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© St. Petersburg Times,
GROVELAND -- Oranges gave Groveland its name back in 1911, and for the next 70 years, oranges gave this Central Florida town a reason to exist. If you lived in south Lake County, you either grew them and sold them, or you picked them and packed them.
Oranges brought Lewis Hart to Groveland from Alabama more than 50 years ago, after he promised his dying father he would take care of the family. Hiring out to cotton farmers back home didn't pay enough.
Groveland was the first place Hart ever came close to making $100 a week. Sometimes he made more than that.
While oranges were Groveland's livelihood, they were also the railroad track that divided the town. There were those who owned the groves and processing plants and sold wholesale. And there were those, like Hart and his buddy Homer Williams, who picked them and packed them and from time to time asked for a few pennies more for their work.
And, says Williams, it was oranges that God used to punish the white folks who always found an excuse to deny them. A series of freezes in the 1980s wiped out Groveland's orange industry.
"God got tired of them messing over poor colored people," Williams said. "I know what it was."
Now Groveland is hoping the land that used to quench much of the nation's thirst for orange juice can be reincarnated as soil that sprouts Mouseketeers. Just more than 25 miles from Disney World, Groveland is banking on becoming home to Orlando's overflow, a bedroom for co-workers of Mickey and Goofy.
The problem now for city planners is to make a town of about 3,000, built to cater to orange growers and their workers, attractive to people who are more cosmopolitan and more moneyed.
City sewers have to replace the septic tanks that handle waste for a third of the city. A major grocery store has to be pulled into the town.
And the blight and drug dealing in the South Street area have to be cleaned up.
On the surface, none of these problems appears daunting for a town smaller than most big city neighborhoods: Lay a few hundred yards of sewer lines, show a grocery executive numbers on annual growth, and send a cop to the yard-sized area where Groveland's drug problem is concentrated.
Simple. Problems solved.
Except for one thing.
Groveland's name is not the only survivor of the town's history. Like most of America, Groveland has demons in its past, standing in the way of its future.
Remembering every step
They would not know that he has a street named in his honor 100 yards south, a cafe bearing his name 100 yards west, or that 200 yards away are most -- 14 or 15, he guesses -- of the 20 houses he owns.
But they wouldn't have to wait long to find out if they stopped. Lewis Hart, who arrived here as a 21-year-old man who had just become head of his dead father's household, and who became the town's first black City Council member 28 years ago and has held on to the seat ever since, is not afraid to speak his mind.
"If you're scared, you're already dead," he says.
Hart's rise from the orange groves that brought him here as a fruit picker in 1949 is local legend.
"I used to brag on him all the time," said Groveland Police Chief Thomas R. Merrill. "Because what he made he earned. He worked six days a week, and with that he'd take care of his bills and living expenses, and on the seventh day he worked and set that money aside. He saved his money, and he bought a loader to load fruit with, then he bought a couple of tractors -- they were used tractors -- and trailers and made some money hauling fruit. He made some money."
He did it without any formal education, added Merrill, 58, who has been chief for 31 years. "Me and Mr. Hart go way back."
City officials routinely speak of Hart's success, his work ethic, the rigid moral line he walks. Then, they pause.
Lewis Hart has come a long way from orange picker, but he hasn't forgotten a step of the trip. Many in this town with a past checkered with racial ugliness say he needs to.
"Back in '49 we had a riot here, and ever since then blacks have been afraid to speak out," Hart said. That's why this town has a drug problem that won't go away, why a third of the city doesn't have public utilities, why none of its nine police officers are black.
He says that is why the town's potential will remain just out of reach.
Hart is charitable to call the events that ignited in '49 "a riot." White people marauded through the black sections of Groveland and neighboring Stuckey, shooting and setting fire to homes after a white woman accused four black men of raping her.
One of the suspects was chased north and killed by a mob. Another was later killed and still another wounded while in the custody of then-Sheriff Willis McCall, who said the men tried to escape.
