Once a “sundown town,” Gulfport reaches out to its black residents

click to enlarge Gulfport Vice Mayor Christine Brown and husband Louis Worthington. - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
Gulfport Vice Mayor Christine Brown and husband Louis Worthington.

I’m sitting at Gulfport Vice Mayor Christine Brown’s blue-flecked kitchen table, debating whether or not to include her husband Louis Worthington’s use of the N-word in this article.

While discussing how attitudes about race have evolved in the sleepy-fishing-village-turned-quaint-arts-hub, Louis tells me, “There’s black people and then there’s niggers.” He’s trying to explain the distinction between the classes, and doesn’t have a problem using the word, because in his mind it isn’t about race. And he has no trouble with me quoting him. But he’s concerned about people judging his wife.
“I don’t want her to be labeled a racist because of me,” he tells me.

Worthington, 71, grew up in a Gulfport that had signs at the city limits that read, “Black man, don’t let the sun set on you in Gulfport” — except when other people tell the story, they don’t use the phrase “black man.” Louis isn’t afraid of the word, but he wants to be clear: He’s not describing black people. He doesn’t mean the young man his daughter is seeing, who lives in Jordan Park and has already enlisted in the Marines.

“He’s respectable. He respects me,” he says. “I respect him.”

This Saturday, during the National Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Service in Gulfport, the vice mayor and her husband will work alongside volunteers offering service in honor of a civil rights leader who asked people, “What are you doing for others?” It’s Gulfport’s first year taking part. In a city with a less than 10 percent black population — as compared to the state average of 16 percent — Gulfport’s participation in the nationwide event has more to do with service than race. That, says Councilwoman Yolanda Roman, is as it should be.

“They’re two separate things,” she says, but she encourages honest discussion.

click to enlarge Gulfport City Councilwoman Yolanda Roman. - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
Gulfport City Councilwoman Yolanda Roman.

Roman identifies as Hispanic, but her children consider themselves both African-American and Hispanic. She has dark skin, short kinky hair, and never considered her race a factor until she ran for city council. During her campaign, one of her volunteers — a gay white man — reported people giving racially based reasons for why they wouldn’t vote for her.

“You think everything’s hunky-dory, until you start peeling back the onion,” she says. “Some comments are so 50 years ago.”

Gulfport, a small town known for its quirky art community, destination restaurants, and early embrace of the LGBT community, is evolving on matters of race, but still has a way to go, community activists say.

Margarete Tober, president of Gulfport Neighbors, the service group standing behind Roman in organizing Gulfport’s first Day of Service, sees a difference between real-life interaction and comments on social media sites. Last year, a series of posts about bike thefts and problems at the skate park led to a rash of racial epithets. Tober says she was shocked more residents didn’t chastise the commenters.

In town, she says she doesn’t see racism but thinks Gulfport could do more to welcome its small African-American community.

“I’d like to see the city and residents reach out a whole lot more to the black residents we have,” she says. “We’re focused a lot on the business district, but what are we doing to help lower income families in the northeast quadrant of the city?”

The northeast quadrant, known as Ward Four, borders Childs Park, a predominantly low-income black neighborhood.

“Why don’t we have a park up there, or other facilities for the residents of that area?” Tober asks. Ward Four has a small playground, but ballfields — which remain locked when Little League isn’t using them — and a lake consume much of that space.

Tober has started trying to have frank discussions about race. Roman has joined her.

“Open dialogue and communication,” Roman says. “It really does come down to that. If that’s the fabric of our lives, the fabric of Gulfport, you can’t forget it.”

Last weekend, Tober and Roman met with representatives from Childs Park to discuss how to have those discussions. The president of Childs Park Neighborhood Association, Brother John Muhammed, says when he lived in Gulfport’s Ward Four, he had no race-related problems.
But Roman and Tober aspire to a higher standard than “no problems.”

“We do lack the African-American family who wants to participate [in local events] and say, ‘Yes, that’s my city’,” Roman says.

The Brown-Worthington family sees Gulfport changing.

“The people who are racist are starting to die off,” Brown says. “It’s a dying breed. The kids today don’t see color at all, unless they were raised as racist.”

“Like me,” Worthington says, grimacing.

“You’re not a racist, honey,” she interjects. “You were raised when it was acceptable. It’s just hard for you to shed the feelings of
the past.”

The Gulfport Neighbors encourage everyone, regardless of race, to join them in Saturday’s Day of Service, which starts at 8:30 a.m. in Tomlinson Park. Join here or call 727-343-8428. 

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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