CLEWISTON - Retired science teacher, former candidate for superintendent of schools, and reverend, Gwen Patrick Griffiths shares her knowledge of Harlem’s history. An oral history taught to her by historians in her family and throughout the community
“Sometimes the stories go beyond the boundaries of Harlem, but I am totally at the mercy of the historian. For the most part the history is true except on certain occasions when the historian gets a twinkle in his eye and the story becomes humorous, but fictional,” Griffiths said.
“I was one week old when I became a Muckstepper. My initiation to the muck was delayed by a week because mama and daddy decided that it would be best for me to be born in West Palm Beach,” Griffiths said. “The year before I was born, my sister, Shirley Ann was born and died at two weeks old. This was because Ma Clyde, the midwife, made a mistake and cut her naval cord too short.”
“A Muckstepper is a person who actually lives on the muck which is the rich black soil located around the Lake Okeechobee. Muck is defined as organic soil containing decaying vegetable matter made up of humus from drained swampland,” explained Griffiths. “Many Mucksteppers have at one time walked barefoot in the rich soil.”
“Mama grieved a lot over her baby, so daddy, who was hoping for a boy this time, decided that the next baby would be born in West Palm Beach in a real hospital with real doctors and nurses. No disrespect to Ma Clyde who delivered most of the children, white and black, in Clewiston back then,” said Griffiths.
“African Americans came to Clewiston before the 1920’s by steam boat, barge, skiff, mule, wagon and by foot. Most of them came by foot. If they came by steam boat or barge they came with people they were employed with,” she said.
However they arrived, they all played an important role in the building of the “America’s Sweetest Town.”
“Before the 1920’s, Sand Point, now named Clewiston, sat on the southern side of the Lake Okeechobee,” Griffiths went on. “When African Americans arrived, they found an open beach front and the only thing between them and it was razor edged saw grass in standing water. Nobody liked the saw grass because of the flesh cuts they received,” Griffiths explained. “But they had to retrieve water for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing. Black folks were warned to not leave their babies near the lake’s waters while washing because gators would eat them. This warning was given to them based on some sad recollections about Indian women and their babies at this lake.”
“One thing all Mucksteppers know is that animals in the Everglades really don’t want to tangle with us. This is the code of the Everglades. However there are times when you back up on each other and you have to decide to fight or flight because you are just plain scared. Sometimes a lightning fast gator or moccasin wins the altercation,” said Griffiths.
“Away from the sandy beach area, and the sawgrass, Black folks also found thick vegetation in the muck areas. Vines from beautiful white morning glory flowers made impassable thickets. These flowers only opened in the late afternoon,” described Griffiths. “Because they bloomed at night, they were a metaphor for the fact that no matter how dark it is, there is always hope. Many of the residents of early Clewiston cultivated the flowers around their homes.”
“They lived in small one room shacks or brush harbors made from the trees and thicket from the moon vines, custard apple trees and other forestry,” she said, speaking of the first Hines in the Harlem community. “The walls of their shacks were covered with magazines and newspaper print from wherever they could find it. This was luxurious wall paper that kept the wind and mosquitoes out. The walls were peppered with nails to hang hand-made clothes on.” She went on, “If they had money, food was gotten from the supply boat whenever it came.”
“African Americans were poor so they relied on a diet of possum, raccoon, rabbits, catfish, dried beans, rice and home grown vegetables,” she said. “Folks could go a lot of places, but it was impossible to go hungry around the Lake. Food was plentiful, but they had to use wisdom. There was no refrigeration so food could not be kept long. It was always a good idea to check the bag of meal for wigglers before cooking cornbread.”
“They fought the mosquitoes, the high waters, and the dense impenetrable vegetation to make their lives as Muckstepper’s in a land that was virtually untamed.” Also, Griffiths said, “Many of the pioneers could not read but the mail boat came twice a week, and if the weather was bad it came when it could.”
“Black folks came to this area as pioneers. People who were willing to settle this region and develop it for those of us who would come later. They saw the potential and were willing to push the boundaries and overcome the great challenges before them, for us.” She added, “They came as pioneers ready to till the muck soil or fish the swarming waters of the Lake.”
Griffiths said Hendry County has such a rich history, with so many stories to tell, it would be hard to tell them all. She and many other matriarchs in the community are such a wealth of knowledge and experience. They have stories for days that teach us about the past and how to proceed into the future.