"Sealy" (2009), by Walker Pickering
By Scott Korb
In the summer of 1961, my grandfather Ralph Borchardt moved his family from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to northeast Florida to run a motel called the Starke Motor Court. Recently, I discovered a postcard from the motel for sale on the internet that calls the family business “Starke’s leading court,” with two fine restaurants adjacent and a cheery yellow stripe running the length of the building, breaking up the white siding of my grandparents’ twenty-five w/w-carpeted units. It’s pleasant to imagine the chasing lights of the motel’s sign cascading in the style of Las Vegas, directing the weary nighttime traveler—TURN HERE, blink-blink, AAA-RATED, blink-blink, TELEVISION. As I picture it, before trying one of those fine restaurants, the traveler—his name is Joe—pauses in the office, lifts a postcard from the pile, and writes to relatives in Westwood, New Jersey, leaving good wishes in the outgoing mail: “Stopping here for the night. On our way home tomorrow. Love Joe.” By the time this particular card was written, in September 1964, my family had left Starke. They never met Joe or his family, though the complimentary tourist postcards still read, “Marion & Ralph Borchardt—Owners & Managers.”
Starke can be found west of Jacksonville, a little more than halfway to Gainesville, and is now known as part of a speed trap along U.S. 301, once called the Highway of Southern Hospitality. Back then, to attract tourists and other comfort-seekers, my grandfather advertised a nine-hole putting green and dug a pool that would be visible from the highway. He’d send his daughters out to lounge and splash and slide along the slide, proof of the family fun and relaxation on offer. When the Borchardts first arrived, my mother and those siblings who were old enough were sent into the gravel lot with cardboard to pad their knees and instructed to pick weeds. They whitewashed the trunks of shade trees to prevent splitting and the damage caused by girdling rodents and wood-boring pests. Everyone in town seemed to paint the trees. There was shuffleboard, too.
In the evenings, after the day’s rain, my grandfather drove through Starke counting cars in the lots of other motels, doing the math and feeling like a winner. For guests visiting family members held in the nearby state prison, home of Florida’s electric chair, he offered a special rate, either out of sympathy or, envisioning the stream of customers who would return once a month, good business sense. (Probably both, my mother says.)
Growing up in southeastern Wisconsin, where my mother returned after state university in Tallahassee, I heard bits and pieces about my family’s lives in Starke: of picking weeds, painting trees, of how a quarter would bounce off a well-made bed. As a teenager new to Florida and learning to drive, my mother once had the brakes fail, so she drove while blaring the horn until eventually the engine blew up. She still sometimes tells a story of my grandfather looking on from behind the office counter as the father of a death-row inmate, lost in grief, allowed a cigarette to burn through the vee of his fingers, singeing his hair, without seeming to notice. Another time, my mother corrected my grandfather’s spelling on the sign out front: JFK ASSINATED, he’d written. We laugh.
Starke’s growth as a Florida destination began in 1940, when the U.S. Army leased Camp Blanding, just east of town on Lake Kinsley, to be used as an induction center and training camp. Starke’s population essentially doubled from 1940 to 1950, reaching 2,944 by decade’s end. Tourism was likewise on the rise, and in the five years after World War II, U.S. 301 saw average daily traffic volume increase by nearly ninety percent. Two summers before my family arrived, traffic rates for the era reached their peak at close to seven thousand cars per day.
Hospitality like the kind you found at the Starke Motor Court was the backbone of the city’s success at midcentury—a success amplified by town boosters, from the Chamber of Commerce to the local newspaper. A sort of advertorial map published in October 1951 in the Bradford Daily Telegraph shows Starke marked with a star, made to appear like the biggest city in the state. On this map, U.S. 301 was the major artery toward Tampa’s coastline and the first leg of a trip where, reaching Ocala, the traveler merged with U.S. 27 en route to Miami. Government officials and Starke businesses often arranged beautification projects, including one in the spring of 1963—“Clean-Up, Paint-Up, Fix-Up Week”—that the mayor declared by proclamation and my grandfather endorsed as a signatory: “WHEREAS, the general health and welfare of our citizens depend upon wholesome surroundings arising from good, clean living conditions . . . ”
My grandfather had been a contractor and a builder in Milwaukee. When business slowed, he drove a taxi. He decided that hospitality in a Florida boomtown offered better opportunity and better weather. He’d grown tired of the cold. So he uprooted his family. My grandmother, who at first approved of the move, had a difficult transition; active in her Catholic church in Milwaukee and very close to her three sisters back home, she found her new religious community small. Starke itself felt broadly anti-Catholic and, despite some kindly outreach, uninviting. Missing home up north, she made few friends down south, rejecting the efforts of local women. And despite whatever pride my grandfather felt in what would prove to be a successful business, my grandmother’s unhappiness was so pronounced that within months they put the motel back on the market. It would take more than two years before they found a buyer who would pay enough to allow them to recoup their investment.
