The good neighbor

By MEG LAUGHLIN
The Miami Herald

THE CEMETERY IN THE TINY NORTH FLORIDA TOWN of Esto sits in the bright sunlight, bare before the world. The grass is closely cropped. There are no trees — no squirrels or birds to drop anything disorderly. The ground is neat and even. The gravestones are mostly hulking rectangular chunks. A number of them have names and birth dates, but no death dates. The people of Esto, it seems, believe in planning ahead.

In Esto, the dead are a part of everyday life. Just about anywhere you go, you pass the cemetery. On the way to the store, to the town hall, to church, Estonians can see the gravestones of loved ones, as well as their own.

So it is not surprising that the last wish of the town’s oldest resident — 103-year-old Ada Dupree, who had lived in Esto since the year it was named — was simply to be buried in the town cemetery. True, Ada was part African-American and part Seminole, and the cemetery was all-white. But, with the exception of Ada and her familiy, so was Esto.

When Ada’s husband, Gilbert, died in 1945, he was taken to Alabama to be buried. No one considered burying him in the new town cemetery. Back then, it would have been unthinkable — dangerous, even — to try to bury a black person in a white cemetery in Holmes County.

But more than 35 years later, Ada was sure it would be different for her. Her whole life had been proof that a patient, gracious, humble black woman could succeed in a white Southern town. She wanted to spend eternity in its soil. After all, she was accepted, even loved by the town’s other residents.

“She delivered our babies,” says Owen Powell, an attorney in nearby Bonifay.

“She raised our children,” says Maomi Clark, 85, the daughter of town founders.

“She took care of us when we were sick,” says Jim Hagans, owner of the general store.

Her son Ralph Dupree had even been elected to the town council. For years Esto had celebrated Ada’s birthday at the town hall. Everyone in town would come with covered dishes. Ralph would fry chicken in a huge cast-iron pot. There would be much joking and well-wishing, and the Dupree family would revel in the extraordinary acceptance it enjoyed.

This was the close of a century that had put an end to the bad old days of segregation, and Ada, who had lived through it all, was one-of-a-kind. In this day and age, who could possibly object to burying a 103-year-old black woman alongside the white folks who had loved her?

THE PROMISE

In 1989, something happened that Ada had never counted on. Her son Ralph died before her, at the age of 78. Hundreds of people — family, friends and dignitaries — packed the little African Methodist Episcopal Church near Esto for the funeral. They crammed into the doorway and spilled down the steps into the yard.

Ada Shacklefoot Dupree arrived in Esto in 1901.

Ada Shacklefoot Dupree arrived in Esto in 1901.

In deference to Ada, no one said a word about how Ralph had died. Ada wheeled her chair up to the front of the church, down the center aisle past the wooden pews, and stood up over her son, in the eerie yellow light of the church’s translucent windows. Family and friends watched her, holding their breaths, hoping she couldn’t see the outline of the doctored-up, two-inch jagged hole in her son’s neck, just below the Adam’s apple.

Ada didn’t seem to notice, and afterward the mourners did their part to distract her, telling her what a fine son she’d raised. Ralph Dupree had been a railroad porter for 60 years, traveling back and forth through the Florida Panhandle, getting to know just about everyone, and ultimately getting elected to the Esto town council. He had become a celebrity of sorts, the only elected black official in Homes County. When he was chosen to be the train conductor for a CSX Railroad celebration, his picture appeared in area newspapers and magazines. Governors and congressmen stayed in touch with him. When President Reagan came to the area, Ralph sat across from him at dinner. There’s even a chapter about Ralph Dupree in a history book on Holmes County.

Ada was proud of how her son had furthered their standing in the all-white community. I raised him right, she would tell people. When Ada got a form letter from President Reagan on her 100th birthday, she was sure it was because of Ralph’s sterling reputation.

Ralph’s funeral was attended by an even number of whites and blacks, says Nelly Parker, the black minister who delivered a eulogy about how everyone is equal in God’s eyes. But most of the pallbearers were white — another testament to how much the town loved its only black family.

But the truth was, the way Ralph had died, and the events preceding his death, belied the surface harmony of the Duprees’ life in Esto. The contradictions of their existence were underlined when Ralph — Esto town councilman — was lowered into the ground in a grave marked only by a concrete block 10 miles out of town, in the “colored cemetery” in Graceville.