Henry Shepherd, father of one of the men accused of rape, was forced to flee his farm as the mob torched it. The National Guard was brought in to restore order while the violence against the black communities persisted.
Today, black people here are silent, Hart says, because in a town intent on forgetting its history, speaking out might provoke history to repeat itself.
And that, he says, is why the drug business thrives in the South Street area.
Hart says everyone's afraid to say, as he does, that somebody besides the young boys out there peddling is making money off the drugs, that somebody in law enforcement must be profiting. And they're afraid to say that if white folks would stop coming from other areas to buy drugs, there wouldn't be a problem.
"They're scared they'll come in here and burn their houses down," Hart said of other black residents.
City officials take the source of the charges more seriously than the substance.
"I don't think the riot that happened 50 years ago has anything to do with what we're doing now," said city manager Jason Yarborough, who quickly adds, "Now this is coming from a man who's young and white and just moved here" 21/2 years ago.
"Why am I here at 58 if I was getting paid off?" said Merrill. "I would be retired by now." His officers would be crazy to put their careers on the line for the few dollars Groveland's drug dealers could pay, he said.
Hart and others point out that the drug area is so small, it should be easy for law enforcement to control.
"Somebody's getting something somewhere," said Homer Williams, who was in Groveland when the angry white people marauded through black neighborhoods. (Hart arrived a couple of months after the violence started.)
Recently, a garbage can appeared in the spot where the young men suspected of selling drugs gather. Williams wondered aloud why the city picks up garbage at a vacant lot where no one lives or pays for the service. The answer to him is so obvious he doesn't bother to speak it.
Intersections leading into the neighborhood are marked with official signs warning that this is a drug-surveillance area. Visitors are also greeted by another sign that can be seen from the highway.
* * *
From Lewis F. Hart
To all Drug Dealers
Keep off this property. I want this to be a drug-free place where people can live like people not like animals.
* * *
The drug dealing takes place in a vacant lot shaded by oak trees on the edge of an enclave of houses that appear barely habitable. By midafternoon, several young men are loosely clustered around the garbage can. As Hart rode by with a visitor one recent afternoon, one of the youths straightened and snapped a mocking salute.
The houses here, ramshackle, uninviting places that in other other neighborhoods would wear condemnation tags, would be flattered to be called rundown shacks.
Their appearance fits the picture Hart and Williams paint of outsiders keeping the drug sellers in business. It's hard to imagine enough capital in this neighborhood to make it worthwhile for a part-time dealer, certainly not several, certainly not enough to sustain the persistent nuisance dealing has become.
Williams says he has often watched white customers pull off SR 50 to buy drugs. "They get a little something to take to work with them in the morning, and they come back on the way home in the evening," he said.
City officials agree the area has hurt development, but agreement is hard to come by beyond that. They see an opportunistic drug business nesting in a run-down neighborhood that would disappear if property owners would bring it up to decent standards.
They preface their remarks with a nod to Hart's legend. Then, usually attempting to find gentle words, they say Hart is part of the problem.
Hart, they point out, owns much of the property in the neighborhood.
Jason Yarborough, the 32-year-old city manager, is the man Groveland picked to lead it into the future. He sees a challenge in turning fallow orange groves into industrial parks and residences.
Yarborough talks wistfully of a time before his arrival when Groveland had three grocery stores and a dentist. Now, people have to commute nearly 20 miles for those basic services. He envisions changing that.
Already the town has courted a major grocery chain that expressed interest in land across SR 50 from the South Street area. But the chain had a change of heart after representatives visited. They didn't want customers to walk out of their store and be greeted with the eyesore across the street.
"Groveland has the fastest growing tax base in Lake County," Yarborough says, riffling through papers on his desk at City Hall. Its tax base rose 22 percent in the past three years.
Why then can't its newfound prosperity be spent to clean up South Street?
