TAMPA — She was 10 years old and living in the shadow of segregation when President John F. Kennedy brought his motorcade of possibilities within two blocks of her North Hyde Park home. That was 45 years ago.
On Nov. 18, 1963, Michelle Brooks followed her sister through the creaking screen door at the back of their house on North A Street and leaped past the steps to the ground. Barefoot, she ran between the cast iron wash tubs dotting the back yard, through the clotheslines and the sugarcane and down the dirt alleyway, past Fuller Street and on to Grand Central Avenue. She squeezed her way in line just as the president, with his promise of better days, rolled by waving.
"President Kennedy was our hope," she says. She's 55 and goes by Michelle Brooks Patty now. "This was the president that was going to help us get recognized as people. We were going to be a country going forward together; no division."
Four days later, the president was dead. The dream sputtered and stalled. And progress depended on your perspective.
Grand Central became Kennedy Boulevard in 1964 — the same year segregation was struck down. The street led straight downtown, where shop owners who could no longer use their "whites only" signs still found ways to let the "colored" know they were not welcome.
African-Americans won the right to vote. "But they sure didn't make it easy," she said. Time passed, her parents died and her sister moved into the family home. Her brother, John C. Brooks, a professional boxer, retired to coaching and bought the house across the street.
Patty married, moved away and became a mother. She became a community activist in the 1980s when the city of Tampa tried to close her daughter's West Tampa Head Start program.
Since then, she has involved herself in numerous racial issues. She helped challenge the all-white Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla and worked to block a museum displaying relics from the Whydah slave ship from coming to Tampa. She became the spiritual adviser to Lisa Wilkins, the mother of two black children killed in an auto accident involving a white teacher.
Some look up to her as a pillar. Some question her motives, saying she is an opportunist looking to drum up publicity for her medical referral business.
Patty says she speaks the truth.
Progress is not trickling down to her community, she says.
Last week after a black man was elected to the White House, Patty was back on North A Street at her brother's house, the only house left standing on the block.
The siblings sat under the stars talking once more about possibilities. At his sister's urging, Coach Brooks, now 62, had voted for the first time on Nov. 4.
Patty views this election as evidence that God is speaking to them: "Look, if I can take Barack Obama, a black man, and put him in as the president of the United States, I can do any and all things.
"Have y'all forgotten that?"