Behind the Challenges of Being Black in Naples
A small community struggles to find a unified identity where one used to exist.
Gail Williams of Hodges University.
Photography by Roland Scarpa
Willie Anthony stood at a podium on a sunny October afternoon in the River Park Community Center in Naples and scanned the banquet room. About 70 faces stared back. They’d gathered for a reunion of the historically black River Park neighborhood and the all-but-forgotten Carver High School. “There are this many black people in Naples?” Anthony, 69, quipped, drawing chuckles—knowing ones, because that’s the running joke among people here. There are… black people in Naples? The question is sort of tongue-in cheek, but a truth lies underneath it. About 6 percent of Collier’s population is black, a small community to begin with, but one that harbors a sense of invisibility—a feeling that it’s uncelebrated in terms of its history, unseen in the majority white community and veiled even to itself as newcomers settle in Collier and wonder if their budding social circles will include anyone who looks like them. “I think people don’t even realize there’s a black community,” says Jenise Griffin, who lives in Tampa now but is still closely connected to her hometown. Demographics are changing even among the black community itself. The census yielded the 6 percent figure, but it doesn’t distinguish between African-Americans and Haitian-Americans, a fast-growing— and some would now say majority—subset of the population. So the African-American population may be even less visible than it was a few years ago. Or maybe not. Quietly, there’s movement on a number of fronts to connect and strengthen this community. A committee of longtime residents—the ones who organized the River Park reunion—want to re-engage scattered residents and infuse the community, especially the historically black neighborhoods, with the vitality and solidarity that they remember from childhood. At the same time, black professionals and wealthy retirees are discovering Naples in growing numbers, drawn by the same reasons as everyone else—tranquility, cleanliness, safety, opportunities and lifestyle. And they’re starting to find each other, too, linking through word of mouth, introductions or efforts like NAACP President Harold Weeks’ monthly get-togethers for African-American men. Their presence is important; parents and those who work with children want young people to see themselves represented in important jobs and multiple industries. A newly formed chapter of the Florida Diversity Council has formed, spearheaded and run by Hodges University’s chief diversity officer, herself an African-American who is pushing for broad cultural understanding in Southwest Florida. A new minister has taken over the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in River Park, the county’s first black church. Among his efforts are monthly outreach visits to connect with residents and community leaders. And a couple from Miami has adopted the name of the African-American community’s revered leader, the late Annie Mae “Mother” Perry. Their Mother Perry Youth Empowerment Project is working with teens from low socioeconomic neighborhoods to teach everything from money management to dressing for success to leadership. The experiences African-Americans have had in Naples and the mostly-white portions of Collier west of I-75 vary. Some say Naples is still tinged with Southern discrimination—the county, after all, was still subject to Justice Department oversight in the recent presidential election. Others find the place teeming with advancement opportunities and chances to bring a distinct perspective to the community.
The Way It Was
Collier’s black community used to be as tightly knit as a fisherman’s sweater—intertwined and solid, insulating itself against the racism of a then-segregated community. The community had been moved a couple of times, from Ditch Bank, a little patch of land by the Gulf, to the McDonald’s Quarters near the Naples Depot and then finally to River Park off of the Goodlette-Frank corridor. Even today, the River Park area holds the county’s largest concentration of black residents, though many have since moved on. Tonicia Morgan, 40, remembers how parents used to conspire before Christmas so that children woke up to similar gifts. Fathers would hurriedly assemble bicycles the night before—first for their own kids and then for the ones whose fathers weren’t around. “We didn’t have to go out and look for fun—our parents would make sure we had it in our own neighborhood,” she recalls. “I tell my girls all the time, ‘You missed out on something special.’”She loved the place so much that when her parents moved the family to Golden Gate —a common path and “upward” trajectory for many blacks—she moved back to River Park to stay with her grandparents. The Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church and the Carver School anchored the place. Children stayed at Carver through eighth-grade and then went on to high school in Fort Myers or Immokalee because they weren’t allowed to go to neighboring Naples High. In 1959, the Carver School added grades 9-12, affording black teens the option of staying home or continuing their commutes. “I liked it better when we started going to school here,” says Orsie Anthony, Willie Anthony’s older brother and a member of Carver High School’s first graduating class. He previously had commuted about an hour each way to Fort Myers’ Dunbar High. As much as residents loved their neighborhood, they knew they were there because they weren’t welcome in other parts of town. The original pool at River Park? Orsie Anthony said a white woman in Port Royal footed the bill, presumably to keep the black kids from going to the beach. They went anyway, Anthony says, though they were careful to steer clear of the Beach Club. Blacks were relocated from Ditch Bank to the McDonald’s Quarters because the former property was deemed too valuable for a minority neighborhood. And then, the centralized Quarters were pushed east to River Park. Even today, some residents wonder if some of Collier’s wealthy, white residents would prefer that the ’hood pick up and move east of I-75. “As long as people are out of sight and out of mind, nobody gets hurt,” says Willie Anthony, expressing what he believes is the attitude among some whites toward the black community.