Coming from the North, my family felt “culture shock,” I’ve been told. My grandmother perhaps especially. My mother also complains about the very few Catholics in town; she, too, was homesick. They’ve never mentioned the Ku Klux Klan rally in November 1963, led by the organization’s “traveling parson,” Rev. Connie Lynch, a racist agitator known for cruising through the South in his coral-colored Cadillac and wearing a vest resembling the Confederate battle flag. His half-hour speech one Monday night, delivered three miles south of Starke, sounded the cause of white supremacy and criticized the president and his family for what Lynch called “the Kennedys’ One-World Plan.” The Telegraph reported more than fifty cars at the rally, “many of them from Duval County”—that is, out-of-towners, the paper was careful to note. “There were less than a dozen robed clansmen at the rally,” the story says, and most of those in attendance remained in their cars. They nevertheless basked in the burning of an eighteen-foot cross.
When my grandfather was finally able to sell the Starke Motor Court, in early 1964, he moved the family to Florida’s Gulf Coast, where for a time he owned a bigger and better tourist motel, the Driftwood. Starke’s own fortunes would deteriorate quickly over the rest of the decade, with the rapid rise of the interstate highway system offering faster routes to Tampa and Miami. Today, U.S. 301 is heavily trafficked, but few people stop for the night. After selling the Driftwood, my grandfather invested well and retired early, built a house in Sarasota, played organ music at home and in church, traveled the world with his wife, learned Pac-Man, taught me golf, rode a motorcycle, and, in 1988, moved with my grandmother to a mobile home park in Palmetto, Manatee County, where he joined the computer and shuffleboard clubs. These are the ways and the places I knew him best—call it retirement Florida, golf-course Florida, white-beach Florida. Starke was a different place, of a different time in both our family history and our national history. I never went there. As my family described it, Starke was a bad memory, a mistake. The town—harsh, grim, attended with hardship—could not have been more aptly named.
I’ve gone to Florida my whole life. In my childhood, we visited my mother’s family at Christmas and sometimes at other times of the year, and we would hit the beach and pick citrus from trees in my grandparents’ yard. In May 1982, my father was killed on one of those visits, in an automobile crash just west of Gainesville. We had planned to carry on from Florida to the World’s Fair in Knoxville. I learned of the crash while playing golf with my grandfather on a public course near his house. I was five.
As an adult, I’ve traveled to Florida again and again to learn what I can about the end of my father’s life, which was largely a mystery to me as a child. My aunt, who was in the backseat of the car, once took me out to where he died. The road there has been widened, made safer. She says his last words were, “Hold on, we are about to be hit!” At impact, he was not wearing shoes. The man who killed him spent eighteen months in prison, and in January 2008, I shook the gate of a fence around his yard in the rural outskirts of Dunnellon, Florida, thinking that we could each benefit from talking about our shared history.
