History of desegregation in 20th century Vero Beach revisited
BY JANIE GOULD
A longtime certified financial planner in Vero Beach recently earned a master’s degree, but not in anything related to finance, at least not in the traditional sense of the word.
Guy Bassini, 65, a Brooklyn, New York, native who has owned Treasure Coast Financial Planning since 1995, has a passionate interest in history. He dedicated many nights and weekends during the past several years researching and writing a book-length thesis for an online master’s degree in history from the University of Nebraska. The title is: We Have Been the Most Patient of People: From Jackie Robinson to Joe Idlette. Desegregation in Vero Beach, Florida, 1941-74.
Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, training with the team in Vero Beach as the first black player in major league baseball. Gifford native Idlette fought successfully to integrate Indian River County public schools and later became the first black member of the county school board.
Bassini doesn’t watch TV and is not interested in sports, but is interested in the history of France and other European countries, as well as the history of World War II and the Cold War. A dedicated Francophile, he speaks French well and has read hundreds of books in French.
Some of his ancestors wrote books, including tomes about voice instruction by Carlo Bassini, a 19th century opera singer. Carlo Bassini, who was Bassini’s great-great-grandfather, emigrated from northern Italy to America by way of Brazil, where he directed that country’s national symphony. In New York, he became a renowned voice instructor for stars of the Metropolitan Opera. Another ancestor wrote, in French, a history of the 1791 Haitian Revolution, which Bassini has read.
His parents wanted him to become a doctor, but he had no affinity for science courses.
“When I was in high school, I thought I would be a history teacher,” he said. “I loved academics. I just have zero interest in biology. I like history. I like writing. I like reading. I like commentary.”
400 YEARS AGO
To tell the story of segregation in Florida, Bassini goes back four centuries, to the 21 years in which Great Britain ruled its East Florida colony, which stretched from the St. Marys River on the north to the Apalachicola River on the west, with the capital at St. Augustine. The Spaniards had discovered gold in Latin America, but the British weren’t as lucky in Florida.
The British had ample land in East Florida, but not enough labor to make farming profitable. Their solution was to bring in slaves from Africa to work the fields, producing cash crops to export to England. Bassini said the English also introduced their bloody codes that imposed harsh penalties for minor property crimes.
“In my opinion, the British exported the lynching culture to the New World,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that wherever you have a legacy of British slavery, you have a history of violence.”
Bassini shows that even though slavery ended officially with the Civil War, a system of agricultural peonage remained in force in Florida for another century.
After Reconstruction, state political leaders crafted a new constitution that guaranteed the state would continue to have an underclass of poorly educated blacks to work in white owners’ fields and homes. The 1885 constitution made school segregation the law in Florida. The state’s all-black schools remained substandard, providing few resources to prepare their students for higher education.
“The 1885 constitution used education to turn black citizens into a permanent peasant class,” Bassini said. “The purpose of segregated education was to replace slavery with indentured servitude.”
Bassini studied Vero Beach Press Journal archives to illustrate the differences between a school for white students that was built around the same time as a school for blacks in 1928. The all-white school was constructed of tile and stucco on land provided by the school board. The all-black Gifford School, funded largely by the Chicago-based Rosenwald Fund on land donated by a Gifford resident, was a frame building costing about $10,000, the newspaper reported. No price was reported for the other school.
Bassini says the state’s system of agricultural peonage remained in place well through the first half of the 20th century, aided by state laws and court rulings that were increasingly at variance with the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal Anti-Peonage Act.
“Following in the tradition of militant resistance to both the Constitution of the United States and the laws of Congress, peonage substituted for slavery statewide due to the efforts of the Legislature and the support of the Florida Supreme Court,” Bassini wrote.
Florida continued to function as a segregated society even as military installations sprang up around the state during World War II. When the Vero Beach Naval Air Station was decommissioned after the war, and the property acquired by the newly integrated Brooklyn Dodgers, segregation was still the law for Robinson and other black players and spectators.
“At Holman Stadium, blacks watched integrated teams from segregated right field stands in a stadium where signs marked the separate bathrooms and water fountains for blacks and whites,” Bassini writes.
“Dodgertown promised to transform the demographics and the economy of Vero Beach. Yet … the local system remained impervious to change.”
BEGINNING OF THE END
The path to integration in Florida came not only from the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision ordering desegregation “with all deliberate speed,” but also from the changing nature of Florida’s population. Between 1950 and 1960, the urban population doubled, to 3.6 million, while farm population dwindled from 232,806 to 105,419. That made segregation economically unimportant, Bassini wrote.
Even so, Florida remained slow to follow the Supreme Court’s mandate. The Pork Chop Gang of powerful legislators from small counties opposed any change in the status quo. School boards, including Indian River’s, used tactics such as “freedom of school choice,” to delay integration.
Finally, in 1964, Idlette and Raymond Sharpton sued the Indian River County School Board in federal court, seeking a unitary school system. Three years later, the judge issued sweeping orders desegregating the county’s public schools. A year after that, the state adopted a new constitution, one that, as Bassini put it, removed all the tools for the maintenance of the agricultural caste system.
Bassini sifted through official documents, books, articles, and newspaper archives, and he conducted numerous personal interviews, to write about an important piece of history.
His information about individuals involved in the struggle is particularly noteworthy. Chesterfield Smith, for example, chairman of the 1968 Constitutional Revision Commission, rose from humble beginnings in Arcadia to become president of the American Bar Association. Along the way, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II and liberated concentration camp prisoners.
“Chesterfield Smith used what he learned fighting Nazis under General Patton to push through a new constitution,” Bassini said.
Bassini also admires local leaders of the desegregation fight, such as Idlette and fellow Gifford native Dr. A. Ronald Hudson.
“I’m fascinated by people who step out of the ordinary world to do extraordinary things, and that’s what they did,” he said.