Vaughn and Rose Young
Impact of Integration
Integration sparked a seismic change in the lifestyle of African-Americans. People started shifting. Over time, social organizations that had brought the community together vanished. The Optimist Club disbanded, ending its weekend dances. The Green Top Social Club closed. The towering tree and informal gathering spot in River Park got cut down. And the school—a focal point in any community—was shuttered. No one wants legally imposed segregation. No one will argue that integration didn’t open a world of new opportunities. But it also created a conundrum for blacks—what got lost in the midst of all those gains? “You’ve got to have something to belong to,” says Lee Ford, 56, who lives in Fort Myers now but is working to help African-American residents in his native Naples. “Black people like to connect socially. We like to hang out together. But there’s no real structured place where people can get together socially.” That’s how a community starts to fade. So that brings us to that sunny October afternoon at the River Park Community Center. The reunion’s original intent was a social one—an alternative to the funerals that had seemed to be the only reasons for getting together. But the focus shifted quickly to more serious matters. Jenise Griffin, the woman who grew up in Naples and served as features editor for the Naples Daily News before moving to Tampa, was troubled by her return trips home. “We noticed how dull it was,” she says of River Park. “When we were growing up, there was so much vibrance.” She saw teens hanging out idly, staring scornfully at passers-by. It was a far cry from the days when Richardeen Jones ran the neighborhood’s recreation center and kept kids busy, fit and out of trouble. “It’s critical that our young people know their history to have a sense of pride. There’s that old bromide that you have to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going,” says Griffin. Pamela Sooknanan, 55, discovered why it matters. She was among Collier’s first wave of integrated students. Her experience in Collier schools was good—like other residents her age, she said the mostly white schools embraced their new black students. But she didn’t realize what she was missing until she spent a year in Gadsen County when she was 14 and temporarily relocated to help her ailing grandparents. Her new school was 80 percent black. Here’s what she remembers most (aside from the initial shock): studying black leaders, authors, culture and heritage. Do today’s kids get anything like that? “I think it’s sad that the community has all but disappeared,” says Ford. “Young people need to know they belong to something … What I’d like to see is a more engaged community in Naples. A feeling that this is really home.” This isn’t idle talk. Ford is heading the River Park reunion committee, which has shifted its focus from simply creating a social gathering— though that’s an important way to rekindle community spirit— to studying the black community, its status, issues, attitudes and needs. “As a group we’re gonna have to start coming back up here and figuring out things for ourselves,” says Johnny Cannon, another committee member and native Neapolitian. “We’ve got to start getting these young people involved.” That’s where Vaughn Young comes in. Because the strength and vitality of any community rides on its youth. Young, who moved from Miami in 2007, grew concerned about the community’s teens—his own and the kids growing up around him. He noticed his oldest son starting to get a “chip on his shoulder.” And he knew from his own upbringing that kids of any race who grow up in tough neighborhoods with little money don’t get the same kinds of experiences and life lessons as the more affluent ones. “There’s no programming here,” Young says. “That’s not to say they don’t have great organizations like the Boys & Girls Club. But what if the individual is over the age of 14 or is not an athlete?” So he started the Mother Perry Youth Empowerment Project as a way of mentoring students from middle school through college age, giving them something to do and helping them imagine a future for themselves that takes them beyond their humble upbringings. Young takes students on college tours and keeps on them about admissions tests, financial aid applications and the like. “I was a different person before,” says Gino Jemson, 19. “When you do things like this, it changes you as a person.” He and his friend Lindsey Nelson, 18, say Young has pushed them to look beyond themselves and to find ways to give back to the community, through volunteerism and by building character so that they grow into successful adults. “This is about youth giving back,” Nelson says. It’s a community that doesn’t always love them. To be a young, black man is tough in many places, and Naples is no exception. “If you’re black and walking down the street, their heads are always down,” Nelson says of nonblack passers-by. “They try not to make it obvious, but you know they’re scared of you.”
