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Face to Face: A Conversation with Sylvia Poitier
The first black ever elected to the Broward County Board of Commissioners discusses black history, race relations in the county and Miriam Oliphant.
Q. Race relations is in the news again. I'd like your perspective. How far have we come in Broward County when it comes to that subject?
A. I think we've come a long ways. Broward County is one of those places that outgrew itself. Most of the cities weren't planning orderly growth. For that reason, we took in a large group of citizens that basically came from the North.
They came with their northern traditions, and we were still here -- with our Southern drawls and Southern mentality. We as African-Americans got caught up into a small town mind. It's been very difficult to get along because every newcomer that's come along, we feel as though they're pushing us out and that has caused bad relationships. We are still thinking small town, and the rest of the county is passing us by, particularly those who live west of University Drive because most of those people are Northerners or foreigners. We're still struggling, trying to live in what we call the "middle of town" between the railroad tracks and Interstate 95.
Q. So, is it race, class or both?
A. The kids that came along during the '60s, they aren't taking the stuff that we took. They're not accepting being pushed back or pushed around. In fact, they're dating each other. It's that 40-year-old and above crowd that's causing a lot of the disturbance, and we're learning from our children not to take it.
We went through this period where we thought integration was going to be good for us. Now we're going to have to go back to our social structures, like the church and our own schools, and re-do our thinking. In the meantime, that's going to cause a bit of strife and it may be considered that we are being "ungrateful" because we are no longer going to sit back and accept the things that are happening to us.
Q. You have some empathy for Supervisor of Elections Miriam Oliphant, don't you?
A. I've been in her shoes. In 1974, the city of Deerfield Beach had a charter that stated the person receiving the highest number of votes in the previous election will automatically be seated if death or resignation takes place. Commissioner Dan Monroe decided to run for the School Board. I didn't say anything. I sat quietly and let him resign his position to run, knowing that I was the next in line. I couldn't be seated without a court order.
Two years later, to show you race again, the person receiving the highest number of votes in the previous election would become the vice mayor and acceed to the mayor's chair. I had to go to the Attorney General's Office to get that. I got the highest number of votes, and they would not seat me until Bob Shevin, who was then the attorney general, sent a ruling down that they had to seat me. They ultimately changed the charter -- again.
I know what Miriam is going through. It is purely racial. There are a lot of people who don't think she's capable of doing the job because they didn't give her a chance to learn the job.
Q. So, what do you say to those individuals who feel that way about her?
A. Well, it's the blacks who are mostly disppointed with her. I get so upset when I hear a person say "Don't you get involved with Miriam because she's not going to listen!" Well, Miriam isn't supposed to listen to everybody. A lot of people who have never been in politics are telling her what to do.
Unless you've sat at that table, you don't know the game. You must have had a hand in it, and know how to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em. I'm quoting somebody's song, but
Q. Kenny Rogers.
A. when I was in office I used to say you've got to know when to hold [and use] your trump cards. That's how I've been successful, but she doesn't have the experience nor the age to know that yet.
Q. You're a product of South Florida. Tell me something about what it was like growing up here.
A. The South Florida I grew up in is a community that always disrespected African-Americans. If we said anything, they'd hurt us economically. They could take our jobs. They could foreclose on our homes.
My parents, being of Bahamian descent, had no fear of that. We were brought up differently [from African-Americans], with me having been brought up across the tracks in the eastern part of town, having grown up with a lot of white children because we were one of four houses on the east side. We grew up in a different environment, and I just thought differently.
Segregation, though, was always there for me. But what I've learned was to drink water before leaving home. I never had to face those encounters directly simply because of the conditions. For example, I never worked a full week in the fields because my mother had a store. So, I would leave the store and go to work in the fields, maybe two or three days a week. I was brought up a little differently, but I never forgot.
Q. What got you into politics?
A. I got into politics in the late '60s because the city of Deerfield Beach received a $750,000 grant to move the drinking water wells. When the [U.S.] Environmental Protection Agency found out that our wells were contaminated, they gave us a grant.
But, the city of Deerfield Beach took the $750,000 and built a tennis court, and their people were able to buy water. When I see people buying water to this day, I get upset. So, I got involved to make sure the city won [awards] for having the best water in the state for seven straight years. Now I've left. I don't know if we can still boast about that, but a lot of people are still getting our water.
Q. How did you get on the Broward County Commission?
A. Gov. Bob Graham appointed me because I had a good base around the county. People knew me. They trusted me. When they asked the question who did they think would be the best African-American to appoint, I got rave accolades.
Kathleeen Wright had gotten support before me on the Broward County School Board. So it wasn't too hard. I was also president of the Parent Teacher Association countywide. A lot of people knew me.
Q. So, you're saying the appointment wasn't a big deal?
A. It was a very big deal. At the time, it was suggested that Bob Butterworth be the appointee, but Bob Graham wanted to appoint an African-American.