For a long time, I knew only two details about this man, Dwight Maxwell. He was drunk when he smashed his dark Ford into the car with my father in it. I also knew he was black. (Until 2005, I didn’t know his name.) These details, which I learned from the adults around me, haunted me as a young person. I didn’t drink and was fearful of alcohol until after I graduated from college. Throughout my life I’ve held shameful attitudes about black people, attitudes that embarrass me now. About Maxwell specifically, his blackness—and my whiteness, I see—made it easy to concoct stories about him. Originating in nightmares that deepened a child’s fear of the dark, as early as six or seven my father’s killer appeared to me as a lecherous monster, lewd living and aggression being characteristic of a man properly locked away for murder. The nightmares invaded my waking hours, and even as I became a teenager I would privately picture him in the leisure suit of a Blaxploitation pimp. Not knowing his actual name, I’d supplied one of my own imagining: Chester Washington. Chester, after the comic character “Chester the Molester” from Hustler magazine, which perhaps we knew as kids from the porno stash of a neighborhood father. Why Washington? I didn’t know anyone named that, though I was studious, and I suppose it was the blackest name I could imagine in a country where, I knew, our first president enslaved hundreds of people.
As an adult I’ve slowly come to understand what I did in my childhood to racialize and demonize this man. My trip to meet him in 2008 was meant to put all that behind me. Over several years, I’d circled him like a private dick, reading newspaper accounts and court records, flying to meet his family in Florida, building up the nerve to visit the man himself. I was proud of myself for trying to reach him. A girlfriend called me brave, and I believed her. The hope was reconciliation, a vestige of my grandmother’s Catholicism; I’d sloughed off those old ideas and was seeking forgiveness for them; I’d let him know I’d turned out okay, that we as a family had survived and moved on. On a cold afternoon under a tree in his backyard, I said what I’d come to say, then he apologized and before long disappeared inside. I went away. Years passed. In 2013, after Dwight Maxwell was arrested for felony possession of crack cocaine and hydrocodone pills, plus two misdemeanors, I drove with my mother to the Marion County courthouse, in Ocala, to attend his court hearings and try to speak with him again, to see what more I could learn about the day my father was killed. My last day in Florida, I returned to Maxwell’s house, but, encountering him at the side of the highway, where he’d been pedaling a bicycle, he ducked into the woods, saying he’d told me all he ever wants to. Not understanding— unwilling to, it seems—I chased him into the woods that day, wanting to talk more, though I’ve left him alone since.
My origin story—as a son, and later a father and a husband; as a citizen, a racist— has always begun in a crumpled car at the side of the highway. May 30, 1982. Police moved him into the shade. I’ve been traveling to Florida over the years—mainly from New York City, where I now live—trying to understand better where I come from, why I’ve always felt so close to tragedy and death down there. And over all those years I avoided Starke.
Yet Starke is where my family landed in Florida. My grandfather brought us there, where my dad died.
The night before I was due to arrive in Starke in June 2017, I called to reserve a room at what had been my grandfather’s motel, now a Budget Inn. The woman on the other end of the line practically laughed me off the phone. There was no need for a reservation, she said; there would be rooms. There were always rooms. The next afternoon, I turned off U.S. 301 into the parking lot, now asphalt, and, circling, crept past the numbered doors before driving back to the highway, unimpressed by the ghost town and the dry grasses. I wouldn’t stay there, I decided: there was no shade, no beauty, no pool. The Red Carpet Inn across the way, where I would spend my first night, at least had a pool set back from the road—a “nice pool,” as the motel proclaims on its sign. I took a dip and met three kids from southern Georgia whose family was passing through. Like my grandfather, the owners of the Red Carpet Inn count cars and pride themselves on being more profitable than the place across the street.
I’d come all this way, so I spent my second night at the Budget Inn. The yellow stripe is long gone and with it any cheer. The pool is gone, too. With heavy truck traffic from U.S. 301 stirring up so much dirt, and the pool so close to the road, it had been impossible to keep the pH regulated, and one morning the current owners found a broken beer bottle deep in the water. They blamed customers from the tavern next door. That’s when they filled in the pool and covered it with asphalt. Windows along the backside of the motel had been boarded over.
One afternoon, I drove out to the prison— which currently houses three hundred and forty-four death-row inmates and is home to the state’s execution chamber—and wheeled into the grassy visitors’ lot, where I parked alongside the only other car. I wandered a bit, interested in what’s become the most notable enterprise in Starke—“a negative association most residents would prefer to lose,” says Florida Atlantic University historian Evan P. Bennett. I used my phone to snap pictures of the buildings, the surrounding fields, the fences and razor wire. As an African-American woman and a young child passed through the chain-link double gate to return to their car, a guard at the entrance spotted me and shouted: “You have to stay there! Don’t move!” She recruited three uniformed giants to find out what I was up to, and as they approached I began to explain: I didn’t know, I’ll delete the photos. My hands shook—here, look, nothing! I was told to leave. Shortly after, I did—leaving the prison, leaving Starke, flying back to my home in New York.
