Valentine’s Day 2016 is special for Mrs. Willie Pearl Porter, as she again proclaims love for her husband of 64 years. She is inviting the community to join her at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 14, at the Church of the Incarnation, 1835 NW 54th St., for the long-awaited book signing of her late husband’s authorized biography, Gilbert Lawrence Porter, Ph.D., written by Abraham J. Thomas.
At age 104, every day is special for Mrs. Porter. To some in the black community it is disrespectful to address an older woman by her first name or use the term “Ms.” Traditionally, black women of a certain age are referred to as Mrs. or their earned terminal degree title such as M.D. for medical doctor; J.D. for lawyer; or Ph.D. for educator.
The book’s title honors Gilbert Porter’s final degree in education, Ph.D., doctor of philosophy, earned at a white university during the era of Jim Crow. Titles maybe important to those who understand the period of black history in the United States, when no matter the age or educational level, black adults were called by their first names, intimidated, and treated like children.
In the book’s prologue, the struggle for racial equality is outlined by Dr. Whittington Johnson, professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Miami. According to Johnson, the struggle of black people, “to achieve equal opportunities and access the American dream has been long and painful.”
He outlines the journey, including “congressional legislation, United States Supreme Court decisions, and generation after generation of heroic leaders who have risked life, limbs, property, and careers for the cause.”
Johnson declares, “over time, despite disheartening experiences well-known leaders have emerged to articulate their grievances and form alliances with sympathetic whites to shed light on the plight of black people.”
Some black leaders are well known, with their efforts recorded nationally and internationally in texts. Others have yet to be recognized. Until now, Dr. Gilbert Porter is one whose struggles and achievements were omitted from the pages of history books.
That is no longer the case. Native Miamian Abraham Thomas, a graduate of Tuskegee University, began researching, writing and publishing local history many years ago. To date, he has produced a total of 19 books, including the authorized biography of Dr. John O. Brown, M.D., ophthalmologist and civil rights activist.
The Porter biography is the most comprehensive. It chronicles 20th century race relations in United States history and the history of race and education in the state of Florida, through the experiences of a black family seeking justice and equality for themselves and their community. In the book, the term “Negro,” used in the context of the time, refers to African Americans and black people of African descent.
Forthright and without pretense, in a conversational tone, blemishes and joyful moments are revealed. A close-knit family, Mrs. Porter, daughter Laurestine, and son Albert share details about births, deaths, marriages, divorces, growing-up experiences and family road trips.
Historically, during the Jim Crow era, public and private travel accommodations were racially separated. Blacks driving long distances were not allowed to use restrooms at some gas stations and they had to enter separate entrances at restaurants. Albert was amused when his father parked several blocks from a restaurant and his mother, because of her fair skin, “passed” as a white woman, entered the front door, ordered food and returned with dinner for the family waiting in the car.
The book opens with this declaration: “Gilbert Lawrence Porter was born Jan. 6, 1909, in northeast Kansas, a town along the Santa Fe Trail. Nearly 60 years before his birth, the state of Kansas decided against being a slave ownership upholding state. Having that awareness is what led his paternal and maternal grandparents to take up residence.” Following his mother’s death, young Porter was reared primarily by his grandparents, influenced by his father’s work ethic, and motivated by his mother’s three studious and athletic brothers.
Porter admitted not being a straight-A student, but was a solid performer. He developed goals, and as he advanced demonstrated intellectual maturity. At Talladega College, he joined the Science Club, was a star fullback on the football team, and joined Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. After graduating from college, his first teaching position was in Sarasota. From there, his educational career evolved.
Recognizing his teaching and leadership skills, Porter was promoted to principal in DeFuniak Springs then to Lincoln High School in Tallahassee. Inspired and encouraged by his uncles to study for an advanced degree, he earned a Master’s from the University of Michigan, then exceeded expectations, earning a Ph.D. from Ohio State University.
Returning to Florida, Dr. Porter immediately applied his newly acquired education and training to one purpose, “to make education all it could be for Negro children.” His initiatives were noticed by state educators, including the Florida State Teachers Association (FSTA) for black teachers. As its first paid executive director, he helped lead the transformation of Florida’s state educational system.
On a daily basis, Porter confronted attitudes deeply rooted in the custom of racism. He especially fought for equal salaries for Negro teachers. The political climate throughout the state was hostile. There was mistreatment when Negroes spoke up, threats, and bombing of the home and murder of NAACP representative Harry Moore and his wife, Harriett.
When the white and black teacher associations merged, Dr. Porter was offered a position in Dade County Public Schools. He began under Superintendent Joe Hall during the first phase of school integration. Dr. Porter was the first black educator appointed to a senior position in the school system. He advocated for all of the children, particularly encouraging black children and black teachers in spite of their circumstances. He retired in 1973 and died in 1995.
Recognized for his leadership in education and compassion for children, he was honored in many ways, including having an elementary school at 15851 SW 112th St. named for him. With the publication of the book his life story is now recorded for generations. It is dedicated to his widow. Married for over a half century, she said, “Porter was a man of destiny, one who could not be held back from what he was put on earth to do.”
Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to email@example.com.