Life in Fort Lauderdale in the '30s and '40s was simpler. For blacks, living under the pall of open racism, it was also crueler.
Irene Riley Hart enjoyed a carefree girlhood among the fruit trees and palms of the Bonnet House Estate during those days. Now, at 90, she stands during Black History Month as a living link to the past, recalling both the serene beauty and galling injustice of a bygone era.
"There used to be swans," she said, looking over a placid lagoon from a terrace on the 1920 Bonnet House, where last month she celebrated her birthday. "Beautiful swans."
Hart was 13 when in 1937 she arrived at the Bonnet House dusted in soot. She had taken the train from her Savannah home, and back then blacks were forced to sit behind the engine, enduring the smoke and grit.
The teen had come to live with her aunt and uncle, Arneather and Dewey Hawkins, caretakers who lived in their own house at the estate. Her mother had died, her father had his hands full with four children, so the girl was sent to Florida relatives.
The first thing she did was slip through a gap in the estate's gate with her young cousin Alonzia Nash. Holding hands, they dashed to the sea, which she had learned about in school.
"I finally had the chance to see the real Atlantic Ocean," she said. "That particular day the water was calm, pearly."
The massive, isolated property was owned by Hugh Taylor Birch, part of whose land was later ceded to the state as a namesake park. Birch, called "Big Boss," wintered on the estate with his daughter Helen Louise, and her husband, Frederic Bartlett, an artist. Years after Helen died, Bartlett married Evelyn Fortune Lilly.
There were fruit trees, monkeys, exotic birds, raccoons and tropical foliage. Hart frolicked on the shore, fished in the river, learned how to clean the rabbits her uncle caught. She rode her bike to "colored school" on the mainland every day, a 10-mile round trip over dirt and gravel roads. She shooed away rattlesnakes with a stick.
Sand banks and sea oats thrived where condos would later sprout. Bridges were swivel spans, hand cranked to allow boats passage. "I would run to the bridge to get a ride," she said. "I didn't realize the danger."
To visit family, Uncle Dewey would take the children down the river in a "little putt putt" or motorized canoe. "Sometimes late at night when you couldn't see," she recalled. Aunt Arneather boiled laundry in a big kettle out back.
Hurricanes meant a bounty of fish to be shared with friends on the mainland. "The wind and the ocean would wash the fish in," she said. "We would pick up those fish by the tub full."
But racism marred an idyllic existence. Blacks weren't allowed on the beach; Hart was only granted access because she lived there.
"If a policeman passed and saw you on the beach, they would come over and ask who you worked for, who you were," she recounted. "We didn't get in any trouble because we were on Mr. Birch's property."
The teen couldn't fathom why whites shunned her. "I could never understand why we could not live next door, go to the same places," she said. "I didn't do anything to them."
"All I was told was that's the way it is."
At 18, Hart married the young man who drove her to school basketball practice. Lafayette Hart later became a community activist, and the city named a park for him after his death in 1989. Hart, too, displayed her activist side, chafing under the segregation's strictures.
Once, because it had been worn by a black, a store clerk refused to take back a sweater Hart bought that didn't fit. "I balled it up and threw it at her," Hart said. "You have to let people know when they're wrong. During that time I was young and wild."
Hart left the estate with her new husband in 1942, a year before Birch died. Her aunt and uncle moved to a house the Big Boss bought for them on the mainland.
Hart ran a small laundry business, worked as a school bus driver and eventually a vocational education teacher. She served on the board of directors for the Bonnet House, which became a museum operated by a nonprofit trust. The house has published a coloring book about her life, and produced a video featuring her. She has toured local schools, recounting her life. Four daughters and a son, as well as grandchildren, have found success as lawyers, educators, businesspeople and a chef.
And Hart outlasted the racism that plagued her for most of her life.
"Everything I wanted seems to have taken place," she said. "How I feel right now, it's like I'm dreaming, and the dream goes on and on."
email@example.com or 954-356-4525