Kitchen: Segregation tough, even in the Keys

I was born in Key West but have lived in Marathon all my life,” Pat Kitchen said. What sounds wrong about that statement is actually right.

When she came into the world in 1953, the same year that the Keynoter began putting out newspapers, Marathon didn’t have a hospital. As a result, her father and mother, already long-time Marathon residents, had to travel to the hospital in Key West.

Kitchen’s father came to Marathon from Macon, Ga., in 1949 because of a job offer from a local construction company. He worked in construction here for most of the rest of his life. Along the way, he and his wife Idella had seven children, six of whom still live in Marathon.

In the 1950s, the American South was still a bastion of segregation, and African-Americans were forced to use separate public facilities in every aspect of their lives. In those days, even public drinking fountains were segregated. Though the Keys were certainly located in the southern section of the country, only the schools had separate facilities for white students and those who were African-American.

Kitchen remembers that she attended an all-African-American school at what is now the Grace Jones Day Care Center on 41st Street. There were 20 or 30 other children in the school at that time.

At least the school was conveniently located for her. She, her mother and father, and five brothers and sisters, lived, at that time, on 41st in a small two-bedroom house.

In 1960, Hurricane Donna destroyed that house and many others in that area. It was a frightening experience. Only 7 years old, Kitchen remembers that people in her neighborhood went to a local shelter to escape the violent winds and the water.

“They had high tables in the place and I remember that my mother put my brothers up on these tables,” Kitchen said. “The water came up to my mother’s chest. It was incredibly frightening.”

Worse yet, her mother’s best friend was killed in the storm.

After that the family moved to an area in Vaca Cut that people referred to as “Dark Town.” However, that wasn’t meant as a racist statement. The nickname referred to the fact that there were no street lights in the area and, as a result, it was actually quite dark.

“There were 10 or 12 African-American families out there and we had a lot of fun,” Kitchen said. “We’d just hang out together, ride our bikes, or go to the movies. I loved to read and would stay home and read.”

They’d also stop regularly at a small burger joint, which she remembers as being where the restaurant Fish Tales is now located.

“We’d stop in nearly every day and get a burger and milkshake,” she said.

In the early ’60s, the schools were integrated, and Kitchen and others from her neighborhood rode the bus to Marathon High. It was far from an easy transition.

“There was a lot of name-calling,” she said. “It was really rough at the beginning, but later it got better.”

Kitchen also remembers the mosquitoes — but not fondly.

“Oh, they were terrible. We used gallons of repellant,” she recalled. “People would burn damp rags in barrels to drive them off. The rags would smoke and keep the mosquitoes away from the houses.”

Marathon was nothing like it is now and Kitchen, though her livelihood depends upon the influx of tourists and snowbirds, misses the small-town atmosphere.

“You could walk down U.S. 1 in the summer from the old Winn-Dixie to 41st Street, and only two or three cars would pass you,” she said. “Now there’s so much hustle and bustle and it’s gotten so expensive to live here. Some of my friends have had to leave because they couldn’t afford to stay.”

In terms of living expenses, Kitchen was very fortunate. She was the first person to move into the Eastwind housing development on Sombrero Beach Road. The 132 units were constructed in an area that was just mangroves, and she’s been in her unit for 21 years.

She also loves how safe Marathon is.

“Everybody knows everybody,” she said. “We never have to worry about my grandchildren going out to play or walking to school. It’s really wonderful that way.”

Certainly everyone knows the Kitchen family, and Pat Kitchen seems to appreciate that, too.