Pearl City: A Community Remembers
1915 advertisement for lots in Pearl City.
In 1915, Pearl City was established for African American residents south of what is today Glades Boulevard between Dixie and Federal Highway so that workers on local farms did not have to make the long walk from Deerfield. It is likely Pearl City was named for the Hawaiian Pearl pineapple as it was on the site of a former pineapple packing shed. The streets were originally named Pearl, Ruby, and Sapphire and have been so renamed in recent years. Pearl City grew to be an independent community with its own churches, businesses, school, and entertainments in the days of segregation.
Deerfield family who worked for Frank Chesebro ca.1912.
In 1985, Dr. Art Evans, a sociology professor at F.A.U. conducted a series of interviews of longtime Pearl City residents on behalf of the Boca Raton Historical Society & Museum. The result was two publications: the 1986-87 edition of the Spanish River Papers, available online at bocahistory.org and Pearl City: A Black Community Remembers by Arthur S. Evans, Jr., and David Lee, 1990. In this exhibit we will share excerpts of tales of good and bad times, work and play, and the survival of what is today Boca Raton’s oldest community.
Pearl City, our house there on 10th Street, the old wooden structure there on 10th Street, 149, that was one of the first wooden houses built. Some of the first because I think the Demerys, the Demerys over on 11th Street, well that was one of the first….all across here, it was nothing but palmettoes. [Jacqueline J. Harvey]
Woman identified as “Aunt Dora” standing next to a rustic abode.
I don’t recall any street names in Pearl City at first….They came later…later. It was nothing but sand roads. Some of the old timers starting to haul in some palms from coconut trees to put in the roads to keep the cars from bogging up in sand when they go through. But it wasn’t asphalt or nothing. From Dixie to Federal wasn’t no asphalt; it was all sand. [Q.J. “Bud” Jackson]
Well [in 1917] there were plenty mosquitoes , though you ought to know, and plenty of rattlesnakes. Strangely enough, every summer rattlesnakes used to crawl through the old family place over here. I guess they were mating. But every summer they would crawl through that place. Of course, my mother was never afraid of a rattlesnake, but I am. She’d take a board or a rake and something and kill it. [Henry James]
Studio portrait of early Pearl City pioneer Pearl Swanson.
Studio portrait of early Pearl City pioneer Ambro George.
EVERYDAY LIFE IN PEARL CITY
Emma Scott on Dixie Highway.
Well, we had a lot of fresh vegetables. We had lots of fish, and we had, my mother raised her own chickens…. It [Pearl City] wasn’t the city, it was out in the country. Even downtown Boca Raton, it was all woods…. Yeah, they had hogs too, my parents. They raised their own hogs and chickens and ducks, right in the backyard. [Irene Demery Carswell]
Belle Demery with Pat, Barb (youngest), Marie, and Agnes.
We used to turn sea turtles.…But again my parents was country people and they liked the old common foods. There was a lot of common wild food around. My father used to go out and kill rabbits in the morning. By the time I’d get out of bed he would have killed two, cleaned them, and my mother was cooking them. Quails, and of course, they was from the country in Alabama and Marianna [Florida] and they loved possums. I didn’t like them. [Amos Jackson]
Barbara Demery with mother Dorothy behind her, Carolyn Brown, Linda Fountain, and L. Chapman.
The house wasn’t very big; we only had two bedrooms. One small bedroom and one huge room that had several beds in this room. We had a dining area and a kitchen, and an outside toilet and pump. You know what I mean by the old fashion pump?...We had a wooden stove, no sink. We had what you called a dishpan to wash dishes in, and this was a huge pan that you’d wash dishes in…. This must have been about in the 30s…. We could see at night by kerosene lamps….Well, when my parents moved here in 1912 I don’t think there was any electricity period, in Boca. But … then when we did get electricity in our house, we had an old open bulb hanging down from the ceiling, and that was big….I had gone to high school and my mother was still cooking on a wooden stove. [Irene Demery Carswell]
Alvin Fountain on the front porch of 156 Pearl Street.
An old house in Pearl City, 1980s.
Workers on Frank Chesebro’s farm ca. 1910s.