What Isolation Breeds
Lisa Cannon arrived in Naples from Houston four years ago, and she’s been observing the community with both the detached perspective of a newcomer and also the insight of someone deeply involved in community affairs. Cannon is a member of the county’s Black Affairs Advisory Board, the NAACP board and a newly formed Diversity Council. “What I found out is the black community is isolated in Collier County,” she says. “I go everywhere, but you only see one or two blacks, maybe, and if you see more than that, you’re lucky.” She’s thinks some of them may be burdened by history—by Naples’ old segregationist policies and the movement of the black neighborhoods. Now, those beliefs may not be valid anymore so than the long-held notion that all cops harass all blacks. Cannon says those attitudes may be historically ingrained, passed on—sometimes unintentionally—from generations that lived through segregation to their offspring. But she’s not the only one to suggest the sense that certain places around town remain off-limits. “My experience is that whites I’ve encountered while at restaurants and while in downtown Naples seem to ‘ignore’ us—as though we don’t belong,” says Griffin. “Maybe it’s because they don’t see a lot of blacks at the theater and certain events. When I was working on the reunion and had to walk to an establishment on Fifth Avenue South to pick up some items, I felt ignored, and I never remember feeling that way growing up there.” She wonders: Do Neapolitans see today’s blacks in the same light as those first African-American settlers? Are they still merely “the help?” If there truly is that racial divide, everyone suffers, says Lisa Cannon. She worries that residents who don’t venture beyond the black neighborhoods miss out on all Collier County has to offer. And she believes whites who think they don’t need the black community lose out on the richness that comes from a multicultural community and the economic benefits that come from embracing a broad clientele and a diverse workforce. “We have to be willing to go in and get our hands dirty. I think it’s dialog and action. That’s a broad statement, I know, but there’s not an easy answer,” she says.
Different for Newcomers
You won’t hear the idea that Naples is somehow limiting expressed much by those who started life elsewhere and moved to Naples to pursue jobs or enjoy retirement. No, there’s a much different story being written by African-American residents in other neighborhoods and social circles. The black middle and upper classes are growing. Newcomers are grabbing the community’s educational and professional opportunities, retiring to its laid-back lifestyle and raising children in an environment that they feel has been safe and welcoming. It’s just that no one knows they’re here—including, often, blacks themselves. It’s a funny thing to be black in Naples. Without a social infrastructure like the one native Neapolitans experienced pre-integration, you’re a little bit like an island, scattered among the residents of other cultures in the gated communities of North Naples and removed from the high-concentration minority neighborhoods because there’s no shared heritage, no socioeconomic commonalities and no cultural mingling spots to connect you. That’s why when Tamika Seaton, the recently named public information officer for the City of Naples, appeared at the River Park reunion, she turned more than a few heads. A black woman in a prominent government job? Seaton, 37, who moved to Naples from Los Angeles in 2003 and previously worked in the county’s planning department, challenges the perception that Collier County shuts out its black residents. To be sure, there’s not a wealth of diversity— go to a business meeting and you’re lucky to see another black face in the crowd—but people like Seaton suggest Naples is changing. “The level of people attracted to Naples, no matter the ethnicity, is very strong and professional and intelligent, and (they) offer a lot to the community,” says Cotrenia Hood, 37, the vice president of business development for the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce. She moved from Louisiana five years ago when her husband was offered an executive- level job at BMO Harris, a private bank. California Pizza Kitchen General Manager Steven Tevis thinks that level of professionalism makes Naples different in terms of its attitude toward blacks. There’s no inner-city neighborhood in Naples—the subsidized housing units in River Park bear no relation to urban projects —and little headline-generating crime to give blacks a bad rap, Tevis believes. So when he walks into a shop or restaurant on Fifth Avenue South, proprietors greet him with respect and the expectation that he’s there to spend money. “People welcome you in,” he says. So why is Tevis’ experience so different than that