Hysteria is gone, but AIDS still infects psyche of farming town in south Florida

July 05, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

BELLE GLADE, Fla. -- Isaac Fulton, a 28-year-old truck driver, pulls the blue document out of his wallet and smiles like he's just won the lottery. It's the result of his AIDS test: negative.

"This is Belle Glade," said Mr. Fulton, standing near a ramshackle building known as "the AIDS apartments" because nearly everyone who lives there has the disease. "I wanted to be sure."

Six years ago, as the nation struggled to understand the mysteries of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, this South Florida farming community of 17,000 became a focal point for AIDS hysteria after researchers discovered an unusually high rate of infection.

Visitors drove through town wearing surgical masks and gloves. High school football teams refused to play here. A city librarian quit and an Episcopal priest gave up his congregation because they believed it was too dangerous an environment.

A radio disc jockey in West Palm Beach designed a jingle that former Mayor Tom Altman still remembers: "They should take a big can of Raid and just spray Belle Glade." Another radio announcer suggested beautifying this sugar cane-producing region by building a wall around the remote city near Lake Okeechobee that bumps up against some of the richest, blackest soil in the country.

"You couldn't turn on the radio or TV without hearing something about Belle Glade: AIDS capital of the world," said Jim Humphrey, who has tried to resuscitate the city's public image at tourism shows across Florida and in cities such as Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Charlotte, N.C.

Although the hysteria has evaporated, the disease has not loosened its grip on Belle Glade, which still posts one of the highest per capita rates of infection in the nation.

"Lord, it takes a long time to get over something like this," Mr. Humphrey said. "It's like trying to unring a bell."


While Belle Glade and AIDS are no longer synonymous, the community once branded "AIDS Town, U.S.A." continues to be haunted by the disease.

A few weeks ago, one-third of the 26 students in a local middle-school classroom told a counselor that they had lost a parent to AIDS or had at least one parent who was infected with the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS. Two of the students had lost parents the week before.

At the state-operated HIV Prevention Center on Main Street, program manager Patricia Harrington tested two teen-agers for the virus a week ago. Both of them, who had graduated from high school with Mrs. Harrington's 19-year-old son, tested positive.

At Mae's Beauty Salon in the center of town, owner Mae Dunkley distributes condoms when she gives a haircut. "I've lost 10 customers myself over the years," she said.

In the past decade, more than 400 people, most of them poor blacks, have been diagnosed with AIDS in western Palm Beach County, which has a total population of about 40,000. As in

Africa, the disease here has spread mostly through heterosexual intercourse. In the rest of the United States, AIDS is transmitted primarily through homosexual sex or intravenous drug use and is concentrated in urban areas.

"The bottom line is, you should assume everyone has it and get tested," AIDS educator Marilyn Campbell told a young woman at a public housing project in nearby Pahokee. Ms. Campbell and her colleague, Richard Reed, have spent the past month taking their message door-to-door and to sidewalk gatherings -- wherever there are people.

The other day, under a large shade tree in a part of Pahokee known as "Cracktown," a dozen men snoozed, gambled and drank booze out of brown paper bags. Crack cocaine is sold within a four-block radius of the tree.

One of the men gave Ms. Campbell, a 34-year-old single mother, an appreciative once-over as she and Mr. Reed distributed condoms and AIDS brochures. The man became suggestive. "Want some?" he asked.

"Listen, I don't usually tell people this, but I got the virus," Ms. Campbell told the man. Ms. Campbell, who works for the Comprehensive AIDS Program of Palm Beach County, was diagnosed with HIV several years ago.

Him: "Word up?"

Her: "Word up," which is street-talk for "really."

Him: "But you don't look sick."

( Her: "That's the point."


Local residents call it the Black Sea -- alluding to soil the color of midnight -- that separates this lush, tropical stretch of Palm Beach County from the high-rises, ocean beaches and glitz of coastal Florida 45 miles to the east.

Migrant workers from Jamaica, Haiti and Central America spend their winters here, harvesting sugar cane, celery and lettuce. The late CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow once called Belle Glade, long known for its poverty and harsh working conditions, a "sweatshop of the soil."

It is in this already tough environment that AIDS seems to have settled -- unbidden, unwanted, undaunted. And even here, where AIDS for years has been a household word, there is still a stigma to the disease.

Some go to a clinic in another city for treatment. Many refuse to be tested -- they just don't want to know.

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