“I remember when … I would sit at my mother’s feet, and she spoke of a time … when there was an entire black community where the RP Funding Center now stands.”
“She told me about this community of Moorehead, named in the honor of Rev. H. K. Moorehead, that was filled with schools, churches, and places of commerce. A calling card for this county, for blacks, young and old who were encouraged by prominent figures such as Booker T. Washington to move here and to live here. She would tell me that this community was filled with pioneers such as Dr. David J. Simpson, Lakeland’s first black doctor. However, perhaps the greatest black community of its time was Teaspoon Hill. A mecca of black-owned businesses of which many stood for years even after desegregation. She would tell me how black businesses lined the streets of North Florida Avenue, North Street (now Memorial Boulevard), North Dakota Avenue (now MLK). She would often place much emphasis on the amount of pride that those communities and their families within them once possessed.”
In 2001, LaFrancine Burton became known as the foremost narrator of Lakeland’s black history. Beginning that year and through 2007, Mrs. Burton wrote a total of 33 articles that appeared in The Ledger telling the story of Lakeland’s black history and adding much-needed context to an already rich city history. She wrote mostly from the perspective of Moorehead, and many of the other black neighborhoods like Teaspoon Hill (now essentially the Paul A. Diggs Neighborhood) and Robinson Quarters (now known as the Crescent Height Neighborhood) which sits at the west entrance to Bonnet Springs Park). Burton’s work saw a high point on February 23, 2002, when the City of Lakeland placed a historical marker on the site in the roundabout entrance off Lime Street, which still stands to this day.
The Lakelander met with Mrs. Burton to reflect upon her time here in Lakeland, her work as a historian, and to walk through a much different time in our country’s history.
The Lakelander: LaFrancine, tell our readers a little about yourself and your time here in Lakeland.
LaFrancine Burton: I am a Lakeland native, born on this same property that my granddaddy bought 100 years ago. My mother and father divorced when I was three years old, so my grandfather (eventually) gave me the house next door which has been torn down since. I attended all-black schools: Moorehead Elementary and Rochelle Jr./Sr. High. During my high school years. They offered *voluntary integration, and I became one of the first two black students to graduate Lakeland Senior in 1966 (the other student was Delores Belle). I didn’t want to attend Lakeland Senior, but back then, if your parents said, “This is what you are doing,” then that is what you did. I was the only black student in all of my classes, and I had to learn to interact with other people, especially white students. I attended summer school to “prepare” me for the school year because they wanted me to “adjust.”
Being the only black student in high school was a different culture, but that experience later gave me the confidence to visit other people’s homes (as a working adult and writer). I’ve probably been in a thousand homes in my career with Catholic Social Services and Polk County Elderly Services. It gave me the opportunity to learn to talk to folks, all folks, even the Klansmen (KKK).
Post high school, I married and remarried several times and had a daughter. I started my career at Catholic Social Services and worked there for 15 or 16 years; then, the Catholic Church decided to separate state and church. So, Polk County Elderly Services took over, and I continued my career there until retiring in 2006.
I started contributing to the black history records because I was inspired by Cantor Brown’s speech in Bartow. Cantor Brown spoke to the county (government) for Black History Month and weaved this wonderful story in his speech. Then, at the Brown House (the L. B. Brown House in Bartow), Cantor Brown recounted the history of the house and the 18 tree stumps that the house sits on, so I thought to myself, “Well, I am going to look up my (black) history.”
I went down to the library and asked about black history, and they said, “There’s nothing here.” Dr. (David) Logan said, “We don’t have anything here, but whatever you can find, if you bring it and share it with us, we will place it in a special collection. I then started visiting the homes of folks who used to live in Moorehead before it was torn down, and they would share these wonderful stories with me. I would take pictures of them and write the stories that they had to tell (of Moorehead).
That’s how the articles got bigger and bigger, but sometimes they would say, “Well, do you know Mr. So and So played baseball in the Negro Baseball League? I would then go to Bartow and they would tell me where the person lived, and I would go and knock on the door and they would say, “Come on in baby.”
*Voluntary school integration (sometimes also called voluntary school desegregation) usually refers to the efforts that a school district (or region, or state) might undertake to encourage racial and ethnic diversity in its schools absent a court order requiring it to do so. – https://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/
The Lakelander: Could you tell our readers a little more about Moorehead and where they can find information about it?
LaFrancine Burton: During the days of segregation in the 1800s there were black communities, one that used to be called Robinson’s Quarters. Moorehead was a black community, Teaspoon Hill was a black community. The blacks were coming in on the railroad, working the railroad. Initially, the railroad gang was down on Lake Wire, but some of the folks ventured over across the railroad tracks (heading south) to Moorehead, and they established a church; St. John’s Baptist (now First Baptist Institutional Church) was the first church. The first school was founded inside of that church. They (eventually) built a school over there. The church Mt. Pleasant AME (which now sits on the corner of North Virginia Avenue and Ninth Street) was also one of the earlier churches there. Dr. (David J.) Simpson was the first black doctor in Lakeland (who is the surname for Simpson Park Community Center on MLK Avenue). He was noted in the newspaper in 1917-1918 for coming up with a cure for the Spanish flu. Even though there was segregation at the time, when folks heard that Dr. Simpson could cure the Spanish flu, they started allowing him into their homes to prescribe medication. There were black businesses there. During that time in the early 1900s, teachers and preachers were top-level professionals. There were a lot of them living in Moorehead, and people would travel from Teaspoon Hill to go to church. Some of the folks out here (in Robinson Quarters) would go over to Moorehead. The neighborhoods were self-sustaining, and a lot of blacks made money and had money because they had their own businesses. Mr. Shanghai (her father Elijah Jackson) made bookoos (lots) of money, but he made his money illegally which a lot of folks did. Now we have the lottery, but back then it was bolita (chuckles).