of some black native Neapolitans? Many of them have come here, remember, to step up in careers launched in other cities. And they’ve lived in other, tougher environments and appreciate the relative paradise that is Southwest Florida. “I think if you try hard enough you can achieve anything you want to no matter where you live,” says Seaton. She arrived in Naples with an associate’s degree, went back to school at Hodges University for a bachelor’s and then got a master’s online. She discovered a knack for public relations and marketing while working with the NAACP and wound up landing the job at city hall. Coming to Naples from L.A. was “a culture shock,” both in the scant diversity as well as the small-town environment. When Seaton talks about the challenges of carving a career in Naples, she’s talking more about the limitations of suburbia than she is about any racial barrier. “There are a lot of hidden opportunities— you just have to turn over those rocks and not take no for an answer,” she says. Others, too, are finding their niches. “Every other person is a millionaire— that’s great for my business,” says Chris Locadia, 50, owner of Criteria of Naples, an audio-visual company that specializes in outfitting homes with high-end sound and video equipment. His six-year old start-up now has six employees and was featured in The New York Times a few years back. Indianapolis-born artist Marvin Rouse, 36, took a chance on Naples in 1998 when the father of his high school sweetheart—now his wife—suggested they join him here. Rouse launched an interior and faux finish painting business as well as a custom T-shirt shop. Now, he’s turning more of his attention to fine art and gaining attention for the abstract and emotionally charged works drawn in rich and elemental colors. It’s important for these professionals to be seen. Parents and those who work with children want young people to see successful people from multiple backgrounds. It helps them imagine themselves as principals, teachers, bankers, executives. It gives the community a richness and a depth that it would never have if everyone looked the same. “Naples still is lacking a whole lot of culture,” says Hood, the chamber of commerce executive. She’s talking about multiple cultures—not just her own racial background. “I don’t want my kids to think the world is one color—or two—and I don’t want my kids to think everyone drives a Bentley and lives on the beach.” To be sure, these professionals have questioned from time to time whether race has affected their careers here. Wells Fargo Vice President Barbara Melvin arrived here 11 years ago to work for BankOne and wondered if she had to work harder to win clients than white newcomers might. But she acknowledged that banking is still a man’s world, and women of any race aren’t well represented in the industry’s upper echelon. Her presence in Naples, then, bridges both a racial and a gender divide. “They don’t see often a black person at my level,” Melvin says of her clients. But maybe that’s about to change, too.
Gail Williams sits in a conference room at Hodges University, the place that educated her and helped propel her from her humble beginnings working at a coffee shop at Naples Community Hospital to the university’s chief diversity officer. “There is definitely a way to go,” she says, reflecting on her 30 years in Collier County. “We should never feel our job is completed.” Williams last year founded the Southwest Florida chapter of the Florida Diversity Council. The organization hopes to help educators, businesspeople, community leaders and residents understand what it means to be a truly inclusive community. In its first year, the council has hosted a leadership conference for women and initiated a program called Men of Vision and Excellence (MOVE) to address the needs of young men. The NAACP is working with one area employer that wants to increase its diversity but found the local workforce lacking high-tech skills necessary for the job, says Lisa Cannon. The NAACP is working to promote STEM education—science, technology, engineering and math—and related workforce development initiatives. Griffin, the woman who is active in the River Park Reunion Committee, has been in contact with another woman who wants to start a black sorority at Florida Gulf Coast University, the kind of organization that can give young African-Americans a sense of belonging and a reason to stay in Southwest Florida. So as African-Americans emerge as a stronger, more visible force in the community, as natives look to rekindle the community spirit and push those who haven’t yet found success onto higher ground, as organizations and individuals spark intercultural dialogue, maybe that old quip about Naples will fade away. Black people in Naples? Oh, yes, they’re here, and they’re a big part of what makes this place home.