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Strength to stay and grow

At a time when African-Americans had an assigned place in society, J.D. Floyd was a bridge that led to education and employment.

By MICHAEL KRUSE
Published October 13, 2006


 Brooksville: 150 Years
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[Times photo: Edmund Fountain]
A beautiful reminder of an ugly night stands in the front yard of Ira Belle Floyd, 89. Her oldest son planted a row of palms there not long after a group of whites burned a cross in the yard in 1955. That was the family’s first night in their new home.
J.D. Floyd worked his way through FAMU by milking and feeding cows.  
[Photo courtesy of Ira Belle Floyd]

BROOKSVILLE - One night in the summer of 1955, on the Floyds' first night in their new one-story, concrete-block home on what was then the dirt-road outskirts of town, the family's dog started barking.

"We had laid down to go to sleep about 10 o'clock," said Ira Belle Floyd, 89, the widow of J.D. Floyd, "and I had a dog, Sable - I got him for my kids, and he really protected them and protected us - and Sable started raving outside, so I got up to go see. A car came by and was right on the road. They had it made up and it was pine. They stuck the cross in the ground and threw gasoline on there.

"They were white and the car was full.

"I told my husband: 'We bought this property honestly, and we built this house with our own money, and nobody's going to run me away from here.'"

The Floyds' oldest son planted a row of palms in the front of the yard later that week there on the ground where the cross had been burned.

The trees were small then. Now they are big.

The Floyds planted seeds and left roots.

J.D. Floyd, who died in 1985, was the grandson of a slave in Georgia and the son of a poor dirt farmer near Ocala. He was a teacher, a principal and an administrator, a leader in the black community in Brooksville and a bridge to white people at a time when black people sat upstairs in the downtown Dixie Theater and ordered out of the back door of the Cottage Dinette. An elementary school in Spring Hill bears his name.

Brooksville had one of the highest lynching rates in the South, and in 1948 the City Commission passed a law that essentially meant all blacks had to live in the swampy southern part of town.

But the story of the Floyd family is one of empowerment. There are generations of black men and women in Brooksville and beyond who say they are who they are and do what they do because of J.D. Floyd.

"I am where I am because of his guidance," said Wilbur Bush, 68, Class of '56 at then-all-black Moton High.

"I have classmates all over," Bush said, "and we often talk about it: 'Boy, Floyd made us - Floyd made all of us.' "

Before he came to Brooksville, Floyd went to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, when most blacks went to grade school only. He worked his way through college by milking and feeding the cows on campus in the early morning, and that's where he met his wife, who cleaned the bathrooms in the dorms to pay her way. They were both first-generation college students in their families.

Floyd served four years in the Army and then worked 39 years in the schools in Brooksville - as an agriculture teacher at Moton, then the principal at Moton, then the assistant superintendent for maintenance and general services after schools were integrated in the late '60s.

He was a member of the Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, the Brooksville Housing Authority, the NAACP, and the local units of the American Cancer Society and the Democratic Executive Committee. He was chairman of the board of the Hernando/Sumter Community Action Agency. He helped raise money for the Elks Lodge and was a head deacon at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Along with his wife, who taught home economics at Moton, and then in the integrated schools, he taught his kids - his kids, and others' kids - how to saw a board and drive a nail and how to build a hog pen and how to care for a cow and tend to a garden and raise a chick to a chicken.

He taught "manners, respect, restraint, work ethic and professionalism," said Bennie Floyd-Peoples, the youngest of the five Floyd children.

More than anything else, though, he preached higher education, to his kids, and to so many others - kids who back then often would leave school at 16 to start working in the groves.

He had a saying: "If a pig will get fat for a white boy it will get fat for a black boy. All you have to do is feed it and care for it."

And his trees grew tall.

His five kids got at least a college degree. Some of them got master's degrees. One of them got a doctorate. All of them became educators.

The long list of others he mentored at school came to his house to do chores he probably could've done himself. Later he helped many of them get into college or start careers around the county with the telephone company or the electric company or the school system.

"My dad would help anyone," said John D. Floyd Jr., 60, Moton Class of '64. "If he saw you had drive and determination he would open doors for you."

"I probably would've dropped out in the 11th or 12th grade," said Bush, the '56 Moton grad. "J.D. Floyd inspired me to stay in school and go to college."

Bush lived in New Jersey and Virginia, and Atlanta, Chicago and Cleveland, where he was a pastor, before he came back to Brooksville in 1990. He's a deacon now at Ebenezer Baptist. Just like J.D. Floyd.

Fred Kincade has worked for decades in maintenance for the local schools. Floyd helped him get that job.

Willie Butts, 54, Hernando High School Class of '71, works for BellSouth. Floyd helped with that one, too.

"You didn't get no job here in Brooksville without J.D. Floyd's blessing," he said. "I used him as a reference. He said I was trustworthy. He said: 'I gave you my recommendation. Now don't you let me down.' "

Butts has been on the job for 30 years now.

He lives in Brooksville and was a Little League coach for 25 years. His parents didn't go to high school, he did some college before starting at BellSouth, and now his daughter is finishing college and working toward becoming a teacher.

"Always try to leave a rope to help other people up," Butts said of the most important lesson he learned from Floyd.

It was Floyd's ladder: "Whatever ladder you use to get to the top, you don't pull it up," Butts said. "There'll always be someone to help up - and in his case, he left so many ladders."

Just before his death, in an interview with the Times, Floyd called the cross that was burned in his yard that first night in his new home "flimsy."

In March '85, at a dinner in his honor at the auditorium at the county fairgrounds, there were about as many whites as blacks in the crowd.

And many years before that, when the land the Floyds bought was still open and rural, with fewer cars than possums, gophers and quail, they had their oldest son dig up some palms from behind the house and bring them to the front, and the kids helped plant them in a row.

"We taught 'em how to bring 'em up without damaging the roots," Ira Belle Floyd said.

They taught them how to plant the trees, and water them, and care for them, so they grew up tall and strong and straight.

Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or 352 848-1434.

[Last modified October 12, 2006, 09:59:22]


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