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Tracking Death Helps Chronicle Lives In Deep South


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away. It's time for a new Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work.

In many communities, there are elders whose service goes far beyond their job description, be they ministers, teachers or doctors. Traditionally, these are respected members of the community who pass along traditions and insights.

Years ago, in the Jim Crow South, the African-American funeral director held a powerful position, making sure that blacks were treated with dignity in death, even if it had been denied to them in life. Samuel Gaines is one of these people. He's president of the Stone Brothers Funeral Home in Fort Pierce, Florida. I met Mr. Gaines while working on a story about a group of African-American artists there known as the Highwaymen.

Samuel Gaines' family has been in the funeral business for almost a century in Florida, even during the most repressive days of Jim Crow. Mr. Gaines was born in 1938. He looks back fondly on his childhood, despite memories of the Ku Klux Klan marching down the street at night.

SAMUEL GAINES: People have asked: How did it feel to be segregated against? We would simply say we did not know we were segregated. We had everything that we needed. We did not want for anything. We had everything right here. Yes, we would go downtown sometime and see the whites' hands, but it didn't matter. We had teachers that shielded us and prepared us for the outside world.

LYDEN: But the stories his grandfather would tell him of those times were more chilling. It was Samuel Gaines' grandfather who founded the funeral home back in 1932 and his stories of survival were as grim as they were heroic.

GAINES: There was a man by the name of W.B. Minus(ph) and I learned later years that he and my grandfather were instrumental in getting people out of Fort Pierce during a time when they had done something and people were looking for them, the Klan or whoever was looking for them, either to beat them up or to hang them or whatever they were going to do to them. They would get the men and they would put them in a casket or a box they put on the train and the train would be sent - it would go to Jacksonville. And then, when they get to Jacksonville, a man by the name of Hillman, funeral director Hillman, would take them off the train and, therefore, that's how they got people out of town.

LYDEN: Samuel Gaines lived on one side of the town's divide of U.S. Highway One, the black side, and white people lived on the other side. That's where Jean Ellen Wilson was born six years before Samuel Gaines. She grew up completely unaware of the ins and outs of the black community, but as she became older, she began to notice things.

JEAN ELLEN WILSON: I was in a restaurant and a very nice looking black man came in and sat down. There was some whispering going on, but the waitress took his order. There was some more whispering and then she brought out his dinner and he took one bite and he got up and he paid his check and he left, and the room burst out in laughter. I was kind of a kid. And what it turned out is they had heavily salted his food. It was that kind of daily humiliation that I started to observe and, to me, it was just unjust.

LYDEN: Yet it was a more tragic story that brought the unlikely pairing of Jean Ellen Wilson and Samuel Gaines together.

WILSON: There was this man named Estes Wright. In 1935, he was beaten to death by a white man and it was all covered up and it was something that a couple of people saw, witnessed. Where Sam comes in is, years later, his sons would come over to the funeral home and go through all the records to try to find something about his death because there was nothing about it. There was no death certificate. There was no grave. And, also, Sam, didn't they come to the funeral home and try to find something?

GAINES: Yes. They came to the funeral home, but I knew all of them and we would go page by page because we knew that my grandfather had to have buried him. But it was through your efforts that you found the death certificate and, on the death certificate, it had my grandfather's signature, which meant that they had been told there would be nothing said, no records kept and, therefore, that's the only record that I've never been able to find in my records from 1932 up until this time. It's nowhere found, so that was one of the things that they wanted to keep quiet, so that's how things were done.

LYDEN: Mr. Gaines, does it list on your grandfather's record of Estes Wright's murder...

GAINES: No, no, no.

LYDEN: ...the cause of death?

GAINES: Nothing. Nothing can be found in any of the records.

LYDEN: I see.

WILSON: The way we found it was from the state.

LYDEN: The records that you have, Mr. Gaines, really interested me. You have had some very prominent people looking for their past in the records you keep at your funeral home, including Mrs. Jesse Jackson, Sr.

GAINES: Jacqueline Jackson.