After the service mourners gathered back at the Esto town hall to eat and eulogize Ralph. While everyone was hoeing into the cole slaw and sweet potato casserole and talking about happier times, Sybil Williams — the wife of Esto’s mayor — made a vow: “Ada,” said Sybil, “is not going to be buried next to Ralph in Graceville. She’s going to be buried in my family plot in Esto.”

ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY

Esto, Florida: population 300. Right on the Florida-Alabama border. Smack dab in the gut of the Bible Belt. Three churches with steeples (Baptist, Church of Christ and Assembly of God). No traffic light. One junk yard. Two gas station/general stores.

Esto became Esto in 1901. A train station was being built there, and some of the men overseeing the construction decided on a name. How ’bout Esto? one of them asked some of the folks in the area — Spanish for “this.” As in, “This is the place!” Everyone nodded.

Ada Shacklefoot Dupree had arrived from rural Southern Georgia in a mule-drawn cart that year. Her father was a white doctor in Atlanta and her mother was African-American and Seminole. Ada was only 14. Her African-American husband of one year, Gilbert Dupree, was 34. Later, she would tell friends that when she married, she hadn’t even hit puberty and she was scared to death. But she would also tell them that, even as a child, she believed in sticking things out and making the best of a situation.

As it turned out, Gilbert had skills that made him valuable to Esto. He could make barrels. He would run a still. He could even make moonshine. In no time, he was employed at the turpentine distillery, earning a regular wage and making a little extra on the side selling moonshine.

Ada did some cooking, cleaning and caring for children in the white folks’ homes. Sometimes she got paid a little, sometimes not. She took up Bible-reading, embroidery and baking, and went from house to house visiting the sick and grieving for the dead, handing out handmade doilies and homemade tea cakes, talking about the Lord’s will.

“She delivered mail all over town,” says Estonian Charlene Godwin. “She did it for free. I guess because she just liked to visit with people.”

Everyone who ever knew Ada Dupree says she fit in just fine.

“Ada felt like she was white,” says Maomi Clark. “Ralph did, too. They knew just how to act so they’d be accepted by the white people.”

Says Lillie Dixon, 86: “Ada used to come in through our front gate so tall and proud, then go around to the back door to come in. She knew what was expected of her and she accepted it gracefully.”

From time to time, another black family would move to Esto, says Holmes County historian E.W. Carswell, but for one reason or another, wouldn’t stay. It was the Duprees and only the Duprees who remained in Esto and made a life for themselves among the whites. A niece of Ada’s, Joanna Jackson, 75, who lives in a nearby town, says one time she asked her aunt if she got lonely being in the only “colored” family in town.

“She told me,” says Jackson, “that she was comfortable in Esto, that she felt totally accepted by everyone there.”

Ada and Gilbert bought land, which, because they were the owners, was immediately devalued by the county property tax appraiser for being in “the colored addition,” a label that remains on county records to this day even though officials say appraisals are no longer affected by a property owner’s race.

The white wooden house Ada Dupree called home.

The white wooden house Ada Dupree called home.

In time, the Duprees built a wooden house with a couple of bedrooms. They had a porch on the front that looked out on a huge sycamore tree. They had a parlor with a fireplace. A stuffed sofa with embroidered pillows. The white kids in town always came to their house to play with their five children, and later, their grandchildren. As far as the Duprees were concerned, Esto was one big happy family.

A BIZARRE TALE

In late March 1989, about a week after Ralph’s death, Sybil Williams went to see Ada in the Bonifay Nursing Home. Though Sybil at 71 was 30 years younger than Ada, they were still close. Many an afternoon over the past 50 years Sybil and Ada had sat in one of their living rooms and talked.

About the Bible. About their children. About their husbands. About anything that came to mind. But on this day, Sybil had something specific to discuss with Ada.

“I reminded Ada,” says Sybil, “that there was space for her in my family plot in the Esto cemetery and I’d be honored to have her buried there. I asked her if that was what she wanted. She said, ‘Yes ma’am, Miss Sybil, with my son gone, I won’t live much past tomorrow. Esto is where I want to go.'”