[When my father came to Boca] at first he worked with a guy by the name of Frank Chesebro. He worked for him and then he started sharecropping…. [In 1917, 1920, 1921…] if you like to farm, I guess it was easy…. I was just a little boy then…. Yes, I used to go out with my mother and father. The whole family went out there. [Henry James]
I left Georgia because I was tired of plowing a mule for 30 cents a day…. I came to Florida to better my condition. And I went out there [Butts’ Farm] and I started to work on the farm for a dollar a day….I was digging ditches for irrigation, digging stumps and trees for clearing land for farming. That was it. That, to driving tractors. [Ulysses Brown]
Early tractor in Boca Raton fields 1910s.
On a good picking day, there would be a lot of people out there…. It would take a lot of people to pick beans because he [August Butts] had a big farm, acres and acres. He had going out from Glades Road out to the turnpike [Ronald Reagan Turnpike]. His farm went out to that turnpike, that turnpike wasn’t there then; they put it there later. He had farm all the way back in there. He had hundreds and hundreds of acres of land. But he grew almost everything out there. You could eat just any old thing. Vegetables, beans, and had plenty of mangoes, in the mango trees, peaches—he had peaches out there….I picked all my beans standing up; it didn’t hurt my back. But most people had to crawl. You put on these pads, you know, knee pads. And they’d get on their knees and pick them. [Emma Belle Riggins]
Picking beans on Butts’ Farm.
Well, my parents left South Carolina because my parents weren’t doing as well as they would have liked to have done and they came here seeking a better life…. My father did nothing but farm and of course in the early years we worked, my brothers and I worked with him some on the farm before I went away to school…. My father had many patches of hot pepper, string beans, eggplants, and tomatoes because he grew all of those right where the university is now. [Jacqueline J. Harvey]
Workers in Chesebro’s pepper fields ca. 1914-1915.
But you know when I came to Boca [in 1959] the only kind of job I could find really was a maid job. And I used to help out a friend of mine who do maid work and I made up my mind that this is not what I want to do. And my husband agreed that I could go back to school….I went to Palm Beach Vocational School in West Palm half day….I studied bookkeeping, shorthand, typing…. [Virginia Snyder] called me one day and she says, “They tell me that you’re looking for a job,” and I said, “I sure am.” She says, “Well, the “Fort Lauderdale News” has an opening…and I worked for the “Fort Lauderdale News” for four years….Then I got the job at Southern Bell. [Molly Rich]
Roadman School (originally the Boca Raton Negro School) 1965.
Mrs. E. W. Ashley, that was the meanest woman in the world. She’s the one that caused me to graduate and go to Delray High. She wasn’t mean, she was strict. You just had to get your lesson and she was the one teacher in the school and had about 52 students, and she had from first grade to, from primer to ninth…. She went from one class to another while she would have an older kid in the higher grade to listen to the primers read. She would give them work like addition, 1 and 1 is 2, etc., and then she would do the other classes. We’d have so many minutes, a half an hour or whatever with the class, and then she’d give you work to do. She had it real organized. Not any of the kids went lacking. They all learned under her. [Irene Demery Carswell]
Girls’ Cub at Boca Raton Negro School, ca 1938-1940. Back row, L-R: Estelle Glades; Elle Goddard; Lois Dolphus. Front row, L-R: Dorothy Clark, Virginia Clark, Altamese Cooper. Teacher, Lillian Bryant.
[My stepfather, Alex Hughes], he helped to get started with the first school. It wasn’t Roadman then. It was just a little old one room place. One, and it was all together where we went from first to eighth grade, and he was into helping get that started here…. He was one who helped with the Ebenezer Baptist Church being started, also Macedonia…. Hughes Park, right here next to the daycare center, they named that park after him and he really enjoyed that, too. He really was proud of that, them naming it after him. He was one of the old timers. [George Spain]
Joyce and Lois Albury in front of the school, 1950s.
Ethel Richardson walks on 11th Street by a store run by Sam Dolphus, late 1940s.
But we would say, “Let’s go to Spain’s; let’s go to Willie Wright’s place.” That’s all you were saying. There were no sign up saying “this is Spain’s or Wright’s,” or nothing like that. This was Pearl City….One of the places they had…there was Jimmy Goddard’s place once upon a time, and there was Penn Jenkins and there was Jaybird [nickname of Clarence Hill], and there was Lee Spain and there was Dolphus. All sold beer and wine and they all had jukeboxes. See they had five places from 15th Terrace to 10th, right on Dixie Highway, that you could go in and dance and do what you want. [Q.J. “Bud” Jackson]
Mr. Sam Dolphus, he run a little store here and this other man Mr. Willie Wright he run a store. He had his store when I came here. He had a little store on 10th. He sold tobacco and different little can goods and stuff like that. It wasn’t your big shopping store or something like that. Just a little ole store and just but one little [one] down in Boca Raton, right downtown they call it. Just one store was down there. [Emma Belle Riggins]
Randolph Johnson in front of Willie Wright’s store.
