Submitted by Emilie Alfino
The packed house at another sold out Twilight Talk at the Sanibel Historical Museum & Village applauded enthusiastically as Sanibel Planning Director Jim Jordan and his cousin Oscar Gavin, owner of Gavin Plumbing, walked into the Old Schoolhouse through the back door and sat at the teacher's desk.
Jordan and Gavin were back for the second time in the Twilight series and sold out both times. In fact, all of this year's talks at the village were sell outs.
City Planning Director Jim Jordan (left) and cousin Oscar Gavin entertain a full house at the Historical Village’s last Twilight Talk of the season.
It is said you should always start with a joke, but Jordan and Gavin kept them coming, making for an enjoyable, informative, hour.
"One good thing about telling stories is you can make them up as you go," Jordan quipped before turning over the floor to Gavin, who said he hoped the audience would take away something that would help them understand the history of Sanibel "and what things were like back in the days when we didn't have so many rules and regulations."
"We were very poor and we had to eat anything that moved too slow now they're protected and we have to go to Winn-Dixie," Gavin said. "But you have to learn to deal with change."
The men addressed some of the prejudices that made life harder for blacks everywhere, but said they experienced most of that kind of behavior not on Sanibel, but in Fort Myers.
"A long time ago, things weren't the way they should have been and it became a hardship for blacks on the island, but in a limited way," Gavin said. "Citizens of Sanibel were civil and knew how to treat people with love. That's one of the things that kept us on Sanibel."
Jordan's family arrived on Sanibel from Georgia in the 1920s.
"My father was born on Sanibel. I think they came for the opportunities that were here," he said. "I never recall anyone in my family saying they got here and didn't fall in love with Sanibel."
Jordan arrived on the island in the 1950s from Cleveland. "We lived with no indoor plumbing in a three-room building, and there was no mosquito control," Jordan recalled. "I remember my first time being introduced to an outhouse. We were not accustomed to that and had issues with using that facility."
Still, Jordan related fond memories of growing up on the island.
"We collected shells a lot and made a few extra dollars selling them. We went to the beach, we went fishing," he said. "People not only had to be self-reliant but also reliant upon each other. People were very resourceful and related to each other."
It was perhaps the highest praise of all when Jordan said, "No matter where I've been in life, I always wanted to come back to Sanibel."
There was no school for black children on the island until the 1940s. Then up until 1964, black children went off-island to a black school in Dunbar. Jim Crow and racism were rampant in the south at that time.
"Black people couldn't be downtown after 6 p.m. all the way up until the late 1960s," Jordan said to gasps from the crowded schoolhouse.
"Sanibel was a sort of sanctuary, a little bit insulated from the rest of the world; still, you don't really see diversity on Sanibel," Jordan continued.
Laughing, he added about going to school in Fort Myers, "Every kid should get his lunch money stolen at least once; it builds character. It happened to me, but I had 20 cousins behind me, so it never happened again."
Answering a question from the audience about how people dealt with alligators back then, Jordan replied, "I'm sure there were more alligators than people then, but we didn't have a problem with alligators because we ate them, they didn't eat us."
"We lived in an old shack on Sanibel-Captiva Road when I was five years old, around 1956," Gavin said. "It leaked when it rained. There were a lot of holes in the house and we weren't the only ones living in the house, either; we had lots of critters. We did not have a living room, it was just another room. We were so ashamed to have any friends from school come over. What we had to do was socialize with our own relatives.
"We had to live in deplorable conditions, but we are proof that if you have someone who cares for you and can be a role model, especially in those conditions, good things can happen," said Gavin. "But never did we think we would be addressing a crowd of all white people!"
Gavin claimed there was no crime on Sanibel until the causeway. In a sense, he said, "we were in jail already, on an island surrounded by water! It was the same with kids running away from home. Where were they going to go?
"I'm proud to still be on Sanibel. This school building here is proof that a mind properly trained and taught can do a lot of things," Gavin concluded.
Jordan agreed, "Your limitations do not always limit you. Quite a few families came and went but my family chose to stay here. My mom fell in love with Sanibel before she fell in love with my dad. We, too, lived in a shack with no electricity, no running water, and no plumbing. But I always felt we were all rich and didn't know it. I never felt disadvantaged. We had full bellies every night and people who loved us."
The Sanibel Historical Museum & Village plans to increase the number and frequency of Twilight Talks next season. This is a great time to become a member, who gets into the Twilight Talks free of charge; tickets otherwise cost $5 per person. A single membership to the museum is $25, and a family membership costs $50; other levels are also available. Call 472-4648 for more information.
The Museum is located at 950 Dunlop Road (next to BIG ARTS).