Photo/Courtesy of The Daily Yonder
The War on Poverty began with President Lyndon Johnson’s visit to Tom Fletcher’s front porch in Martin County, Kentucky, in April 1964.
I didn’t realize I grew up poor until I landed a summer job working for the Community Action Program. In order to work for the program your parents had to be below a certain income level and we qualified. CAP was a program instituted out of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty”. The Community Action Program and the Neighborhood Youth Corp both “authorized by the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) of 1964 and designed to keep needy students in school by offering them such incentives as a stipend, work experience, and ‘attitudinal’ training”. Both organizations were headed by Mr. Felton Worrell, who had also once held the position of choir director at William C. Taylor High school before it was converted to a middle school. You rarely hear or see the word ‘stipend’ when it is not preceded by the adjective ‘small’ as in, “he received a small stipend for his work at the research lab”, and I can guarantee you, the salary they paid us fit the definition to a tee.
I was 17 years old and this was my first real work experience. My first assignment was to (and this is how I interpreted it at the time) go to some white man’s house and do his yard work for him. I didn’t like the concept and did not apply myself at all. I had never trimmed hedges or pruned flowers or anything of that sort. The man had to practically babysit me the entire day. Yes, one day, I was not asked to return after the first day.
Soon after, I was assigned to the St. James Baptist Church as a youth coordinator (a fancy title for baby sitter), the most I remember of that job was that the “Center” (which is what we called the Community Action Program headquarters on Lee Street) sent a bus throughout southern Fauquier to pick up kids and take them to Vint Hill Farms Station to swim in their pool, everyone really looked forward to that weekly trip. The bus even picked up kids and delivered them to Vint Hill to watch fireworks on Independence Day. Vint Hill had the only public pool that black kids were allowed go to back then. The nearby Remington Swim Club was private, therefore the “White Only” facility didn’t have to worry about being forced to allow blacks to join. I remember our neighbor, Mrs. Georgia Hayes, tried unsuccessfully to sue the swim club in order to gain membership.
Photo/Courtesy of http://www.fauquiercounty.gov
Vint Hill Farms Station Pool.
Vint Hill Farms Station was another of the, apparently many, electronic surveillance stations that dotted the Fauquier County landscape. VHFS was run by the US Army and the infamous NSA, they too spied on embassy row monitoring communication of friend and foe alike, they took some heat for that back around 1989.
After holding the job at St. James for a while I was transferred to the base commissary at Vint Hill as a shelf stocker. I enjoyed this job because it gave me and all my friend’s access to the facility’s gymnasium. Yes, those were really the good old days; you could come and go, on and off a military run facility with absolutely no identification whatsoever, just wave to the guard and they’d wave you in. Don’t try it today.
At one of our weekly meetings at the Center, one of the administrators, Mrs. Fleegle, told us that we had been given a grant that would allow us all to take a four day, 3 night trip to Miami Beach, Florida. The government would pay a portion of the tab, but each of us would have to sell $400 worth of chocolate candy bars (you know the kind). If we reached the goal as a group that uncle Sam wanted us to match, we could make the trip. All of the students (or employees) were given several boxes of candy each to take home to sell in our neighborhoods, two weeks later we would meet to turn in the money and further our plans for the trip. Two weeks went by, we met and were asked “How many of you have collected your 400 dollars?” no hands went up. Of the more than 20 children, no one had been able to sell four hundred dollars worth of candy, so the bar was lowered; Did anyone raise $300? $200? $100? It was finally decided that we should sell $100 worth of candy and come back in two weeks. Two weeks later, we returned and were asked “How many of you were able to sell one hundred dollars’ worth of candy bars?” no hands went up. The prospect of going to Florida was beginning to look bleak. No problem though, a NEW plan was devised, they told us “OK, if you each can sell $40.00 worth of candy, you can go”. Two weeks later we were queried and only one hand went up, it was Gloria Woods, out of all those kids she was the only one who raised enough money to go on the trip. Finally they said, “OK, don’t try to sell anymore candy, if you can come up with the $40 on your own, get it from your parents, borrow it, whatever, you can go”. I went home saved the next 2 weeks’ pay , asked my parents’ permission and surprisingly to me was allowed to make the trip.
Still there were people, who did not raise the necessary funds, but they were allowed to go anyway, everyone who wanted to go could go whether they came up with any money or not.
For some unknown reason, the Center decided to deliver the 20 or 30 kids to Union Station and subject us to a 17 hour train ride to Florida, big mistake. Those kids tore that train to shreds. We started out relatively quiet but then we all got use to our surroundings and at some point all hell broke out. Kids were running up and down the aisles from one car to another, screaming laughing, fighting, yelling. The more the passengers complained the louder the kids got. I even got tired of the hustle and bustle of the long train ride and just wanted to sit back and enjoy the ride, but they wouldn’t have it. The conductor spent the majority of his time chasing down my friends and bringing them back to their seats, mind you, no one was under 16 or over 18, a trainload of wild animals, they were. The final straw for the conductor came when someone broke one of the reclining seats; it sat flopped back against the seat behind it. They’d been using the seats as trampolines, jumping from one to the other until, finally one caved under the pressure. The conductor gathered up all the kids, cleared out an entire car of passengers at the rear of the train, moved us into that empty car by ourselves then left and locked the door behind him. For the rest of the train ride, we were as noisy and destructive as we wanted to be and no one got any sleep at all.