The Esto cemetery has been there since 1945, when Sybil and Lawrence Williams sold the land to the church with the understanding that the church would manage the cemetery for the community, and anyone in Esto could be buried there in exchange for a donation to the church. As for the Williamses, their 12-grave plot was grandfathered in, free of charge.

Twenty years ago, the KKK, which was undergoing a resurgence all along the Florida-Alabama border, would parade past the cemetery to show its strength. There’d be crosses on cars and pointed hoods poking out of the backs of pickup trucks. Flashing electric crosses on sedan roofs. Loudspeakers warning people to keep their place. But that was 20 years ago. The only racial trouble the area has seen in recent years, according to the sheriff, occurred about five years ago:

“A couple of boys strung up a dog on some man’s porch and wrote ‘nigger go home,'” says Holmes County Sheriff John Braxton. “He was Hawaiian, but they thought he was Mexican. They didn’t really hurt anything.”

But, says Braxton, they weren’t organized. They weren’t part of the KKK. He’s sure those days are over around Esto.

Ada had no shortage of visitors after her son died. One of them, the Rev. Nelly Parker, remembers that Ada was filled with gratitude for all the good people of Esto who had come to see her. She showed Parker a shelf full of knickknacks from them: Dolls made out of toilet-paper rolls. Vases out of egg cartons. Small potted plants. Little crocheted doilies.

Ada took Parker around the nursing home and introduced her to her best friends. Parker, who is black, was surprised that Ada’s friends were white, even though there were about as many black residents at the home. She asked Ada why this was so.

“Mrs. Dupree told me she had more in common with the whites,” says Parker, “because they were friends and family of her friends in Esto.”

But, Parker says, Dupree had something else on her mind. She said she had been worried about her son before his death. He had told her that he was in some trouble. She asked Parker if she knew anything about it and Parker changed the subject. But later, Parker wondered if Ada knew — despite her family’s best efforts to keep it from her — how Ralph had died.

In fact, Parker herself had agonized over Ralph Dupree’s death. For years, she had thought of him as a kindly, unassuming gentleman. The Duprees had always been active in her church, and often Ralph had acted as host at church dinners on Sunday night, greeting people, serving the food. But her memories of the good old days with the Dupree family were tarnished by strange events surrounding Ralph Dupree’s death.

Ralph Dupree was a railroad porter for 60 years.

Ralph Dupree was a railroad porter for 60 years.

In mid-February 1989 — a month before Ralph Dupree died — he came to church one Sunday with a bizarre tale. He staggered up to Parker and asked her to pray for him and told her he didn’t think he would live much longer. I want you to do my funeral service, he said. Then he whispered to her that two white men were after him. They had put a gun to his head and made him drink poison the week before. At the time, Parker figured he was delusional from senility or the effects of medication. But his mysterious death made her rethink that conclusion.

“REST IN PEACE”

On March 17 at 10:30 p.m., Ralph Dupree, 78, was found dead on the edge of the yard of the house that his parents had built more than 50 years before. There was a gunshot wound in his neck. The police report said this: The weapon was a No. 6 shot. the death was ruled a suicide.

From the position he was in, the cops figured Dupree had seated himself in a wooden chair, braced the butt of the gun against the ground, leaned over it and put the mouth of the gun against his neck. He then stretched his arm as far as he could, pushed the trigger with an extended figure and went flying backward in the hair from the explosion.

He was still seated in the turned-over chair when police responded to a call from his two nieces, who had found him. The gun, still between his legs, was leaning against the chair, almost perpendicular to the ground. An obvious suicide, ruled the sheriff’s investigators.

But some people didn’t buy it. With Ralph dead, they said publicly things they wouldn’t have said before: Ralph, the town’s beloved councilman, had many problems — financial problems, marital problems, drinking problems, legal problems and racial problems — and it was not unthinkable that someone wanted him dead.

Besides, there were just too many things about the suicide ruling that didn’t make sense.

The family across the street from the house couldn’t understand why they didn’t hear a shot. They’d been outside or on their porch all evening. The nieces who found Ralph couldn’t figure out why they didn’t see the body on the edge of the driveway when they pulled in. Why was it there 30 minutes later when they were backing out?

No one could get over how brief the investigation was. There was no autopsy. The police didn’t even take his gun. They just left it on the ground for the family to dispose of.

