didn’t do publicly enough for anyone to know at the time); and (3) still other people are proud to remain behind their times. All of that is between the lines when Hemingway (REH) asked Corse (CDC) if a man named Theodore Pratt had worked for the FWP:

CDC: “No, but he’s one person who gave us credit. He used our files in Miami freely and he gave us credit for it. And he was a very… Well, we had him up here one time and it was the funniest meeting. I don’t know… It hasn’t anything to do with Zora, so if you don’t want it…”

REH: “It’s okay. Go ahead.”

CDC: “He said he was writing a series on cities, American cities, and he’d selected Jacksonville. So this Jacksonville historical society – I was on the board – decided to get him up here and set him straight on Jacksonville, tell him everything we knew. And they were all native born people. So we had him out to this dinner party…and [someone] said, ‘I fought so hard for the Negro swimming pools. At that time there were only white pools [and] I fought so hard for the blacks to get one of their own that people began to think I was colored.’ And he had no idea that Theodore Pratt would put that in the article, but when he did, this man’s wife wouldn’t let him come home for a week. Anytime somebody saw him on the street they started laughing. He said, ‘I hid whenever I saw anybody I knew.’ But it just gives you an idea of the passage of time. Now of course all the pools are open, except the club pools. They’re still closed.”

I’m not sure exactly what Corse meant by “club pools,” but presumably country clubs. The only other category of “clubs” that offered swimming pools that I can think of are the YMCAs and YWCAs – but both were leaders on racial integration as far back as World War I. Country clubs, of course, operate in a completely different world. Condos were a new concept in 1971, and some were exclusionary. Even in the 1990s, I recall a beautiful friend with olive skin and dark hair – a throwback to her grandfather’s Mediterranean heritage -- who was chastised for using the pool at her parents’ Pinellas condo. But after the complainer realized that her husband was a physician, all was fine. Free medical advice overcame racism.

One Thing Leads to Another

I’m embarrassed to admit that the above-mentioned Theodore Pratt meant nothing to me, so I went to USF’s excellent electronic catalog. Have I said lately how grateful I am that I don’t have to get dressed, drive to school, hunt down an expensive parking place, and then stumble around the big library looking for the dozens of informative items that turn up when I simply enter a name on my computer here at home? Wonderful, wonderful. Thanks to all librarians and also to Betty Castor, who promoted the digitized catalog when she was USF’s president. And to the late Mary Lou Harkness, the super-librarian who was one of four initial USF employees.

It turns out that Theodore Pratt wrote some thirty novels, several of which were set in Florida – and two of his five novels that became movies were based in Florida. As indicated above, he also wrote non-fiction magazine articles, and USF Special Collections has a lot of the research materials he used for background. Although I didn’t recognize his name, I quickly recognized several titles, including the most famous, The Barefoot Mailman (1943). It features a postal carrier who didn’t wear shoes on his sandy coastal Atlantic route. I also came to understand why the Jacksonville historical society viewed Pratt as an outsider: Born in Minneapolis in 1901, he was educated in New York, and he and his wife (whose maiden name was French) lived in Europe before settling in Lake Worth in 1934.

His first Florida-based book was Big Blow (1936), a novel set in the 1928 hurricane; it later was made into a play under the Federal Theater Project. (I’m not going to study it, but I wonder how you produce hurricane gales and rain on a 1930s stage?) New York’s prestigious Knopf published Mercy Island, based in the Keys, in 1941. Like almost every other author in America, Pratt wrote something related to World War II during the 1940s: Mr. Winkle Goes to War (1943) came out as a film starring Edward G. Robinson. I also want to read The Flame Tree (1950), which is set at Palm Beach’s Royal Poinciana Hotel, and The Big Bubble (1951), about Florida’s inflated real estate boom in the 1920s.

So now I have a whole new reading list. I also have a suggestion for someone with the ability to donate. The USF Library should be able to hire the interns needed to keep its e-catalog updated. Many of Pratt’s entries have his birth date, but not his 1969 death date -- with the implication is that he is alive at age 116.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.


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