When I ask my family today what might have made them feel out of place in Starke, they tend to share a gloomy view of the town. “Most who drive through Starke see a depressing village of strip malls and decaying motels—backwater Florida come to life,” writes Bennett. If the picture on my postcard of the Starke Motor Court is any indication of what used to be, the motels surely have decayed: I kept the windows closed against the traffic on U.S. 301, mainly tractor-trailers headed for a construction site out toward the prison, where they were building a bypass around town. The exhaust was so heavy that the trucks themselves coughed. I swatted a number of flies with the motel’s complimentary tourist magazine and woke in the morning to the swirling red and blue of a traffic stop outside my door, right where the pool had been. The bypass is supposed to open in 2019. According to the Gainesville Sun, it is “projected to route 25,300 vehicles a day away from downtown Starke.” By then, Starke will be a stopover for no one, home only to the prison. The owners of the two motels, both Indian immigrant families, anticipate having to close their doors.
As 1964 opened, the motel sold, and the local paper reported on the election of Robert Scott, a brick mason from Lawtey, seven miles up the highway from Starke. He’d won eighty-four votes in a tight city council race, becoming the first black official elected in Bradford County since Reconstruction. He was to be sworn in alongside incumbent Dave Shuford (one hundred and five votes) and newly elected Spud Massey (eighty-five votes) at the first council meeting of 1964.
On Sunday, December 8, 1963, around 9:10 P.M., a crude pine cross, seven feet tall and wrapped in oil-soaked rags, was propped against a fence post near Scott’s home, then set ablaze. The cross, unmoored, eventually fell over. Whoever had put up the cross left behind an Army-type fatigue hat and footprints on a crumbling bridge near the councilman-elect’s home. On Wednesday night came the anonymous phone calls, intensifying a message that had been made clear to Scott since the election: “Get out. This is your last warning.”
Though police were posted to guard Scott’s home, he considered not taking the seat come the new year: “It ain’t worth it,” he said in a newspaper interview.
Investigations continued through Christmas, along with police protection for Scott. Six men were questioned, but no charges were brought; there was not enough evidence for a conviction. Sherriff P. D. Reddish said, “It’s all quiet now, and we’re just waiting to see what comes of it.”
In the meantime, escorted by police to and from his first meeting, Scott was quietly sworn in on January 6, 1964.
The phone calls continued. One came in to a grocery store located in what was then called the Lawtey Negro settlement: “Do you know this fellow, Robert Scott?” the caller asked. “Well, tell him that his time is up.”
Following this, Scott attempted to resign from his position, appearing at the home of Mayor Charles Shuford on Saturday morning, January 25. The mayor sent him away. The city charter stipulated that only the council itself had the authority to accept his resignation. They never did, because in the following days, Scott changed his mind. And though masonry work took him to Cocoa, Florida, over the next month, he would eventually appear with the council in early March. As his wife put it to the Telegraph, Scott had decided “to stick it out,” even as threats against him and others continued. A former councilman named Leslie Phillips received menacing phone calls—in a “hoarse whisper,” the paper reported—and had a black cross painted across his front screen door. White resident A. E. Massey, father of councilmembers Spud and Wayne Massey, also answered his phone to whispers. Scott’s election, followed by his decision to remain in his position, had brought the entire council under fire, even if the council itself was divided in its support of this black official.
His employment in Cocoa complete, when Scott returned to the council, he took part in a debate about a new Lawtey streetlight. The Telegraph records the proceedings under the headline NEGRO COUNCILMAN CHOOSES SIDES:
The Negro councilman seemed at ease throughout the entire hour and a half session, sitting calmly as a storm erupted just before adjournment about a streetlight recently placed in front of Scott’s home. Installation of that particular light was never cleared before the council in a formal meeting and Mayor Charles Shuford said after the meeting it was “an emergency measure.”