Photo/Courtesy of State Archives of Florida; Florida Memory
Aztec Resort Motel – Miami Beach.
When we arrived in Miami we checked into the now defunct Aztec Resort Motel, right on the Miami Beach ocean front at 159th street and Collins Avenue. As the adults were checking us in, a man, who had been watching us all from a distance, approached and introduced himself as “Mr. Griffin, the house detective”. Up to that point, I had only seen house detectives on old Humphrey Bogart type movies and have not seen one in person since. He told us that he would be keeping his eye on us and he was true to his word. The man never took his eyes off us for our entire stay.
One thing that I learned immediately upon checking in was that barely anyone in Miami Beach spoke English, especially the service workers; they were all Cuban, mostly all black Cuban. By then I had studied Spanish in school for a couple of years, but I was nowhere close to being able to hold a conversation with a native speaker. “No me gusta las albondigas” was about the best I could offer, I’d just have to bide my time until I was in a situation where I was eating spaghetti in order to tell someone, in Spanish, that I did not like the meatballs. That opportunity never came, so I spent much of my time in the motel trying, in vain, to interact with the maids when I needed something.
I left home with 20 dollars in my pocket and unfortunately for me, just across and down the street from our motel was a little pinball arcade and it only took an hour after our arrival for me to walk out of that establishment penniless and distraught over what I would do with no money for the next 3 days. I was at the arcade with Jimmy James and on the way back to the motel, as we were crossing the street, a red convertible pulled up to the corner where we were and stopped. Two beautiful white girls were in the car and one asked what we were doing for the next couple of hours. We told them we had nothing planned and out of the blue one asked, “How would you two like to come with us and make an x-rated movie?”. I was in complete shock, taken aback, embarrassed and a few other adjectives. I was just barely able to stammer out some excuse as to why we couldn’t go with them. Here we were barely 17 years old walking along the Miami Beach strip and getting hit on by two beautiful girls but who were obviously old enough to drive. Looking back, I’m pretty sure we two country bumpkins would have been driven to some far away alley where their boyfriends were waiting and been beaten and robbed. I’m both disappointed and relieved that I never found out what was actually in store for us had we accepted their offer.
Photo/Courtesy of The Brown Collection
That’s me enjoying the pool at the Aztec Resort Motel on Miami Beach.
When we returned to the motel, Mrs. Fleegle (not her real name) was gathering everyone together to take us to a local movie house. We’d returned just in time. The theater was within walking distance so we headed out of the building and down the street. Can you imagine the sight we made, 20 plus young boisterous black kids, laughing and joking our way down Miami Beach? People were stopping on the street and in their cars to watch the parade we made. Someone from across the street yelled out, “What’d you do – win a contest?” We sort of ignored them, a few kids gave responses that can’t be written here, but we made it to the movie theater as a single unit without causing too much of a scene. The theater was like none I’d ever seen before or since, there was a red carpet and velvet ropes stretching from the street to the huge double doors and to top that off, there was a doorman (white, not Cuban) dressed English garb holding the door for us. He sort of turned his nose up at us as we entered, but he held the door for us to come in anyway. The interior of the building had a huge chandelier and valuable looking paintings hanging on the walls and for the life of me I can’t remember what movie we saw that day.
By the time we returned to the motel it was getting dark, we had eaten already so all that was left to do was hit the beach and the pool. After we came in and went to bed, the house detective visited us several times throughout the night yelling at us and warning Mrs. Fleegle about the disturbances we were causing, threatening to kick us off the premises if they continued. The next day we took a bus tour of the Orange Bowl and President Nixon’s “southern white house” on Key Biscayne, we also toured a factory of some sort but it eludes me what type it was.
That night a storm came up out at sea, so we decided that it would be an excellent time to go out on the beach and wade in the dangerously high winds and waves. After almost drowning a few times as the storm grew in intensity and Gloria Woods accidentally losing her top for the third or fourth time, we came up with the brilliant idea of building a bonfire on the beach, that’s right, a bonfire on Miami Beach, directly in front of our hotel. We had it going pretty good and we’d been gathered around the fire for about 5 minutes when the house detective came running out of the hotel and onto the beach in his white suit and clutching his gray fedora against the wind.
Photo/Courtesy of Affordable Florida Vacations
“Put that fire out you backwoods country bumpkins!”.
“What are you idiots doing? You can’t build a fire out here! You’re not in the sticks now, you’re in Miami!”, he went on yelling, “Some poor lady left her kid in the hotel room for a moment and all this smoke came pouring in through the windows. She thought the hotel was on fire and now she’s called the fire department. GET THAT FIRE OUT, you backwoods country bumpkins!!!”. We quickly complied, the fire trucks came and went, the gathered crowd was dispersed, things quieted down and we went in and went to bed. The next day things ran a lot smoother, no one got in to trouble.
On our return trip back, we flew Delta Airlines from Miami to D.C. The strange thing is that it only took an hour and a half to make that flight to Washington National. I recently flew round trip from Reagan to Miami and neither leg took less than two hours and 20 minutes to make. I’ve never understood why it takes so much longer to fly the same distance now than it did over 40 years ago. It is a mystery for the ages I think. That was our trip and our contribution to the war on poverty. We had a great time and received some life molding experiences to look back on. A special thanks to LBJ’s commitment to helping the underprivileged, Uncle Sam’s undying need to spend taxpayer dollars and Mr. Worrell and his staff for caring enough to keep us safe and out of real trouble.