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Tiny Leesburg African-American Museum tells stories long ignored

LEESBURG

Over at the tiny African-American Museum, gray-haired folks grow nostalgic when they talk about Cora Lee Smalley's Southern cooking. Mrs. Smalley cooked for generations of black children at the segregated Lake County Training School. Although she passed away years ago, former students still remember her heavenly ham and her food-for-the-gods fried chicken.

Clifford Smalley, 73, would love to find his mama's recipes for banana pudding and sweet potato pie. He'd hang them on the wall of the museum at 220 Mike St. Hang them right next to the picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the painting of the Tuskegee Airmen. She's part of history, too.

So are a lot of ordinary black Leesburg citizens. Clifford Smalley, for example. He remembers the day he saw the Ku Klux Klan parade down Pine Street. Smalley's memories — and old yearbooks and photographs he has assembled — are part of the modest 1-year-old museum's growing collection.

Then there's Ed Lynum, 78, who has used his woodworking skills to renovate the museum's walls and ceilings. As he hammers, as he saws, he recalls a long career in law enforcement and the times when black policemen had to buy coffee at a restaurant's back door because only whites were permitted inside.

Celestine Strawder-Wright, who will blow out 70 candles on her next birthday cake, drank out of "colored only" water fountains for decades.

As a museum volunteer, she greets visitors and coaxes them to sign the register.

Joyce Jones, who manages the museum in her spare time, dreams of the day she might hire a full-time curator. She's 63 and grew up in poverty. But thanks to the ferocious great-grandmother who raised her, she never felt poor in spirit.

So yes, Dr. King and the Tuskegee Airmen are giants in the world of black history. But in Leesburg and in other small Florida towns, so are many ordinary folks who suffered the indignities and terror of racial oppression without surrendering to despair. At the Leesburg African-American Museum, they are heroes.

• • •

About a mile away, at the corner of 111 S Sixth St., is the Leesburg Heritage Museum.

Older and better funded than the black museum, it celebrates picture-postcard Leesburg, a Norman Rockwell sort of town where grinning white men haul lunker bass out of Lake Harris, pretty white teenage girls squeal in delight at the prospect of being crowned "watermelon queen'' and God-fearing Baptist women in billowing white dresses sit on front porches and sip lemonade.

All those things went on — and still go on — in Leesburg, a charming place.

Of course, the museum does not reflect, nor does it try to reflect, history as older African-Americans experienced it — not only in Leesburg but in much of small-town Florida. "I don't know much about black life here,'' says the manager, Gloriann Fahs, who moved to Leesburg from Virginia. "But I know it's the South and there was a lot of racial prejudice.''

So there is nothing about lynchings or the Klan visible at the Leesburg Heritage Museum. There is no corner in the museum devoted to Sheriff Willis V. McCall, who served Lake County from 1944 to 1972 and had a reputation — fair or otherwise — for brutal racism.

At the African-American Museum, Willis Virgil McCall has his own wall.

"We have nothing against the other museum,'' Joyce Jones says. "But the truth is, nobody can tell our history like we can.''

• • •

Sheriff McCall once arrested Clifford Smalley.

Smalley was a young man home on leave from the Air Force. He went to a dance. There was a fight. As patrons filed out, the sheriff and his deputies began rounding up young black men.

Clifford Smalley, caught in the sweep, remembers telling the sheriff, "I wasn't part of that fight.'' But he was arrested and carted off to jail with the others.

Bad things sometimes happened to black people in the sheriff's custody in the 1950s. Waiting in jail, Smalley remembered old stories.

In 1949, two black men had been arrested, convicted of rape and sentenced to death in Lake County. In 1951, the Florida Supreme Court, citing racism at the first trial, ordered another.

Sheriff McCall picked up the prisoners at a North Florida prison and headed back to Lake County. On the way to a pretrial hearing, McCall fatally shot one suspect and wounded the other. McCall claimed he fired in self-defense during an escape attempt. The surviving suspect said nobody tried to escape — it was cold-blooded murder. McCall was cleared by a subsequent investigation; in the retrial, the surviving prisoner was found guilty by an all-white jury and returned to prison.

The outraged director of Florida's NAACP, Harry T. Moore, told reporters that McCall should be indicted for murder. Six weeks later, on Christmas night, a bomb exploded under Moore's house. Moore and his wife were killed. No one was ever arrested.

Ten years later, the notorious sheriff walked into young Clifford Smalley's jail cell.

"Sheriff, I didn't fight," is how Smalley remembers the conversation. "And I'm in the Air Force. I'm supposed to be back at the base on Monday. If I'm not I'll get into trouble.''

McCall knew Smalley's mother, the famous cook at the all-black school. Clifford Smalley was released. Now, six decades later at the Leesburg African-American Museum, he has a story to tell.

