Fort Lauderdale Pioneers Al and Ruth Giles celebrate 65th wedding anniversary with a stroll down historical memory lane
By Yvette M. Giles, Ed.D.
Wednesday, Sept. 10 will mark the rarely achieved milestone of 65 years of marriage for Fort Lauderdale pioneers and retired Broward County educators, Alphonso “Al” Giles and Ruth Yvette Taylor Giles.
Al served more than 30 years in the school system, first as science department head at Dillard High and then Wingate Junior High, which later became Everglades Middle (now William Dandy Middle). He retired as science department head at Lauderdale Lakes Middle in 1983.
Ruth began her teaching career with one year as a home economics instructor at Braithwaite in Deerfield Beach and retired as grade coordinator in 1994, after teaching 46 years at Deerfield Park Elementary.
The early Dillard graduates met in downtown Fort Lauderdale in 1946, during a chance encounter on a warm summer day. Fort Lauderdale was different then.
Small shops and other businesses on Fifth Avenue were at the heart of the African American community. Dillard was only local school area Blacks could attend, from elementary through secondary grades. And the “Black Beach” was located on the other side of a palmetto thicket on the strip of oceanfront land now known as Galt Ocean Mile.
Racial segregation was the law of the land, Black citizens were denied the right to vote and the man who would become the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was just 16 years old.
At 24, Al had just returned from Army service during World War II as a water purification specialist in the sweltering jungles of New Guinea, north of Australia, and on Leyte Island in the Philippines. He was serving on the island of Okinawa in Japan when the propeller-driven Enola Gay dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It was widely rumored that Al’s unit would have been deployed to fight the Japanese had those devastating bombs not been released to bring about the war’s end. If Al’s unit had engaged in armed combat at that time, many more soldiers would have lost their lives. After an honorable discharge, Al returned to Florida and was completing his studies in science at Florida A&M College (FAMC, now Florida A&M University) when he met Ruth, his future wife.
As a student at Bethune Cookman College (BCC, now Bethune Cookman University), Ruth followed in the footsteps of her mother, Fastenia, and Aunt Marie, who were among Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s first students.
During the early 1900s, Fastenia and Marie attended the Daytona Educational and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls, which would later become BCC. Ruth was studying at the college to fulfill her dream of one day becoming a school teacher when she met Al, her future husband.
The year was 1946 and the bright summer sun was high in the sky when Al walked up town on Southeast First Avenue with his cousin, Herman Mosely, a local carpenter. Al was the first to notice the ambitious young Ruth walking in his direction. He was immediately attracted to this petite and lovely woman, who had long shiny black hair.
Al asked Herman, “Who’s that fine-looking little skinny broad with the long pretty hair?” Herman replied, “Would you like to meet her? I know her!” “Yeah man,” Al eagerly responded with an expression of the times, “latch me on to her!” Their paths crossed on a dusty sidewalk near the railroad track.
As they nervously chatted during this first meeting, Al was intrigued by Ruth’s beauty and ambition. Ruth was impressed by Al’s charm, good looks and intellect. When Al asked Ruth if he could visit her, as a proper young lady of the 1940s era, she replied “You’ll have to ask for permission from my uncle, Clayton Taylor.”
Ruth’s “Uncle Clayton” was a disciplinarian and a kind, soft-spoken man of faith. He was a prolific local farmer, who owned and operated the neighborhood store across the street from the east side of the old Dillard School. He was also one of the earliest members of Mount Hermon AME Church and a former president of the Fort Lauderdale chapter of the NAACP.
Clayton brought Ruth and her siblings, Susie, Willie (“Bubba”) and Charlie, to Fort Lauderdale as children from the small country town of Bolden in rural North Florida, near Monticello, to educate them. And although Al and Ruth both attended Dillard and worshipped at Mt. Hermon AME during the 1930s when the Rev. Collins was pastor, they had never previously met. As fate would have it, their families were well acquainted, so Uncle Clayton gladly granted his permission for Al to visit Ruth.
Al Giles and Ruth Taylor were married three years later, on Sept. 10, 1949. They became the parents of one daughter, Yvette.
Al, a founding member of Fort Lauderdale’s Zeta Alpha Lambda graduate chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., continued his education, pursuing graduate and post-graduate studies at Howard, Temple, and North Carolina A&T. Al was also among a small group of individuals from Fort Lauderdale who made history as the first Black students to at-tend Florida State College (FSC, now Florida State University).
Al and his colleagues were selected by the Broward County School Board to study graduate level math and science at FSC through a National Science Foundation grant. Fellow students included his fraternity brothers, Ellis Miller, Jr.; former Fort Lauderdale commissioner, Andrew DeGraffenreidt, the Reverend Dr. Allen E. Orr; and John T. Saunders. Other students included Leonelda Fullins, as well as Cody Swan and Alfred Thurston, both from Pompano Beach.
