An observant writer once said of Roxcy O’Neal Bolton, “I have heard Roxcy Bolton laugh, as elusive an event as seeing the great Greta Garbot smile.”
The Roxcy Bolton who opens the door to her Coral Gables home to welcome visitors on a recent afternoon laughs easily and often on this day.
Though two strokes and two heart attacks conspired to steal some of Bolton’s verbal abilities, good cheer and a fierce determination to champion equal rights, along with a desire to document her history as a trailblazer, keeps Bolton energized.
And now she’s sharing her life story with others through donations of her memorabilia to state and local museums. For nearly 20 years Bolton has been collecting memorabilia — letters and correspondence, documents, photographs — and has submitted them to the State Archives in Tallahassee and, locally, HistoryMiami.
“She has so many objects she can’t give all of them just to her family and she has such a spirit of community that she wants to make sure the community benefits from having them,” said Bolton’s daughter, Bonnie, her caretaker.
Earlier this year, Bolton, 86, added the city of Coral Gables, her family’s home since 1964, to the beneficiaries of her photographs and memories. Among the items: she donated a plat book from 1947 that lists property boundaries for Coral Gables at the time and an original building code document from the city’s founding in 1925.
“For a community such as Coral Gables that takes such pride in its history, these documents help explain where the city has come from,” said City Manager Pat Salerno. “Not only has she been a pioneer for women’s rights but she’s left her mark on the city in so many ways.”
Bolton, born to a Mississippi pioneer family, was one of the first Florida women to join the National Organization for Women after its founding in 1966. She founded and presided over the Miami-Dade Chapter of NOW in 1968 and fought for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.
At the same time, as pop singer Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman and television’s groundbreaking All in the Family and Maude tackled the subject of the ERA nationally, Bolton had already successfully thrown open the doors locally at the all-male lunchrooms at the former Burdines and Jordan Marsh department stores to women patrons. A decade later, she lobbied the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to end its practice of naming hurricanes solely for women.
In Nov. 1971, the Playboy Plaza Hotel in Miami Beach made the mistake of placing Bolton on its mailing list and offering its facilities, should she desire, for NOW meetings
Bolton’s response became one of her most pointed missives when she made it abundantly clear she would never join Hefner’s hutch.
“Your colossal gall is exceeded only by my tolerance, despite the stress on my good nature,” she opened her letter to the club’s assistant director for sales. To Bolton, armed with pen and paper, Playboy clubs represented the abuse and exploitation of women. “How would you like to walk around with a wad of cotton on your rear end?” she wrote.
Bolton received a terse letter a week later from the sales director; her name was removed from the Playboy Club’s mailing list.
The mid-19th century desk and hutch that she used to write many of her letters — first in flowing cursive and then neatly typed — went to HistoryMiami.
“This is where she did a lot of the writing and that’s a great personal artifact to be able to share with visitors,” said Joanne Hyppolite, chief curator at HistoryMiami. “Where does history get made? Often in routine, regular circumstances.”
The downtown Miami museum also has a Picasso print reproduction from Bolton’s collection that had been given to her by a group of women she had assisted when she founded the nation’s first Rape Treatment Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital in 1974. She also donated the letters, state officials’ accolades, and a proclamation she earned for creating the center, renamed the Roxcy Bolton Rape Treatment Center in 1993.
“She’s probably the best known feminist women’s activist here in Miami,” Hyppolite said, citing Bolton’s activism in getting National Airlines to create maternity leave instead of firing its pregnant flight attendants, which had been the airline’s policy. “There were one or two people you would call and she was ours from the ‘60s onward. She’s been the one really strong voice in our community.”
Today, Bolton communicates mostly by pad and pen, and with help from her daughter Bonnie, 47, one of her three children with her late husband, David Bolton, a Navy lawyer she married in 1960. There is no social media because there are no computers in the Bolton home. But modern contrivances like Wikipedia and a Facebook fan page dutifully note the pivotal moments of her storied life.
What her home contains is heart, along with rooms filled with memorabilia of a life well-lived: a cherished 1956 photo of Bolton with one of her heroines, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; a shot of Bolton marching for the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1970s with State Rep. Gwen Cherry, the first black woman to serve in the Florida Legislature. A photo of Bolton greeting President Bill Clinton in Miami in the early 1990s. A 2009 letter from First Lady Michelle Obama that gives thanks to Bolton for her commitment to community.
In August, Beth Golding, archivist supervisor for the State Archives in Florida, Division of Library and Information Services, and members of her staff, visited Bolton’s home to pick up some materials.
“Since 1994 she has steadily made donations of her papers and photographs and correspondence that she’s collected over the years,” Golding said. “So the collection we have here at the State Archives contains a great deal of documentation of her personal role in the women’s movement in Florida and the evolution of the movement as a whole from the 1960s into the early 21st century.”
Golding also notes that Bolton was a key advocate of preserving the Miami Circle when the archeological landmark was discovered downtown in 1998. “She has a keen sense of history and the importance of preserving history.”
Bolton says that her passion, and commitment to fighting for equal rights, comes from her upbringing in Mississippi. She writes the word ‘grandparents’ on a notepad in handwriting that hasn’t changed much from the hand that guided the pen on that 1971 letter to Playboy.
“She spent her formative years on a farm in Mississippi and that inspired her to appreciate history. From the country in Mississippi she was learning to save everything,” Bonnie said.
The photo that means the most her: a beaming Bolton and Eleanor Roosevelt.
“Eleanor was one of the greatest inspirations outside of her own family,” Golding said. “She feels that her Mississippi upbringing instilled in her the values that led her to be an activist. She often will refer to her pioneer-settler grandparents and how strong and caring those people were and she feels [this] is what led her to be the person she is and to advocate for the things that are important to her.”
From those humble beginnings, future generations can learn how a powerful voice can affect change.
“Thousands of children come here and can’t believe women weren’t treated equally, couldn’t vote, weren’t paid equally — that’s unfathomable to them,” HistoryMiami’s Hyppolite said. “We need these historical documents to show them physical evidence that these things happened and that there are people who overcame them.”
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