[If you wanted to buy something in the 1920s or 30s you went] Downtown. Hutkins had a store where they opened a little country store out here now [west of Town Hall, on Dixie Highway facing west].…Then later on you had Bill Brenk had a store right next to the post office which is where the Haggerty Building is now [now occupied by the HSBC Bank north of Town Hall]. So now if you needed something, some little something during the week, you might go to one of those stores and then the families would get together and like every two weeks would go to Delray to a supermarket and buy groceries….And as far as clothing and what have you, you used to go to Fort Lauderdale for the most part. You catch the bus and go to Fort Lauderdale shopping because there weren’t any stores here. [Lois Dolphus Martin]
I was working at the Highland Beach Holiday Inn as a chef and some other guy from the city worked with me,…he kept telling me about this little place Lee Arthur used to own and I had been coming here all the time in them old days so I said I am going to give it a try. I said I can put my wife there and I still work as a chef and she can come there and have a little side thing on the side and that’s what I did….We opened this place [Tom’s Place, in 1977] up and I never been back. [Tom Wright]
Tom’s Place when it was located at Glades Road and Dixie Highway.
There were Palm of Christian leaves; everybody had Palm of Christian leaves [leaves of the castor bean plant] in their yard…but it got a wide leaf and it have like five prongs around it, you know, and stalk like and uh, you take that and you put a little vinegar on that and put it on the head; if you got a fever, on your chest. That Palm of Christian leaf would draw the fever out and parch those leaves up. You could take those leaves and it would be like they were dried. [Louise Dolphus Williams]
Leaves of the castor bean plant.
Black Draw [Black Draught, a laxative]. Have you ever heard of Black Draw? Well that’s one of the old home remedies my father and mother both believed in. It’s some kind of, it’s more of an herb. My father believed in Three Sixes [666 patent medicine]. If he felt like he was coming down with a cold, he would go and get him a bottle of Three Sixes. It’s a quinine. It has lots of quinine in it and papa would take that. If anybody had a really bad cold, there was a remedy called Father John’s [patent medicine]. He was a real believer in that. [Louise Dolphus Williams]
Black Draw and
Father John’s patent medicines.
Well my mother [Annie Spain Hughes] was a doctor herself. She didn’t have no degree but she could pretty much do anything for any person. The whole neighborhood came to her with colds and tonsil trouble, tongue palate down and all this type of thing. They always came to her because she was pretty good at it. She had all kinds of remedies for doing this kind of work. She was really liked in the community because of that. She could do a lot of things that you’d go to the doctor for today. [George Spain]
Down here I was a midwife too…. Of course I wasn’t a midwife all the time on Butts’ [Farm]. When we left Butts’ I went into the hospital. A midwife delivers babies where people can’t afford a doctor and I was doing that. And with a lot of the white mothers and the blacks liked to have their babies at home.…A doctor wouldn’t be there…unless I needed one. [Mary Lee Jenkins]
The Lampkin or Sharp family enjoy an al fresco meal.
Well the kids always play ball; and I never forget years ago of a marble range was right in the center of Dixie Highway, and now you can’t even walk across it. A car would pass by probably every four or five hours. So that’s where we used to make up our marble range, right in the middle of Dixie Highway between 11th and 12th Streets. Right in the middle of Dixie Highway. [Walter Dolphus]
Unidentified girl with her bike, 1940s-50s.
When I got to the age for courtship, we had different places you know. We had two or three places up here on Dixie….When I got to being a teenager, we started going out, going to dances. We used to go to a dance club called Capanelli. Had a place up in Boynton, Club Capanelli [Club Continental?]. We used to see all the latest bands up there. I saw Louis Jones, Buddy Johnson, Sweetheart of Rhythm, Lionel Hampton, all of them used to come up there. [Homer Goddard]
My daddy was a very strict man; he didn’t let us go out. My brother, he’d go. Right up here where Tom’s Place is [southeast corner of Glades and Dixie] there used to be the Spain boys, they had, we used to call them jukes [juke joint]. That’s why he wouldn’t let us go. And we had a piccolo [jukebox] that ran by a motor outside and it was a guy named Collin Spain, the oldest boy, and that’s where they had records, they played records by these piccolos; we’d dance and things like that. Well my daddy, if my mother went with us we could go, but if she didn’t go with us we couldn’t go. So that’s what we did. That was the recreation in Boca Raton. That’s all it was. [Willie Mae Fountain Jackson]
Willie Mae Fountain Jackson and Irene Demery Carswell relax in the yard.