A story similar to the one Ralph had told Nelly Parker — the one about two white men trying to poison him — kept surfacing. Sharon Wells, Ralph’s neighbor, said she had noticed a strange circular sore, kind of like ringworm, in Ralph’s ear in February. So had her husband, Earl. She asked Ralph what it was, and he said two white men had made him drink some “bad stuff” by shoving a pistol in his ear so hard it left a mark.

“I believed him,” says Sharon Wells. “He’d been acting so strange and nervous. I thought it explained his behavior.”

Wells says she told him to tell the sheriff or the town attorney, but he said he couldn’t do that. It might make things worse.

Sheriff Braxton says the theory that someone was after Ralph is preposterous.

“Ralph Dupree didn’t have any enemies,” says Braxton.

Braxton says you have to understand how bored people in small towns get and how easily rumors spread and conspiracy theories develop. the least little thing, says Braxton, can get blown way out of proportion.

The medical examiner, William Syber, agrees. Although he did not investigate the scene, and gave the body only an external examination, he believes the sheriff’s report contains sufficient evidence to merit the suicide ruling: “Mr. Dupree gave his car keys away,” says Syber. “He told people he wouldn’t be around. It was an obvious suicide.

Dupree’s niece Kate Dixon, to whom Dupree gave his car keys the day before he died, says that her uncle gave her this explanation: “I want you to have a spare set of keys in case something happens to me. I might need help. You might need to drive me somewhere.”

At the time, Dixon says, her uncle was always saying he felt bad. So she thought he was trying to make sure that if he got really sick, someone would be able to get him to a doctor. But later, after finding him dead and hearing all the rumors, she started wondering. Maybe it wasn’t illness that was worrying him. Maybe someone really was after him.

REJECTED

While the stories and rumors were flying about Ralph Dupree and his mysterious death, the cemetery committee at the Esto Baptist Church met on another topic and the subject of whether Ralph’s mother should be the first black person to be buried in Esto came up. Two of the five members on the Esto Baptist Church cemetery committee, Jimmy Kidd and Sybil’s husband, Lawrence Williams, supported Ada’s wish. But three other members on the committee, Jeanette Wells, Cecil Godwin and Clyde Griffin, did not.

Sybil and Lawrence Williams

Sybil and Lawrence Williams

Lawrence Williams said if Sybil wanted Ada in her plot that it was OK with him. Jimmy Kidd said he felt the same way. Jeanette Wells says she never had anything against Ada Dupree or anyone in her family, but she still didn’t think the Esto cemetery was the right place for Ada: “It’s up to a family to take care of its own. and Ada’s family ought to take care of her. That’s the way it should be.”

Of course, other Esto residents who ended up in the cemetery had out-of-town relatives who could have “taken care” of them. The only difference was, they were white.

Cecil Godwin agreed with Wells. He said he liked the Duprees; it was just that they had a family plot in Graceville and he figured that’s where they ought to go. “The decision wasn’t meant against our colored people,” says Godwin. “Nobody around here mistreats them. It’s my business and my privilege as chairman of the cemetery committee to have a way.”

Godwin’s wife, Charlene, who wasn’t on the committee but who followed the proceedings, wants to further explain: “We loved Ada. We didn’t mind having her buried there. But, like a lot of people in town, we knew if we opened the door to her, then the whole crew could come in. Ada’s got a big family with cousins all over the state.”

When Lawrence Williams went home and told his wife that the cemetery committee had decided not to let Ada be buried in Esto when she died, Sybil hit the roof.

“After everything Ada Dupree has done for the people of Esto,” says Sybil, “it made me furious to think she couldn’t even be buried here. She raised their kids, cooked for them, turned them over when they were sick, and she can’t go in their cemetery. Ada never made anyone mad. She never rocked the boat. She only helped people.”

But Sybil didn’t confront the opposition. Instead, she called attorney Powell and asked him to quietly research the decision to see if it was legally binding.

“I did some checking,” says Powell, “and told Mrs. Williams that not only did Ada Dupree have a right to be buried in Esto, that, if she wasn’t, the town could be subject to federal sanctions. There are fair housing and anti-discrimination laws that would apply.”

With this information under her belt and the belief that other Estonians agreed with her and would stick by her, Sybil Williams kept her mouth shut and went about her business. The cemetery committee could say what it wanted. She knew what was legal. But she did not take into account to what extremes some people might go to keep the cemetery segregated. Nor did she consider what effect Ralph Dupree’s tragic death would have on Ada’s family.