The other day, I was telling someone that we have lost the feeling of community. Back then, my grandmother would get sick, and the neighbors would come and comb my hair, and sweep and mop and fix lunch for my grandfather to go to work the next day. The house went on. We’ve kind of lost that.
You can find out more about Moorehead by visiting the Special Collections Room in the Lake Morton Library here in Lakeland, or by visiting the Polk County History Center down in Bartow.
The Lakelander: So, local historian Cantor Brown was a catalyst that got you started in your journey to uncover even more history?
LaFrancine Burton: Yes, Cantor Brown really helped me. Also, Clifton Lewis, who heard about the Moorehead community, introduced me to Cantor. He (Cantor) pushed me. I have so much material that Cantor has sent here. Whatever he would find regarding Lakeland, he would send to me.
The Lakelander: What are the things you are proud to have been a part of while serving here in Lakeland?
LaFrancine Burton: I am proud that as an amateur researcher I have received numerous awards, proclamations, recognitions, and appreciations for having researched and documented some of our local black history.
I was very proud to receive the historic marker in recognition of all the black folks who had lived there, had their communities there, their churches there, the schools there. Everything disappeared in order to build the civic center. I am proud to have received that historic marker. That was a fight, but I loved it! And finally getting Polk County’s black history documented was a huge win.
The Lakelander: When you left Rochelle and transferred to Lakeland High School, you mentioned that the culture was different. How were those two school cultures different?
LaFrancine Burton: At Rochelle, there were different sections (according to your learning ability), but everybody had to learn at a certain level. There was respect. You respected your teachers. You didn’t talk back. You were given paddlings.
When I arrived at Lakeland Senior, I had never heard a student call a teacher a liar. I never had, in the entirety of my life. So, when I heard it—I was ducking (chuckling) because I knew what my teacher would have done if that ever happened. So, I sat back and I was like, “Oh, the teacher just took it as if it were nothing.”
I was taking business English, and I heard the teacher say, “I’ve got my education. I will help you to get yours, but if you don’t get it that’s up to you.” I had never heard that over there (at Rochelle). At Rochelle, you were there to get an education because we all knew that education was the way out.
When I went to Lakeland Senior, the guidance counselor asked me, “What would you like to do career-wise?” I told her that I wanted to be a legal secretary. She said, “You need to focus on something else, because there aren’t any black legal secretaries in Florida.”
I thought, “Well, ok …” During summer school, I found out that there was a whole building dedicated to nothing but business. So I took typing, shorthand, business English, and bookkeeping. Everything was business-related. I never left that one building, which is why I say, “I never saw another black student at school.” I thought that’s why they (white students) could go into an office and get a job, because they’re prepared. We (at Rochelle) are hunting and pecking on these raggedy typewriters and adding machines when they’ve got the electric kind.
I had always heard about the idea “separate but equal.” It was the biggest lie in the world. It was not equal. When I was at Rochelle, we were lucky if we got a new book. There would be pages missing. The books were written all over. But every book was new at Lakeland High School. The desks were new, and there was air conditioning; it was totally different. The lunchroom was even different. I had never had pizza in my life. I didn’t know they served pizza in the lunchroom. When I got there, I said, “Well what is this?” It was totally different. It was absolutely a culture shock.
The Lakelander: Who are some of the black historical figures that have most inspired you?
LaFrancine Burton: I love Maya Angelou. She is my favorite author. In her autobiography, she went from not speaking to learning how to speak again. She had to grow out of her shell, and she eventually became a dancer. I love her speaking voice because it is very slow, and her diction is so sharp. She’s so blunt about how to accept people: “When people show you who they are, believe them” (a famous Maya Angelou quote). I’ve read everything that she’s ever written. She found so many experiences outside of the bubble that she was raised in: learning different cultures, meeting different people, and traveling to places like Africa. I look at her, and even though I haven’t traveled, I can relate because I love meeting people and I love hearing about other folks’ lives. She probably inspired me more than Martin Luther King. So, for me as a woman, Maya was always the one person I said I would pay money to go see … even though I loved Richard Pryor (chuckles). I would never say I would pay to see Richard Pryor, but I would pay to see Maya.
The Lakelander: What moment in black history has been most impactful to you?
LaFrancine Burton: The Civil Rights era of the early to mid-sixties stands out the most to me, probably because at that time I was at Lakeland Senior. Every evening we would watch Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on the evening news, and I would sit there and watch: the dogs, the fire hose, and Birmingham (Alabama). My granddaddy would sit there crying. I can remember that vividly, and I guess that will always stay with me. That fight, and hearing him talk about what he had to go through as a black man. The segregation. I remember it vividly. Going into a store and not being allowed to put money into their (white people’s) hands. You had to put the money on the counter for them to pick up, because some people believed they couldn’t touch black people. I remember it vividly, so when I hear folks say nothing has changed, that is a lie. A lot has changed.
The Lakelander: Given that you’ve made such a significant contribution in adding to the story of Lakeland from the perspective of Moorehead, what is your greatest hope going forward?
LaFrancine Burton: I would love to see somebody young like you (Ashley Troutman), (which I have said this to your mother and many other folks), I expect to see you in downtown Lakeland at City Hall at some point, and you will have my vote. I just have that feeling about you. I want to see younger black folks carry on the legacy because our history is being researched, it’s being told by others, and I want us to tell it. Our history is so rich. I would just hope that someone would pick it up and carry it on and make sure that it is accurate.