LYDEN: Could you tell us about her visit to you, please?

GAINES: Jackie lived a short time in Fort Pierce. The family that she stayed with from, it was quite a few sisters. When one died she came to that service and she walked into the funeral home and she gave me a list of some names she wanted to get some dates on. So I said you look familiar. She said yes, I'm Jacqueline Jackson. I'm Jesse Jackson's wife.


GAINES: So I said OK, so I went and found what she wanted. I went down and slipped her this slip of paper and she said you found it that fast? She said I'm going to be here for several days. Can I come back tomorrow? So Jackie came back and she spent about two days going through the record books and she pieced together everything she needed to piece together. Someone had been stabbed but nobody ever would talk about what happened. There was records. Anyway, Dr. Benton had put in gangrene. Gangrene came from stabbing. Then the person that she thought had done it did not do it. So she pieced all of this together. So she told me these records that you have are priceless. Make sure you protect them because they are worth gold.

And Jean Ellen came along and through her efforts we were able to get on disk all of the records that's 50 years or above.

LYDEN: Did you know before then how valuable they were?

GAINES: No. They were just our records. And I'm a pack rat. I don't throw anything away.

WILSON: Up until 1970 I think it was, the local paper did not carry obituaries of black people, so that makes that record even more valuable.

LYDEN: Jean Ellen, I want to go ask you, what made you get interested in this? It's your hometown. You said you grew up really not knowing much about African-Americans, though. When did you develop your historical interest?

WILSON: Well, I was always interested in history and I started seeing these little vignettes where black people were treated disrespectfully. And it wasn't anything huge or terrible, like somebody being beaten or anything, it was just these small humiliations. Like one time a friend of mine who was in the police force - and at that time we had no black policemen - he had arrested somebody and I, a black person, and I asked him what was the charge and he said reckless eyeballing. And that just seemed to me so disrespectful of human beings. He thought it was real funny, so it was just small things like that. And I knew, I worked with a girl and we would have lunch together upstairs in the storeroom - this was a retail store - and I would go to the white restroom and she would go to the colored restroom. And it was just unjust.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. We're taking a look back at segregation in Fort Pierce, Florida, with one of the town's memory keepers, funeral director Samuel Gaines, and Jean Ellen Wilson, who has been working with Mr. Gaines to record the personal histories of segregation in their towns.

Mr. Gaines, when I last asked you about race relations today in Fort Pierce between black and white residents, this is what you had to say about how things are today.


GAINES: You are saying that I'm doing this for you, but down within is it really coming from down here? And I guess it's in us to always be looking or to be listening for whatever is not being said but we have - it's in us to be able to kind of just listen and watch how it comes over to ask to actually kind of get the feeling or actually is he or she sincere?

LYDEN: Is he or she sincere? That's what I wondered, Mr. Gaines. I mean what were you referring to then? What kind of mood?

GAINES: I was referring to an inner sense that's there that I cannot explain. We can tell if you are genuine, sincere in what you are saying or what you're doing, whether it's just for a front, whether it's just because you have to do it or whether it's for real. While my tenure on the school board, we had to go out and find black teachers because the courts had us to have black teachers in all the schools and we found...

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. And you are on a board for 30 years, I'll just interject.

GAINES: And we found all of these black teachers and the white principal started grabbing them up because they needed a quota on their campuses. And I sat in a meeting and I said now I hope now you're not just getting these names for these individuals because they are black and you need them. You've got to make them feel as if they are a part of your family because if not you're not going to keep them. One year later, three-fourths of them had gone. I guess it's our upbringing but it's just something in us that we are weary when we meet people. It worries me because I have grandchildren that feel as if they have been totally accepted into society.

LYDEN: Into white society, you're saying.

GAINES: Into white society because that's all they know, they came up with a mixed class in the high schools and everything. But there's something in me that still hangs on to the fact that you need to know who you are.