Al and his colleagues integrated the college in 1962, during the height of racial unrest in the South. Earlier that year, George Wallace defied a court order to integrate the University of Alabama by standing in a doorway at the college to block the admission of two Black students. He famously vowed in his gubernatorial inaugural address, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The following year, 1963, four little Black girls were tragically killed in an explosion when their Birmingham church was bombed.
Prior to departing for Tallahassee to become the first Black students to attend FSC, the group met with Wilbur Marshall, Director of Secondary Education for Broward County Schools. Marshall cautioned the students that Tallahassee was not like Fort Lauderdale.
He described the State of Florida’s capital in 1962 as more like cities in the racially charged states of Alabama and Mississippi. Out of concern for their safety, Marshall asked if the students would feel more comfortable residing in a dormitory on the all-Black FAMC’s campus, rather than at FSC.
“Mr. Marshall,” Al said to address this issue, “we know you have our best interests at heart. But we are going to Tallahassee to pursue an education.” Al continued saying, “If other people don’t bother us, we won’t bother them.”
“That’s the spirit!” Marshall replied. “We knew you were the right caliber of students, and that’s why you were selected for this program.”
Shortly after the students arrived at FSC, the city’s main newspaper, the Tallahassee Democrat, featured an article about this history making event titled, “Education, Not Agitation,” describing the reasons for the students’ presence at the college. Al and his fellow students remained in the program for three summers, leaving the college in 1965.
An avid boater, Al was the first African American member of the Broward County Marine Advisory Board during the 1960s. During the early sixties, as construction began on Galt Ocean Mile, Black beachgoers lost access to the segregated Black beach on the mainland. And Blacks were prohibited from using Fort Lauderdale’s beach. So the City of Fort Lauderdale began to ferry Broward County’s Black citizens by boat from Port Everglades to the second Black beach, an island in Dania Beach, now known as John U. Lloyd State Park. At that time, the island was inaccessible by car. So Al’s boating club, Fort Lauderdale’s “Jolly Anglers,” had the city build a dock at this beach for the use of Blacks who would visit the beach by boat.
One of the highlights of Al’s life was taking sea navigation courses that enabled him to successfully pilot his larger cabin cruiser, “Sea Hunter,” to Bimini in the Bahamas and back in 1970 for the July Fourth weekend. Al’s fraternity brother, Ellis Miller, Sr., and his son, Ellis, Jr., travelled with Al on his boat. Lannie Meeks and fellow boating club member Fred Sands cruised along with Al in Lannie’s smaller, open boat. Other boating club members who flew to Bimini for this special occasion included Al’s fraternity brother, Leonard Foster, as well as Nathaniel Hunter and Frederick Leon Storr.
In later years, Al served as wagon master for the Broward Kounty Kampers Klub and became active in the Keenagers, Trailblazers, Retired Rollers (bowling league) and the Broward County Retired Educators Association. Al served as a trustee and member of the men’s choir while attending Harris Chapel United Methodist Church, but rejoined Mt. Hermon AME in recent years to serve the church with Ruth.
During Ruth’s early years of teaching in the late 1940’s, she became increasingly distressed that students at Braithewaite Elementary and Junior High School in Deerfield were experiencing difficulties in the classroom. Ruth attributed the agitation, inattentiveness and lethargy exhibited by many students to a lack of proper nutrition during the day. She observed most of her students eating candy and cookies from a neighborhood store for lunch each day because the school had no formal lunch program. Ruth took her concerns to her principal, Mae Brown Golden, who said, “Well, Mrs. Giles, what are you going to do about it?”
With permission from Golden, Ruth rallied other teachers and housekeeping staff, telling them “you cannot teach a hungry child.” Ruth and other school employees worked as a team, arriving an hour early each day and bringing food items from home to toss into large pots to make soup for the children. In addition, Ruth petitioned a local dairy to donate cartons of milk for the students to purchase for mere pennies per pint. The employees’ efforts to provide nutritious lunches for the children continued for several years until the school established an official lunch program.
Ruth also devoted her energies through the years in service to Mt. Hermon AME, her beloved family church. She served on several boards and established the first Sunday breakfast program at the church during the early 1980s. Ruth became active in the Northwest Federated Women’s Club, Friends of the African American Research Library and Cultural Center (AARLCC) and Washington Park Civic Association. She also tapped into her family’s farming roots by becoming a master gardener, regularly sharing her bountiful harvests of vegetables with neighborhood friends.
When Ruth retired in 1994, the Broward County School Board named the new intermediate wing of Deerfield Park Elementary in her honor. And in 2008, the School Board and Deerfield Park Elementary sponsored an official dedication ceremony for the “Ruth T. Giles Media Center” at the school, recognizing Ruth as “an exemplary lifelong educator.” Ruth was also honored by the Friends of AARLCC with a lifetime achievement award in 2009, in recognition of her community activism.
Al and Ruth will celebrate their 65th (blue sapphire) anniversary on September 10 of this year.
When asked about being married for nearly a lifetime, Al replied with a twinkle in his eye, “I wouldn’t trade her for all the tea in China.” Ruth looked lovingly at Al and said, “He’s still the handsomest and smartest man I’ve ever known. God has blessed us!