Daisy Lynum, Born to Read
Considering Daisy Lynum's love of reading, it seems fitting that her life story would make a great book. Her thirst for knowledge (plus a well-timed letter to President Lyndon Johnson) helped elevate her past poverty in rural Leesburg and into the upper class of education. After completing studies at Bethune-Cookman College, she attended Bryn Mawr, the prestigious women’s college near Philadelphia, and Florida State University, where she earned a master’s degree in sociology. A former state social worker, Lynum, 62, entered public life as an Orlando city commissioner in 1998. As the District 5 (Parramore neighborhood) Orlando City Council commissioner, Lynum has been a controversial figure.
I was a freshman at Bethune-Cookman College when President Johnson gave his first State of the Union Address as an elected president in 1965. I remember being in the lobby of the dorm when he said that every boy and girl in America
deserves an education and that he had set aside funds for this. Now this was the segregationist who became, more than JFK even, an advocate for civil rights—more than what most people give him credit for. So I went upstairs and wrote a letter to President Johnson and told him that I didn’t have enough money to finish college.
The next thing I know, the president of the school is angry with me because the White House has called the school and Ralph Turlington, Florida’s Secretary of Education, was in touch. From that that day forth I became a dorm counselor and I got grants and scholarships and everything I needed to complete school. I was no longer poor.
My teachers, maybe even more than my parents, knew I was supposed to go to college. I remember after taking an IQ test for my 6th grade teacher, Mr. John Crawford, the teachers were talking about me. My 5th grade teacher at Dabney
Elementary (in Leesburg), Mrs. Add-ison, was saying, “That Williams girl is no 135!” After they re-tested me they came to talk to me and my parents. I had no concept of what an IQ score meant and, of course, it meant nothing to my parents. Even though they were not well-educated and were very poor, poverty is not the equivalent of ignorance and
ignorance is very expensive. So I always knew I was going to college.
I was basically a reader. Still am. I never thought of it as an escape, it was just something I liked doing. I started reading books from my next-door neighbors, those love stories you got in the mail. So when my mother’s friends Miss Juanita and Miss Margaret were done with their True Stories they gave them to me, and I’d stay up all night and read one after another. I don’t think I was supposed to read True Stories but that’s all I had until I discovered comic books, and after that I learned I could go to the library and check out The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.
Maybe it was an escape.
I grew up in segregated Florida. We lived in a shotgun house, 212 Bisby Street in Leesburg, until my dad built a bigger, nicer house when I was in high school. Until then my brother slept in the front room. The middle room was for me and my three sisters. There was a kitchen, bathroom inside, and then my parents added a back room so they had their privacy.
Periodically we’d get these notices that the Klan would be riding through. The Ku Klux Klan had their home base in Barberville, and they used to ride all the time in the 1950s. On those nights we’d go to bed early and turn the lights off. I do remember those nights because my father had a crowbar at the door to fight the KKK, to protect the family.
My dad was considered the medicine man for the region. He drove all around the countryside selling tonics that were supposed to build up the blood and take care of colds and diseases. I remember one with red letters, M&M, I think, which was a tonic he sold. We never got that one. I’m more familiar with the Three 6’s to ward off colds, and Father John’s and Black Draught, which was like a molasses. Then there were worm medicines. My Aunt Polly was a Seminole Indian and once a year she’d come over—we were de-wormed whether we had them or not. I don’t know where she got all this stuff. It was dreadful. It was warm and red and as bad as castor oil and it was hard not to vomit up, but Aunt Polly would stick around until we could keep it down.
My mother was a housewife and she was ill with what we think was lupus. She passed away when I was in college, but the odd thing was that she never stopped working. I never saw her sleep. She worked all night and was always going. She washed clothes. She folded clothes. She always had to have things clean. Every Thursday was wash day and the linen had to be sparkling white. We had no washing machine, but we had a fire pot so she would build a fire beneath an iron pot and boil the water and put the clothes in with homemade lye soap.
It was a different time. Myself and Joseph Leeks and Kay Adams and Pat Sweetwine used to walk on Sundays, and even though there was a cinema in our neighborhood, we just walked into the downtown theater where the rules required us to go up to the balcony. We refused to go. It must have been 1963, but we just sat downstairs and from that day on the theater was no longer segregated. We were just on a stroll and we just wanted to see what the movie was. We didn’t even think about it. We didn’t think it was heroic. We just did it.
|Daisy Lynum in 1968, while attending Bryn Mawr|
Sometimes my dad would take all of us to a baseball game at Venetian Gardens in Leesburg. You paid your quarter or whatever and for a nickel you could get a Coke and for another nickel some peanuts and drop them into the Coke and that would last all night. It was a major event to watch baseball, so that was very important. My dad also loved to fish at Venetian Gardens. He was there all the time and he’d bring the fish home and I’d clean them. And even though it was never discussed, I just had to go to college because I knew I was never going to clean another damn fish. I knew that much!
I really thought I would be a doctor, but I couldn’t stand the sight of blood and guts or the smells. Maybe it was the fish. I majored in sociology and I finished after three years and went back to Leesburg to teach 5th grade. When I went back to Bethune-Cookman to graduate with my class I learned that I had received a Rockefeller Fellowship to Bryn Mawr. Before I entered Bryn Mawr, I attended summer classes at Haverford College, which is an all-boys college just down the street.
When I arrived there I was around some of the wealthiest people in America. Haverford was one of the wealthiest all-men’s schools and Bryn Mawr was one of the wealthiest all-women’s schools. So I’m from an impoverished area in Leesburg and now I’m catapulted there and the only thing that bridged that gap was reading. I wasn’t intimidated by anyone there because I had read so much. Even though I was poor and I could remember the KKK from just a few years before, I never believed anybody was better than me. Still don’t. I was never this “Stepin Fetchit” Negro, and I don’t think my father was.
My confidence is sort of an inner spiritual thing. It’s not about black or white or anything but that spiritual component of having an idea of being where you’re supposed to be. I knew about national histories and these great dynasties that would fail when they lost their spiritual guidance, and that’s why I’ve always had a very strong
spiritual foundation that I depend on.