Nothing Beside Remains

“My name is Ozymandias… Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”
-Percy Bysshe Shelley

In only my second meeting with Ms. Everee Jimerson Clarke, I had somehow arranged to meet her down at the now defunct Heritage Gallery building at 2117 N. Dixie Highway in order to help her move boxes from a storage closet to a display on the gallery floor. My introduction to West Palm Beach, Florida and the intricate communities of which it is comprised had a less than grandiose start.

The facility is modest in size, located next to an elementary school and a block away from a community center within the formerly districted Black neighborhood of Pleasant City. The Heritage Gallery is setup in the style of a shotgun double-wide with only three or four compartments walled off, and with a small kitchenette and office cordoned off in the rear. Everything was out in the open with displays set up on mobile racks and original photographs, some of which can be found in her books, in every available space and perpendicular surface down to the floor.

There were costumes and props from productions long past, gear donated from local professional sports teams, tap shoes and ballet slippers, all sorts of local and national memorabilia and even copies of speeches of prominent African-Americans throughout history. Bookshelves were full of African-American classics, such as Roots, and hand held toys and knickknacks were lined up for the taking. There was such a variety of material to instruct children that I was having a hard time remembering exactly how I volunteered to be the labor force to move it in the first place.

Ms. Clarke doesn’t really let on, but she is holding out hope that she can sell enough of her gallery wares, through sheer volume, to prevent the foreclosure of her property that houses the museum. She has a court date on the 14th of August, and then ten days from that to act on the decision rendered. These are dire times. The edifice served as a home base of sorts since the Heritage Gallery was established by the Pleasant City Family Reunion Committee in 1996. Both organizations were the culmination of years of work by Ms. Clarke in historical preservation, business, and politics.

The charming and persuasive grande dame goes out of her way for people just because it is in her heart to do so. Ms. Clarke is still very sharp and witty and she was proud to proclaim that she was 87 years old. She boasts that the Heritage Gallery is the only such of its kind to preserve the memories and records of African-American pioneers in Palm Beach -all without the benefit of city property easements. The daughter of original Palm Beach pioneers who once had a home in the Styx, an original settlement on the island, is also quick to point out that the Heritage Gallery operates free of charge.

“It’s all for the children, anyway” she instructs me in a grandmotherly voice that reminds me of my own.

Alex Haley is credited with saying that “in every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future” and Ms. Clarke endeavored to embody that through the Heritage Gallery. Her plan was not only well thought out but it has also been proven to work: recent studies of the obvious bolster the claim that high self-esteem correlates with higher performance in school. I guess the only problem is that Ms. Clarke contends that many people in Pleasant City are completely unaware, or otherwise uninterested in, the African-American pioneers’ prominence in the history of the region.

Black West Palm Beach has endured as 32% of the population according to the 2010 US Census figures -which is exactly double the percentage found among the total population in Florida. Success of the pioneers, and gains in subsequent generations also contributed to turnover in the West Palm Beach region. Many Blacks sought opportunities or became educated from elsewhere and never returned.

The great shame is that Ms. Clarke has continuously proven to be the exception to the rule, opting instead to cast down her talents where she was born. However, she wasn’t always the resident expert African-American historian in West Palm Beach.

Ms. Clarke left the region to attend a number of professional schools including the Lippel School of Dance, American Ballet Academy, and the famed Julliard School of Music and Dance. She cut a dashing figure in her YouTube “video” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfxdMJqTvJQ

Take a moment to go back in time.

) of black and white photographs slideshow from the Heritage Gallery website.

She initially returned to Palm Beach County in 1960 to improve her community and join in the African-American struggle for civil rights despite the fact that, “nothing big ever really happened here.” Ms. Clarke built on her successful establishment of her self-named School of Charm and Dance in Newark, New Jersey and expanded into West Palm Beach at a time when there were many Black owned businesses still downtown.

Today the scarcity of Black owned business in West Palm Beach is difficult to put into perspective. Early Census Bureau data is incomplete but Black firms represented 14.8% of the total in West Palm Beach compared to just the typical 9% of Black firms reported in the rest of Florida as recently as 2007. The Pleasant City Family Newsletter, also published out of the Heritage Gallery, specifically laments the loss of all the original, Black pioneer, family, operated businesses.

While it is hardly a comparison to the famed Black Wall Street, the African-American community of West Palm Beach enjoyed relative economic prosperity in large part due to the watchful eyes of a clandestine “Vanguard,” and to being a relatively self-sustaining, contained community. The same segregation that excluded Blacks from the island of Palm Beach left them with relative autonomy in West Palm Beach. Some time after integration Black businesses and residents began to get pushed out, concentrically, after their island economy collapsed.