Q. I'd imagine that being the first black had to be burdensome at times.
A. Oh no! I enjoyed that thing. [laughs] Oh man, I'd get up in the morning so excited. I was the only one that did it full time. Everybody else was doing their 20 hours, but I would be there all day. I had a white administrative assistant, and he was so good. I worked him; I overworked him. He had to leave me because I'd get involved in so much stuff. He'd beg me not to take on any more boards or committees, but I couldn't stop because I was the only one, and I had to look out for everybody.
Q. Looking back, what do you consider your early accomplishments?
A. When I went to the board, transportation was going to be my forte. I worked real hard to get Tri-Rail started. I wanted to do a jitney-type service in Broward County to move us back and forth because I saw that as a dilemma for African-Americans, having to own two cars with two sets of insurance.
Removing blight was a big issue. I kept up with all the community development block grant funding. I could also take credit for the minority participation. I made sure I got on every committee there was to make sure we'd get something.
Q. One thing that's changed is that you ran countywide. Now we have districts. What are your thoughts on the change?
A. It's the worst thing. Not only does it move you back, it moves you out. Do you think if the commissioners had to run countywide that they would treat Miriam [Oliphant] that way? Naah! One man one vote is no good for us. Not only are they going to kick her, they've already kicked [Commissioner] Joe [Eggelletion]. Anybody else [African-American] who comes along is going to get kicked because you can't do anything to the rest.
If you have countywide or citywide voting, you can demand the majority by having a cluster of votes that will make them listen. If you're good, color doesn't matter. If you're honest, color doesn't matter. If you're loyal, color doesn't matter. I never won with over 30,000 black votes. I'd get over 100,000 votes [countywide]. That's because people trusted me.
Q. You ran into controversy over the convention center hotel. Looking back on it all.
A. Looking back on the hotel deal, let's go with it.
When I got on the committee, I had no intention of pushing for a black-owned hotel. At the time, the gentleman who was at the table wanted a trade center. The county would not cooperate because they didn't want to spend any money.
So I said, this would be a great idea to involve some blacks. Why don't I go to the National Baptist Convention and tell them about this deal, and we shoot for it?
They said, do the proposal and we'll see what you got. So, I went around the state, saying if you buy into it, you can be a part of it. We were doing fine. But Dr. [Henry] Lyons got caught up [in controversy] and this one church got upset about the deal and worried it might not go through. You had a couple of commissioners who never wanted it. I knew about John Rodstrom and Sue Gunzburger, but I didn't expect [opposition from] Lori Parrish.
So, I said to myself that I would tell Dr. Lyons to back away from the table and let me bring in Don Peebles to take over the contract, and we'll keep going. We were going good, but when we got to the real negotiating stages, that's when I got up off the dais and I said, "I have a conflict. I have a church that I don't want to betray. So they want their money back out of this deal." I had a friend of mine to pay them the money back. To me, that's a conflict.
No newspaper or no investigator caught me. I said it myself. It wasn't my money, and the man didn't give me any money. When I looked in the papers, I had a conflict of interest and I was a part-owner in the hotel. Not one time, not one day did I ever think of being in this hotel. I just wanted this church, a little church in Palatka, to get their money.
I never tried to straighten it out because I knew I was honest. The guy recorded my deed for the $60,000 when the county threw out National Baptist Convention. So, don't blame him for protecting his money. His deal was with the convention, not the county. So he recorded the deed on my place. He never intended to take my place for the $60,000, but he wanted to have something on record so Dr. Lyons would pay him his money back. Unfortunately, Dr. Lyons went to jail. Not one dime, not one penny ever went in my hands, but if you kept up with the articles, I had a part in the hotel. When Don [Peebles], being the negotiator that he was, could not get along with the county, then they decided to throw him out. When I lost, they sure enough threw it out.
Q. So, where do you see this current controversy with Oliphant going and what needs to take place to resolve it?
A. So I say, once the truth gets printed or once the state attorney is through, she'll come out all right. She's not as inept as they think she is. She's made some very poor judgments by paying vendors before she got the supplies. But that's not unusual. She didn't have the chance to understand governmental accounting. If that's the way you're used to doing business, that's not a dishonest mistake; that's from lack of knowledge.
Q. You mentioned earlier about going through a period where African-Americans may be seen as "ungrateful." That clearly bothers many people who worry about racial conflict.
A. We're headed that way [toward conflict]. I refuse to sit idly by and be pushed back 100 years. I can't take it. But, I think it's time for us to get the God-fearing, good white people to help us get a good strong mayor. A strong mayor won't veto what's right because he has to come back to us.
Now they're saying you can't go back for 10 years. I'll be too old in 10 years. This is something I might need to do a petition on. I'm dead set on this. I'd like to see a good petition saying we want a strong mayor despite the charter. We've got to live another 10 years in this [weak-mayor government]? Impossible!
Sylvia Poitier was born in Deerfield Beach only blocks from where she now lives. She grew up picking beans and peppers in the county's fields. She started her own day-care center and became a tough and respected member of the Deerfield Beach City Commission. In 1985, Gov. Bob Graham appointed her to a vacant seat on the County Commission, where she was the first black member and served until 1998.