Piccolo brand jukebox.
Yeah, the twentieth of May [Emancipation Day in Florida] my aunt would have a picnic on the beach and…it was Jimmy Goddard had a, what do you call those things that make electricity work?....Yeah, A generator. He would take his piccolo on the beach on his truck and he would set up and we would play on the beach and come up and we’d have the music and we’d dance around that, and she’d have a fish fry, barbeque, or whatever she had, was there just for the kids, the young people…. She’d made a big cag [keg] of punch and we had plenty of punch to drink and all that. [Louise Dolphus Williams]
Irene Demery Carswell and a friend at the beach, 1940s.
Fish and game was plentiful. You didn’t have to have a reel and shrimps and all of that stuff to go fishing. You could use what they called a small crab, fiddlers, and you’d use a cane pole. I didn’t know what a reel and rod was until a few years ago. You used the cane pole no matter where you went fishing at, in the ocean or anywhere…. All we done was, my mother did a lot of quilting, I can remember that; we kids played in the yard, we made our own fun. My brother, he’d make -- if he could find an old wagon or something, he could always make something out of it. We’d play a lots of softball in the sand lots…. The first movie that I went to was in high school in Delray, and that was the most exciting thing I had ever seen in my life. [Irene Demery Carswell]
Baseball game played at the future site of Causeway Lumber.
Hiram Johnson and Estelle Glades at a game.
[When courting]…A fellow come to see you on the young days, he had to have a shirt on up here and he had to have his tie on and all that stuff…He would sit right down there on the couch, and he could sit and talk and when he get ready to go; and then if he stayed too late my father would come to the door and just stand up and make a fuss and then he knows it was time to go. [Idella Dolphus Glades]
Tent revival meeting in Deerfield
Well our churches used to constantly have what we called box parties. This was just the matter of raising money. The women would fix the box and the man would buy their box, and they would eat and share the box together. But it was a way of having entertainment and raising money for the church. [Amos Jackson]
Irene Demery Carswell covets a friend’s car - Ebenezer Baptist Church in the background.
Well, we were all close because you had like two churches in here, Ebenezer Baptist and Macedonia [A.M.E.]. We called everybody Baptist Methodist or Methodist Baptist. The first and third Sunday you went to Ebenezer, the second and fourth you went to Macedonia, and that’s how we operated for years and years. So you learned how to sing the song their way and they learned how to sing it your way….[On Sundays] one church would close down and we would all be at the other church. [Lois Dolphus Martin]
Reverend and Mrs. Henry Clark at Ebenezer Baptist.
WORLD WAR II and the BOCA RATON ARMY AIR FIELD
Main gate, Boca Raton Army Air Field, WWII.
Yes, it was segregated. Each man had, the blacks had their own barracks and their own area and the whites had their own barracks and their own area. And we had all our sergeants and corporals and that, all were black; everything but the lieutenants and captains, they were all white . . . segregated. [Archie Carswell]
Firearms training for African American soldiers at BRAAF.
But long as you're here it doesn't matter because you're living like you've always lived anyways. But when you go over there [overseas during World War II], you know, and they don't have any segregation over there where you go over there, but they still had segregation in the army over there. But as far as when you go out for recreation you could go any place you wanted to go. When you get back to your base you were segregated again, so this is where it really stood out at and this is when you really begin to feel it. So, this is when you come back home and start doing something about it. [Archie Carswell]
Archie (on truck) and fellow soldiers overseas.
