Offering `sanctuary' for integration

SUN JOURNAL

Daytona Beach: The Florida resort city is linked to three important figures in the civil rights movement - Jackie Robinson, Mary McLeod Bethune and Howard Thurman.

February 28, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - This is a city of broad, white beaches on the Atlantic Ocean, home of America's most famous stock car race and a popular destination for college kids on spring break.

But Daytona Beach also stands as a significant site in African-American history, linked to three important figures in the civil rights movement - Jackie Robinson, Mary McLeod Bethune and Howard Thurman.

Daytona Beach, settled by Mathias Day in the mid-1800s, was as segregated a town as any other Southern city, with plantations growing rice, indigo and sugar cane. It wasn't until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that racial integration came to public facilities here. But over the decades, the city, somehow, created breathing space for integration to gain a foothold and inspiration to blossom.

Daytona had room for Mary McLeod Bethune to establish a school for girls in 1904 and dedicate her life here to the education of black people. Daytona had just enough room for Howard Thurman to be the first black child in Florida to gain an eighth-grade education and send him on his way to become one of the 20th century's great theologians and a precursor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his philosophy of peaceful integration.

And, when all the cities and towns around it were refusing to let Jackie Robinson play baseball on their fields with the Montreal Royals, the International League farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Daytona opened its ball field. Not only was the result to allow Robinson to play in the first integrated spring training game in history, but in the process Daytona became the home of one of the first integrated ballparks in the country.

When the Royals' season began, the team loaded up and went on the road. But in Jacksonville, officials padlocked the stadium gates. In DeLand, officials said there was trouble with the lights - even though it was an afternoon game. In Sanford, the game got under way, but the police chief arrived in the second inning and told club officials that Robinson had to be removed.

In all, seven games were canceled.

It was the mid-1940s and Daytona wasn't that much unlike its neighbors. Blacks weren't allowed to cross the river without permission; restaurants, hotels and bathrooms were segregated. But, even so, Daytona had always been a little bit different.

In 1922, it had elected a black woman mayor and over the years - and to this day - in a predominantly white town, it has almost always elected two or three black representatives to its city council.

At the time, Daytona Beach Mayor William Perry took the bold step of saying there were no objections to Robinson playing in his city. Why? No one is quite sure. Perhaps, they speculate, because Bethune was a real presence here. Perhaps, as Thurman had speculated, because so many Northerners had summer residences here and were more tolerant. Perhaps the mayor simply saw it as the right thing to do.

But, for whatever reason, on March 17, 1946, at City Island Ballpark, Robinson played second base for the Montreal Royals against its parent club, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Club officials invited patients at the U.S. Army Welch Convalescent Center to attend. Among those men, who had been injured in World War II, were about 250 black veterans. According to the next day's Daytona Beach News-Journal, they "either weren't aware of the Jim Crow segregated seating arrangement at the park or felt that their service to our nation had earned a little respect." They sat where they pleased.

When Army officers and city officials arrived, they were amazed to see the black veterans integrated into the crowd of about 3,100. Officials decided to do nothing about it, as long as no one objected and the crowd was orderly.

Reaction was so peaceful, City Island Ballpark became the one integrated place in Daytona Beach.

Robinson, it was reported, once described the city as his "sanctuary."

Today, the ballpark is home to the Daytona Cubs, a Chicago Cubs farm team. At the entrance of what is now Jackie Robinson Ballpark is a statue of Robinson in his Royals uniform, holding the hand of a white child, with a baseball clutched between their palms, while the white child holds the hand of black child.

Bethune, born in 1875, first came to Daytona in 1904 and established a school for girls, which eventually became Bethune-Cookman College. Her resources? A total of $1.50, a singing voice she used at fashionable Daytona Beach hotels to raise money and a strong will.

Eventually, she became a member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's informal Depression-era "Black Cabinet" and the first black woman to head a federal office as director of the Division of Negro Affairs in 1936.

Active nationally, she was also committed on the local level. In 1920, when women were first allowed to vote, Bethune was instrumental in getting 460 area black women registered - despite efforts by the Ku Klux Klan to stop her.

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