• • •

Ed Lynum's boyhood house during the Depression had a cardboard ceiling. "Sometimes corn snakes fell on you when you were asleep,'' he says. "We didn't kill the corn snakes because they were up in the ceiling eating the rats.''

It could have been worse.

"At least we never went hungry. We grew our own greens. We made our own syrup from sugar cane. We slaughtered 15 hogs in December and ate everything but the hair during the year. We caught bream, bass and specks and ate 'em for supper. We kids gathered Spanish moss all day and sold it to a mattress factory for 75 cents. Then we could go to the movies. Cost 10 cents to go to the movies. Popcorn was a nickel. Our people had to sit in the balcony.''

His dad was black, his mother white. Sheriff's deputies routinely stopped their car and asked why they were together. To avoid problems, Ed's mother sometimes sat in the back seat while her husband drove — wearing a chauffeur's cap.

In Korea, Ed Lynum served as a military policeman. After the service he joined the police force in a small town near Leesburg called Wildwood.

White residents sometimes addressed him as "boy.'' When he retired three decades later, he was police chief. Six of his children became teachers. One is a nurse. One served in the FBI. One is a lawyer in Leesburg.

• • •

Clifford Smalley thought he was through with Leesburg. After the Air Force, he became a mail carrier, got married and lived in New York. He moved to a progressive city, San Francisco, and worked decades with struggling kids at the YMCA.

Eleven years ago he was widowed.

He moved back to Leesburg because of the fishing and old friendships. He can sit at any lunch counter, drink out of any water fountain, go to the movies and sit wherever he wants.

"I don't think young black people really comprehend or appreciate what my generation had to go through to make a lot of things possible for them,'' he says.

They watched a black man become the president. Chances are they will never watch a Klan rally.

"That happened when Roosevelt ran for president for the last time, in 1944. The Klan paraded through the black part of town, on Pine Street. It was their way of telling us to stay home and not vote.''

At the time of the Klan march, Smalley was a second-grader who looked up to a young soldier from the neighborhood, Julius West, a combat veteran. In Leesburg, home on leave, West was refused entry to Nick's Restaurant.

• • •

Sometimes — and this is hard to explain — Joyce Jones misses the bad old days.

Not the racism, of course, or the fear of violence. She misses the close-knit black community that seemed to unravel after integration.

"We had our own stores, our own restaurants, our own schools,'' she says. "Everybody knew everybody else. You couldn't misbehave. If you did, somebody else on the block would report you or discipline you. I kind of miss that part.''

When Joyce's mother was struggling and when her father disappeared, her great-grandmother, Rebecca Sarah Ann Elizabeth Louisa Rhodes Richardson, gave her a home. "She was of medium build, very black, with African features,'' Joyce says. "Born, I think, in 1887. She was not one of those 'Come over here and give Grandma a hug' kind of grandmothers. She was very stern. She had high standards for me. She expected me to do well in school, go to church on Sunday and to help with chores.

"She did menial jobs in the white community but had a lot of dignity. She always told me, 'Just because you're poor doesn't mean you're not as good as anybody else.'

"My grandmother was strict. I wasn't allowed to listen to radio because I might hear what she called 'the devil's music.' Only when I was a teenager and moved back with my mother did I hear Sam Cooke and Chuck Berry on the radio.''

Celestine Strawder-Wright grew up in a traditional household. Her dad managed a crew of black men who picked watermelon. Her mother cleaned for a white family. Celestine remembers her first doll, a hand-me-down from her mother's white employer. "The doll had a soft body but a white face,'' Celestine says with a sigh. "I never had a black doll."

Joyce Jones did. She made it out of weeds.

"You'd pick a weed. Let it dry out a little. Then you'd stuff it, green-side first, into a pop bottle, with the dry roots sticking out. You braided the roots like they were black hair. I loved my weed dolls."

• • •

The African-American Museum, a former church parsonage, is next to a beauty parlor and a barbershop. The smell of barbecue floats through the air. Across the street, a pit bull on a chain barks menacingly at people ambling by on the sidewalk.

The old friends — Joyce Jones, Celestine Strawder-Wright, Ed Lynum and Clifford Smalley — gather inside.

In the corner, there's an ironing board and one of those impossibly heavy old-fashioned irons used by generations of black women who worked as laundresses or maids in white Leesburg. Nearby are rusty farm tools of the sort employed by black men who toiled in the orange groves and the watermelon fields and lived in terror that they might, for some reason, attract the attention of the sheriff.

Willis T. McCall died in 1994.

Newspaper stories about him hang from the wall. Many young black Floridians in Lake County know nothing about the sheriff.

If they visit the museum, they will.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727. His latest book is "Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators.''

If you go: The Leesburg African-American Museum, at 220 Mike St., is currently open only by appointment. Call (352) 314-8868.

Tiny Leesburg African-American Museum tells stories long ignored 04/23/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 23, 2010 7:26pm]

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