[The Boca Raton Army Air Field…] that was most of the major [civilian] jobs for men that wasn’t working at the time, or either that they were working and they stopped doing what they were doing and got jobs out there. You had farmers out there, you had some out there that helped cook and some worked in the officers’ mess and some worked in the officers’ headquarters. They had them all over see, and most of them had jobs out there on the airbase. Butts’ Farm you had to work by piece work, you see, you get paid for what you did. See in the army, they had a regular scale. Not, if it rained, you couldn’t work out at Butts’ Farm, but over there the rain didn’t stop you from working, so you made more. [Archie Carswell]
Yes, I remember the first time I was introduced to Pearl City by a soldier friend of mine. He had been out to Pearl City the night before and had met some people in Pearl City and he asked me the next night to come with him to Pearl City. And I said, “What’s Pearl City?” And he said, “A little place over here out from the base.” And I agreed to go along with him. And I went over there with him that night and I don’t regret I went….After that, that’s where we would go was Pearl City when we had time off….But then I began to like Pearl City because I found that all the people there were so close knit, you see. If one hurt, the other one hurt. If one need something, the other one would go to their rescue. So it was all, I just fell in love with Boca Raton, Pearl City, after going out and meeting the people. [Archie Carswell]
Private Archie Carswell
Irene Demery ca. WWII.
No, you just had your own drinking fountain; the black had their own and the white had their own, and so that’s about it. Everybody stayed their distance; they was scared of you and you was scared of them. And that’s the way that was; they stayed their distance and you stayed yours. Nobody said “Mr. Brown,” and so on. [Malchester Brown]
Plan of the Boca Raton F.E.C. Passenger station showing “colored waiting room,” 1929.
[So far as blacks and whites getting along…] Well, the people so far as I can remember, back in then, everybody lived in their own community. Meet Mr. So and So or Mr. So and So meet you, and maybe at the store they were very friendly. They were very friendly and as far as I know, there were no problems to speak of…. Because you stayed in your community and you did your thing and they stayed in their community and they did their thing, as far as I know. [Louise Dolphus Williams]
Separate entrance for African American patrons at the F.E.C. station marked “Colored Entrance.”
[When it came to the beach…] Well it wasn’t many places you could go in there, but they sees an entrance right at the entrance of Palmetto Park Road. But they didn’t never go up there; they would always go up A1A a piece and go through a path right up through the palmettoes and over the bank. That’s where they would always go. They wouldn’t be together on the beach at all; they didn’t mix on the beach. The whites had this end and the blacks had this end. Ever since I been here blacks always went to the beach. [Ulysses Brown]
Civil rights march to Pearl City in sympathy with the march at Selma, 1965.
Well, we [the local NAACP chapter] went to any disturbance or unrest here in Boca. We would look into it and then we would report back to our headquarters, which was in Delray at that time; and they would take it from there. And Boca has always been a place that doesn’t like all headlines, you know. So one time it was an unrest up in Pearl City due to the policemen, and they had a march here too; and Boca didn't want, you know, headlines about the march and about the unrest. So while we were still over the NAACP then, Alan Alford, he was the City Manager or City Mayor, one,…asked us if he organized a Community Relations Board, would we serve on it? And so we told him yes. He said, “So you’ll have some recognition up in Pearl City so when an unrest comes they can bring it to the Community Relations Board and then they can investigate it and turn it over to the City Council, and City Council will do something about it.”…. And I became Vice President of the Community Relation Board and I served on that for quite a many years. [Archie Carswell]
BOCA RATON’S OLDEST SURVIVING NEIGHBORHOOD
The Fountain girls: Wille Mae, Almetta, Hattie, Vernell, and Helen (Skip) with Alvin Fountain, 1970s.
[Pearl City is one of the few black areas in South Florida east of the FEC railroad tracks.] They have tried their darndest to get us out of here….They have told us a million times that this is our choice property and for you all to be living on it when you could sell it for commercial and make all this money off of it, but what do we say to them? This is home and it’s choice property for us, that’s why we are living on it you know, and Arthur Vining Davis thought he was going to buy us out at one time. He was over Boca Raton Hotel and Club, and you had another person that wanted to buy this area and going to move us out by the chicken farm, they call it, which was on 51st Street, about where IBM is. That’s the area they were going to buy us out in here and then sell us lots and what have you up there, and they told us that what they would give us would be enough to pay for the lot and the house up in that area. But there again, I mean, that didn’t bother us any. The thing is that we want to be able to get where we want to go without having to get in a car to go. You see we have everything around us, so you get to the point you can’t drive, but you can walk where you’re going. [Lois Dolphus Martin]
Choir practice at Ebenezer Baptist, 1970s.
So, I wouldn’t sell this place for nothin’ in the world. I worked hard and I got it, and I am going to keep it. I ain’t goin’ to sell it. I don’t care how much money they give me, I wouldn’t sell it. [Idella Dolphus Glades]
Barbara Jean Williamson remembers the past at the Pearl City Centennial Celebration, 2015.