Can Live Oak Overcome Its History of Racism?

I grew up in Live Oak, Florida, and go back to visit my family several times a year. My roots in the community run deep. That’s why the racism experienced by the group of high school students and their chaperones at an Econo Lodge in my hometown, a story that has gone viral on social media, is so painful. The account given by the group from Flint, Michigan, who were on a college tour, details being called “n*ggers,” told to stay in their rooms, and expelled from the property at the earliest possible moment. They weren’t causing any disturbances that would have warranted this type of treatment. What is worse, local law enforcement, when called to the scene, sided with the motel owners and demonstrated tacit support for the manager’s racist attitudes.

These students, many of whom are more than likely descendants of black Southerners who fled places like Live Oak and settled in places like Flint, Michigan, during the Great Migration of the early 20th century in order to escape the twin scourges of lynching and Jim Crow. Now, decades later, as these students are considering bringing their talents to Florida to matriculate at one of the states Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), they are confronted by a 21st century specter of racism.

While the despicable, racist behavior of the Econo Lodge managers in Live Oak is their own burden to bear, this incident gives the citizens and leaders in Live Oak the chance to take a public stance against racism. Such a statement would go a long way in protecting the image of the town from the storm of attention that is falling on them. There also needs to be some investigation into the Sheriff’s Department and the manner in which the law enforcement officer who came to the scene acquiesced to the mistreatment that the lodgers were experiencing, confirming that “they just don’t like your kind here.”

The incident pains me but I’m not surprised. There are many wonderful and caring people in Live Oak. I credit my educational success to the dedicated cadre of teachers—nearly all of them white—who taught in Suwannee County’s public schools. I had many interracial friendships during my time there, many that I still treasure, but those relationships would have been impossible for my parents and grandparents during their day. However, I learned my first hard lessons about the racism as a kindergartener in a dance class while growing up in Live Oak. It is a memory that, even decades later, still stings. The pain inflicted on me by another child my age was just an exercise in her welding the racism that had been taught to her by her parents. Racism is insidious that way.

Prejudice showed up in a real way when as I was preparing to graduate in the spring of 1993. For the first time in the county’s history, two African Americans earned the distinctions of valedictorian and salutatorian. They were good friends of mine and our entire community was proud of them. Imagine our dismay when, weeks after the initially announcement had been made, the administrators announced a “recalculation” that now meant we would have “shared honors” in each category, as two whites were slated to receive the same designations. The students, especially the African-American seniors that year, were dismayed and disappointed. There were even rumors that the Ku Klux Klan was planning to attend our graduation in their regalia, although that didn’t materialize. I started college that fall at Florida A&M University, a historically black college in Tallahassee, grateful to leave the fog of racism that clouded my last few months in Live Oak for an arena in which I could be certain that I would be judged by my merits and not the color of my skin.

It was at FAMU that I began to fully understand the legacy of Jim Crow and racism for the first time in my life. It was in one of my history classes that I learned that a young boy, Willie James Howard, had been lynched in Live Oak in 1944 for passing a note to a white girl. At first, I couldn’t believe my ears, but researching that story led me to a career as a historian. It has only been in the last ten years, led by the efforts of Douglas Udell, that the black community in Live Oak has been able to publically acknowledge the life and murder of Willie James Howard.

There are other signs that Live Oak was ready to acknowledge the sins of its past, most notably in the retelling of the story of Ruby McCollum, an African-American woman who shot and killed Leroy Adams, a prominent white doctor and state senator. The two had been intimately involved for years; McCollum had already given birth to one mixed race child and was carrying another when she murdered Adams. The explosive nature of the situation—a tale of interracial sex, infidelity (both parties were married), and murder—scandalized the town. The story, however, has been the subject of a scholarly book, two documentaries over the last few years, as well as being the subject of an episode of A Crime to Remember on the Discover ID channel this past November. After years of silence, I have been glad to see the citizens and leadership in Live Oak began to grapple with, or at least to acknowledge, these painful incidents.

Despite these promising signs of dealing with the legacy of racism in Live Oak’s past, a great deal of racial tension lies just beneath the surface of the town’s pleasant veneer. Rumors of unequal hiring practices in the school system have exploded into public confrontations last year, as well as a controversy involving alleged racism in the treatment of a black male high school student. On the other hand, a reinvigorated NAACP recently hosted Martin Luther King III in Live Oak, signaling that there are forces on the ground willing to fight for racial equality and civil rights in Suwannee County.

Despite this unfortunate headline, I still have hope for my hometown. I am glad that city officials have come out against this behavior, although more than lip service is needed to demonstrate that the Live Oak of the 21stcentury is a place that rejects racism in all its forms. The Choice Hotel Chain should do the same. I pray that the black citizens of Live Oak and across the state of Florida will unite and take a stand in opposition to such treatment. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, a great deal of wrong is often supported by “the appalling silence of good people.”