"Twenty-two percent in (Groveland) is not the same as 20 percent in St. Petersburg," he said. He has enlisted the aid of Habitat for Humanity and employed a special projects coordinator, Habeeb Shafeek, to ferret out state and federal grants. A $50,000 grant was used for new playground equipment for South Park, a community park next to the South Street area. A Community Development Block Grant will be used to expand the sewer system.
Such talk skirts the issue, says Hart. His impatience became evident recently as Yarborough and Shafeek described the initiatives they are chasing.
"Who fixed up that park?" Hart asked.
They acknowledged Hart had been a key element in developing the park.
What are you doing about the drugs, Hart asked. Shafeek, who is black, began a measured explanation. "As we all know, there are systemic problems associated with drug use. To simply arrest those 20 boys is no reason to assume the supplier is not going to continue putting drugs in there," he said, explaining why police can't just wade in and take the problem to jail. "Even drug dealers have rights." he said.
Then Shafeek stepped on a land mine.
"If you talk to the people who own the property, ask them what they're doing to improve the neighborhood."
Hart felt jabbed. "I've done everything I could to stop it except go down there and arrest them myself. I have done more for this city than any man who lives here," he shot back.
"I was the first black man to walk through this door," he said, pointing to the entrance to Yarborough's office.
"Wait a minute," Shafeek responded, trying to head off a speech he has heard many times before. "Don't keep putting us back there."
The two men sparred, Hart charging benign neglect by the city and Shafeek citing poverty and environment. The city manager, young and white, kept quiet.
Right back the next day
Merrill says the city has not ignored the South Street area's drug problem, which started in the mid-1980s when the crack scourge hit hard in bigger cities.
"You'd have to put someone down there till the end of time to end the drug problem," Merrill said. "Last year, we (Groveland police) and the sheriff spent 30 days there, and three days after we left, they were right back in there. There are a bunch of young boys there who won't work. If they can sell $20 worth of dope a day, they're satisfied."
Merrill said the joint operation with the Lake County Sheriff's Office netted 14 arrests for selling drugs. More were charged with possession, seemingly large numbers for a small town. But the chief said they didn't put a dent in the drug activity.
"Now, they're dumb," he mused. "You arrest them and they'll come right back the next day."
While Merrill acknowledged the city's biggest crime problem is drugs, he said he can't dedicate one of his nine officers entirely to the troubled area. Groveland is spreading, he said.
And Merrill doesn't agree with Hart's charge that the problem is fed by white drug users from outside the community.
"We have a few crack-addicted white girls who go in there and trade sex for drugs, and we send them out of there all the time. But," he said, anticipating another of Hart's charges, "no one would come down there shooting if they started turning them in. No one would care" about the crack-addicted white women
Merrill and Hart used to have a good relationship. Merrill said he helped get Hart's daughter a job with the FBI; Hart said he found two black officers for Merrill to hire over the years.
Then Hart's son was arrested and charged with possession of crack.
The chief said the arresting officer called him for instructions, and the chief said to treat Hart's son like anyone else.
But there was a foul-up at the county jail, the chief said. "They put him in a holding cell and forgot about him."
For 18 hours, Hart says.
To Hart, there's a connection. His son's treatment. The thing from '49. The drug problem in the South Street area, which Hart believes would long ago have been uprooted were it in a white area.
All are connected by the dual standards applied according to race, Hart says.
The thing from '49 was blown out of proportion, Merrill said, showing some exasperation. The white woman who alleged rape had some connection to Bay Lake, a white community near Groveland, and the reaction there was disproportionate.
"It's an area you don't want to go in unless you belong there." Merrill explained. "It's a white area. Real tough." He said Bay Lake fed the violence even though many other communities were involved.
"(Hart) keeps saying there's something bad going to happen. They'll come in here and shoot the place up." But time has washed away any validity that fear might once have had, he said.
"But that's the way things were," Merrill acknowledged. "That's the way things were."
City Council member Lewis Hart doesn't think the town has moved far enough that it should want to forget that.
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