LYDEN: Yeah. Mr. Gaines, we note that in Fort Pierce on your side of the tracks, there was just a bustling vibrant neighborhood populated and filled with successful black-owned businesses. But then after integration in the 1960s, the close-knit community kind of dispersed and fell apart, didn't it?

GAINES: It did. We lost control after integration came. We lost control of our kids first. Integration was something that the parents said they wanted but they did not realize that what was going to be the outcome. People could go eat anywhere, so therefore, what we grew up as the Lincoln Park community, it became less desirable because we could go everywhere. But we lost control of the kids and therefore, that was the beginning of I guess the downfall of our communities.

LYDEN: Mr. Gaines, you mentioned to me when I was in Fort Pierce that race relations have, as you say, come a long way. But you also told me that you had five funerals on the weekend that I was there and they were all African-American. And that historically, white funeral homes didn't bury black people. Is that changing, do you think?

GAINES: Yes, it's changing because of economics.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

GAINES: The black family still holds funerals to something high on their list, that's where the money is. Whites now are going for cremation, so therefore, the white funeral homes now are not getting the dollars, so therefore, if a black family walks in to them they're going to accept that family because they want them to spend the money. So therefore, because of economics, whites now are burying anybody that comes in to them. They are our main competition.

LYDEN: You know, we call this here at TELL ME MORE a Wisdom Watch conversation. So I'd like to end by asking both of you if you have any wisdom to share - maybe for someone who is younger than you are, or just anyone who is listening. And Jean Ellen, let me ask you that first, any wisdom to share with younger folks?

WILSON: I would hope that they would talk to their elders and talk to their old folks and appreciate what those people went through. I don't know if this is a piece of wisdom or not, but the younger people don't appreciate what their forefathers or their grandparents and great grandparents went through to earn them the right to do all the things that they take for granted.

LYDEN: Mr. Gaines?

GAINES: I don't know about wisdom, but I think I would have to address it to the parents. The parents need to be able to sit down and share with their kids things that they came through. But I think the problem is there's a lot of parents that they want to forget what they came through. They don't look at it as being historical. But it's hurting and I think it's hurting our present generation, not knowing what they came through and what the grandparents and the forefathers came through.

So if anything of wisdom, I would hope that parents would pick this up and sit down with their offspring and share with them the stories of their families and let them know exactly what occurred and how they had to endure certain other things in order to get where they are. Maybe then the present generation could find an appreciation for why we act the way we do and why we think the way we do. But right now there's just a looseness. So I hope that the parent, the adult in the communities would just take the lead and, you know, try to - because they're not getting it in the schools so it has to be in the community, in the churches and things.

LYDEN: Samuel Gaines is a funeral director and undertaker in Fort Pierce, Florida. His family owns the Stone Brothers Funeral Home, and they've been serving black residents of Fort Pierce for almost for generations. Jean Ellen Wilson is also a lifelong resident of Fort Pierce. She's working to record oral histories and digitized records that deepen the history of segregation in Fort Pierce. They both joined us from member station WQCS.

Thank you both. It has been deeply moving to hear from both of you.

GAINES: Thank you for having us.

WILSON: Yes. Thanks.

LYDEN: We discovered Jean Ellen Wilson and Samuel Gaines while reporting on the Highwaymen, African-American artists who sold thousands of landscape paintings up and down US1 in Fort Pierce, defining the American dream. Here is a glimpse of this NPR series which ran last month.


AL BLACK: Good morning. So my name is Al Black. I have some oil paintings. I wanted to know would you all be interested in, if it wouldn't take up too much of you all's time?

MARY ANN CARROLL: He tacked me up a little 18-by-24 board. And so, when I got through it looked all right but it was just naked. So what he did, he put two palm trees in it. And I sold a painting. I don't know where I sold it, don't remember how much I sold it for.

LYDEN: And you'll find the Highwaymen series, along with a photo gallery and a video on NPR.org.


LYDEN: And that's our program for today. Remember, to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the Programs tab, and you can also find our podcast there. And you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter @TELL ME MORE NPR. I'm Jacki Lyden and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.