MAXWELL: Jim Crow conflict clouded the point

2/14/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In Florida, the ugly relationship between the races during Jim Crow produced human drama fraught with enough paradox and irony to give a young filmmaker sufficient material to shoot for the rest of his life.

Listen to the tale of Allan Platt, his wife and five children. In 1954, Platt, a fruit-picker, moved his family to Mount Dora, a tiny town in Lake County, from Holly Hill, S.C. When the Platts enrolled their children in school, the principal, D.D. Roseborough, knew immediately that trouble was coming.

Children complained to their parents that Denzell and Laura Belle Platt, “looked like niggers.” Their skin was “too dark,” and they had “those noses.”

Lake County’s notorious sheriff, Willis McCall, heard about the family and wanted to see for himself. He drove to the Platts’ home, lined the children up against a wall and photographed them. A desperate Allan Platt produced a marriage license and the children’s birth certificates to prove that his brood was white. McCall did not budge.

Days later, he forced Roseborough to accompany him to the Platts’ home to witness some real race science. Here is how a 1954 Time magazine article described the scene: “The principal tried to be polite, but the sheriff was in no mood for the amenities. He pointed to Denzell Platt, 17, and declared: “His features are Negro.’ Then he pointed to Laura Belle, 13, and said: “I don’t like the shape of that one’s nose.’ After the lesson in anthropology, Roseborough surrendered. The Platts, he said, would have to stay out of school “until the sheriff is satisfied.’ ”

Mabel Norris Reese, editor of Topic, Mount Dora’s weekly newspaper, entered the fray. She visited the Platts, inspected their papers and determined the Platts were white.

In her column, according to Time, she wrote that the Platts were of Irish-Indian pedigree and were likely descendants of Sir Walter Raleigh’s “lost colony” of Roanoke. “If you are a parent,” she wrote, “look at your child and think what it would mean to you if an adult said: “I do not like your child’s nose’ and thereby decreed that your child cannot associate with other children.”

In the 1950s, Reese was courageous to challenge McCall. Over the years, she had been a thorn in the sheriff’s side. She took on McCall even after he had poisoned her dog, painted “K.K.K.” across her office windows, and placed a burning cross in her yard.

After the column ran, Bryant Bowles, founder of the racist National Association for the Advancement of White People, came to the area on a lecture tour. He joined McCall in harassing Reese. Bowles marched into the editor’s office and swore to “get even” with her for condemning him. Soon afterward, the Platts’ landlady was informed anonymously that her “house would burn down” if she did not evict “those niggers.” The family was evicted.

Inspired by Reese, 65 students signed a petition supporting Denzell and Laura Belle and mailed it to Time.

“We care,” the petition began. “The Constitution says that a person is innocent until proved guilty. We feel that the Platt children have had a raw deal. Their right to an education has been taken away because of the opinions and prejudice of one man. To be expelled for violation of Florida segregation law is one thing; to be expelled because of an unfounded suspicion is another. Therefore, we believe the Platt Children should be permitted to remain in school until the sheriff can prove they don’t belong.”

After the petition went public, a chalk line was drawn on a school sidewalk. One side was for “White People,” the other for “Nigger Lovers.” After standing on the “Nigger Lover” side, a boy was stoned. Two other children removed their names from the petition because they did not want to hurt their families’ businesses.

Now, to the petition’s paradox and irony: The students’ first words are “we care.” About what? They care that whites are being accused of being Negroes. When they write that the “Constitution says that a person is innocent until proved guilty,” they are suggesting that to be a Negro is to have committed a crime against nature.

McCall is accused of “prejudice” _ but only because he is discriminating against white people. The ultimate irony is that if the Platt children were Negroes, everyone would agree that they deserved to be “expelled for violation of Florida’s segregation law.” Discriminating against whites, however, is unacceptable.

Time, along with Reese, also missed the paradox of the petition. Jim Crow was like that: It caused a convenient loss of logic, even among smart people.