A QUESTION OF COLOR

A year after Ralph Dupree died, his wife, Mittie, was buried beside him. His mother, Ada, died two weeks short of her 104th birthday on July 18, 1991. She was one of the first people to come to Esto, and nthe last Dupree to leave.

“It was a fine home, and I want to go back,” she told Sybil Williams in the nursing home shortly before she died.

In keeping with her promise, Sybil Williams called Ada’s daughter, Chromie Leath, who lives in Tallahassee, and asked her to have the family make plans for burial in the Esto cemetery. After everything was arranged, a short obit came out in the Dothan, Alabama, paper, The Dothan Eagle, saying where the burial would be. The article was short, and said nothing about Ada’s being a founding member of the town, or that she would be the first black person to be buried there.

That same afternoon, says Sybil, Ida Bell Currie, a granddaughter of Ada’s in Tallahassee, called her in a panic: “Ida Bell was scared to death,” says Sybil. “A woman had called her and told her if the family brought Ada to the Esto cemetery, there’d be men waiting there with guns.”

Then the Holmes County Advertiser — in the same issue that carried a eulogy praising Ada as “humble but dignified, honest to a fault and a good neighbor” — published reports of “displeasure over the possibility that a black woman could be buried at the Esto Community Cemetery” and rumors that the KKK would be waiting at the cemetery. Ada’s family got together, says Sybil, and decided it was too dangerous to bury Ada in Esto.

“God may be colorblind,” says Sybil, “but some of the people in Esto aren’t.”

 Ada Dupree's grave in the

Ada Dupree’s grave in the “colored cemetery” in Graceville.

“We were uneasy about Ralph’s death,” says Joanna Jackson, one of Ada’s nieces, “and thought somebody meant business with Mrs. Dupree.”

“Unless you live in this area and you’re black,” says Ralph’s niece Kathleen Coleman, “you don’t know what it’s like. Uncle Ralph’s death was creepy, and we didn’t want things to get worse. Even now, just talking about his death and Miss Dupree’s burial could mean trouble.”

Cecil Godwin, a cemetery committee member, agrees with Coleman that there could be repercussions, even at this point.

“Drop it and there won’t be any more trouble,” he told a Tropic reporter. “If you don’t, I’d hate to say what could happen.”

Sheriff John Braxton offered to escort the funeral caravan to the Esto cemeetery and to provide full protection. So did Bishop L.C. Fredericks and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But the family said no. Too many scary things were going on. Ralph had turned up dead and now this.

On July 24, 191, one week before her 104th birthday, Ada Dupree was buried next to her son Ralph and his wife, Mittie, in the Graceville cemetery, 10 miles from her hometown. A big sycamore tree drops seed pods and leaves on Ada’s gravae. Birds feed on the ground. Shrubs send out wild shots. The gravestones come in all shapes andn sizes, some leaning over and cracked, others knocked down. The gras is spotty with red clay patches. Kids play in the street around it, somethings running into the cemetery to get a stray ball. The Graceville cemetery is not at all like the Esto cemetery. It is more flawed, more alive. But it is not what Ada Dupree wanted.

A bank of trees to the west shades the graves in the afternoon, turning the cemetery a mellow golden color. Ada’s grave has plastic and silk flowers all around it, and the red clay earth is scattered on the concrete slab. A gravestone gives her birth and death dates: 1887-1991. Ralph’s grave is marked only by a cinder block. Nothing at the site bears his name.

Estonians will tell you they don’t much get up to the Graceville Cemetery. They’ve got their people buried right in town and there’s no need. Too bad, some of them still say, Ada is buried with her people instead of theirs. Too bad is right, says Sybil Wiliams, Ada’s best friend in Esto, who is still mad at what hapened, especially since it was all so unnecessary.

“After all,” says Sybil, “she wouldn’t have been in the cemetery-at-large. There’s a border of caulking three inches tall around my family plot. I was going to put her on the south side near the highway, away from everyone else.”

— Excerpted from Tropic, the Sunday magazine of The Miami Herald, published on July 5, 1992. Article by Meg Laughlin. Photography by Charles Trainor Jr.

tropic

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