Some cite the disappearance of domestic jobs provided by the wealthy of Palm Beach as the beginning of the end for sustaining the African-American economy in West Palm Beach. Indeed, the Standard Oil and railroad magnate Henry Flagler is accredited with being one of West Palm Beach’s earliest planners and it is said he did so to ensure that the island inhabitants had access to Black labor. Steady, seasonal, employment by domestic workers in West Palm Beach provided the foundation upon which the rest of the economy was built and also promulgated peculiar race relations.

“It was different back then, because the families would take care of you.” Ms. Clarke carefully explained.

Situations change. While nobody can seem to agree as to how or why situations changed, everybody can agree that the transition has been a rough one.

Perhaps that is why in the 1970’s Ms. Clarke devoted a considerable amount of her energies to the areas of business and politics? In 1969 she was a founder of the Tri-County Chapter of the National Business League in West Palm Beach and later founded the Pleasant City Economic Development Corporation. Both organizations, as well as that of the old Vanguard, became obsolete or defunct shortly after the establishment of the Urban League in the area. Ms. Clarke sites jealousy, envy, and good old fashioned backbiting from others in the community that withheld their support because she maintained her early affiliation with the Republican Party.

It has largely been considered political suicide within the Black community to be involved with the Republican Party after the great Reconstruction following the Civil War, but Ms. Clarke was determined to make it work. She ran for the West Palm Beach City Commission twice, in 1973 and again in 1974, and was eventually named as a Republican Area Chairperson for a host of Palm Beach County districts. However it might have been Ms. Clarke’s co-chairing of the Florida Black Committee to Re-Elect President Richard Nixon that earned her a reputation of being somewhat of a pariah amongst her own.

Even I, a Black Republican pushing forty years old, have come into obtuse individuals in these liberal times that couldn’t fathom why or how it should come to pass, so I can identify with the plight of Ms. Clarke of explaining her political leanings. Ms. Clarke began disseminating the idea that a whole race of people should not belong to one party or the other, at a time when Blacks were beholden to the Democratic Party in a bid to advance civil rights. It is understandable that her feelings of alienation could have been much more acute, and the effects longer lasting, because of the times and their import.

Sometimes it is difficult to work with people, even when the cause is just, and even when your differences aren’t that far apart. With a history of campaigning for Republican candidates, Ms. Clarke was able to develop a wider base from which to launch her own initiatives but the fruits of such charity have seemingly dried up on the vine. Ms. Clarke says that she noticed a marked decrease in financial support since she came out publicly for Obama, when he ran for President in 2008. While she beams about the alumni of her charm school in Newark and their ability to organize well-attended reunions, she was unable to ultimately match that achievement in West Palm Beach.

Unfortunately for Ms. Clarke she was not as popular with local children of Palm Beach County. By her own explanation folks in Florida didn’t appreciate the messenger, and as a result, discounted the message. Up until 2005 Ms. Clarke was proposing tutoring and mentoring programs for Palm Beach youth out of the Heritage Gallery location in Pleasant City. In one proposed curriculum classes and activities included direction in Etiquette, Computer Skills, Language Development, Drama, Wardrobe, Grooming, Business Development, Job Training Skills, and Modeling.

One might think that this sort of program would be welcomed with open arms in an African-American community that is dealing with crime, talent exodus, disenfranchisement, and gentrification issues but Pleasant City evidently wasn’t having it. Ms. Clarke is still bemused.

Perhaps in a last ditch attempt to save the Heritage Gallery some years ago Ms. Clarke could have changed the face of her blade without altering its thrust? (The most promising candidate right now is a faithful volunteer named Esther who carefully scans pictures at the computer desk. By Ms. Clarke’s own admission Esther is her primary link to technology -but she leaves for college in the Fall.)

Similar swashbuckling has saved charities in the past but Ms. Clarke opted to stay the course. Sometimes the advice that you don’t take turns out to be the best advice. Life can be ironic that way. With the Heritage Gallery unable to produce an heir apparent able to breathe life and vigor into programs that benefit and interest area children, ultimately where else could Ms. Clarke turn to save the institution anyway? History is team-oriented academics.

“I’m going to be okay,” she tells me after a spoonful of the whitest vanilla ice cream I have ever seen. “I’m ready for whatever.”

Ms. Clarke has vowed the newsletter and activities will continue as long as she is able. She is also planning on writing another book to highlight the lives of Black Palm Beach pioneers.

Later, when a mother and her five children moseyed inside the Heritage Gallery during the foreclosure sale, Ms. Clarke’s eyes widened with excitement. Knee issues prevent her from getting around with the grace that she is used to, and she struggled to follow the last patrons around on her scooter.

It was hot outside and the mother’s three girls all had on dresses and the two boys stood in the doorway in their shorts and jerseys ogling toy cars behind the counter. The littlest girl wanted to know about the shoes in the small boxes. Ms. Clarke wheeled herself over and looked.

“Those are ballet slippers,” she says. “Those are very expensive.”

I don’t need to inform you that the family left without buying anything.

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