Councilman Wayne Massey supplied the spark for the argument by mentioning the light and adding, “I never noticed it until the last two weeks: it looks as if it should have come before the council like any other streetlight.” The statement drew prompt fire from Chairman Dave Shuford who stormed back:
“Now, Massey, you know why it’s there. . . . I’ve about got enough of all this. Do I have a motion that we remove the light?” Wayne Massey made the motion and Spurgeon [Spud] supplied the second. The vote was 3-2 against the Massey motion to move the light.
My family never mentioned these incidents that transpired in the background of their lives, in the local paper, at the edges of town. They never knew this fellow, Robert Scott, never saw the burning crosses. By the end of 1963, they were packing up to leave Starke because it had made them uncomfortable and homesick. Perhaps they used the newspaper pages to wrap their glass.
Press them and my family will talk about the paid employees at the Starke Motor Court, all black women. No one remembers any names, and my mother tells me she can’t recall ever speaking with them, that the women tended to avert their eyes. They pushed carts from room to room, made beds and tidied up, then collected their pay. Walking down the sidewalk in Starke, black residents would step into the streets to offer the right-of-way to young white girls and their families. For all they knew—my aunts and uncles, that is—this was the law. “This was the time of colored drinking fountains,” says my mother, who now lives half the year in a retirement community in Bradenton, near Sarasota. “This was before civil rights.”
This was before there was a motel in Starke to accommodate black travelers.
This was “culture shock.”
My family had believed the lie about Florida, the lie that they then, with their whites-only motel, proceeded to sell—Florida was a place apart, pure vacation land, farther south than the Deep South, and so therefore free of the history bound up in Connie Lynch’s battle flag. (Lynch, who was born in Texas and ordained in California, died in Starke in 1972, while taking a bath at a friend’s home.) But there’s truth in a saying about the state, which I first heard from a white public defender during my travels through Ocala: In Florida, the farther north you go, the farther South you wind up. There’s no escaping history. In the North, neither.
In my experience, the larger family—the greater Northern family—originates just outside Milwaukee, in West Allis, Wisconsin, an area shaped by segregation, in houses that satellite the State Fair Park, in neighborhoods that even today remain nearly ninety percent white. Some of my extended family, aunts and uncles and cousins of various removes, still occupy homes and neighborhoods that I first knew as the domain of my grandmother’s generation, where my grandfather constructed houses, where my mother fled for a time after moving to Starke. Over the years, others have feathered out across rural southeastern Wisconsin—where I was raised, where I learned my racial slurs and invented Chester Washington—and a few more have landed on Florida’s Gulf Coast. They have pools and shuffleboard.
It has occurred to me since returning from Starke and asking to hear more stories that, when they first arrived, my family felt out of place largely because of racial politics they either could not see for what they were, or, if they did, simply haven’t remembered, or haven’t wanted to talk about. Some of my aunts and uncles may have been too young. My mother thinks she was naive. Grandpa Ralph is no longer around to ask. My grandmother, now ninety-one, doesn’t remember much of anything anymore. But is it any wonder that women working in a tourist motel, who made beds they’d never be allowed to sleep in, might keep their heads down as the owners’ daughters rushed out to the pool? Is it even a question why a black family on the sidewalk might make way when my family came along? In a place where eighty-four votes can win you an election, the sum total of fifty revved-up cars, a dozen white hoods, and an eighteen-foot cross presumably left an impression, even if some of those people in their cars had driven over from Duval County.
Even so, I think my family’s discomfort in Starke was real and, in its way, understandable. I have found it worth describing, at least. Because the shock my mother relays may well have been the shock of realizing that she is white, or that white was something she could even be. Which, I must admit, resembles the shock—my incomprehension—at Dwight Maxwell’s desire to be left alone; or, more recently, the shock of being accosted by three guards while snapping tourist photos in the grassy lot of a prison while the family of an inmate motors away until next month’s visit. I didn’t know, I said. I didn’t know was something I could say. I was not detained, and I even kept one of the photos. Here, look, I said, nothing! Voilà. And then I left town, just like they all did.
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