Tuesday’s meeting of the Key West Housing Authority board devolved into confusion and hostility that was heightened by the chairman’s abrupt and indignant departure after a city commissioner asked that the name of Porter Place public housing apartments be changed.
The housing complex at the corner of White and Eaton streets was named 81 years ago for J.Y. Porter Sr., a prominent resident and, according to research by historian Arlo Haskell, a leader of the local Ku Klux Klan.
At the time of its naming, the apartment complex was designated a whites-only housing facility, City Commissioner Sam Kaufman told the housing commissioners on Tuesday.
Three of the housing authority’s five commissioners are old enough to recall the naming in 1940. Chairman Frank Toppino is 97. Vice Chair Bob Dean is 89 and Commissioner Roosevelt Sands is 90. Commissioner John Parks, Jr. is 79 and Commissioner Annette Mobley is 68, according to online voting records.
But Kaufman’s efforts to get the name changed did not go smoothly.
Housing Authority Executive Director Randy Sterling told the housing board that his staff spent significant time researching the matter, but were unable to definitively confirm whether J.Y. Porter Sr. or J.Y. Porter Jr. had held the title of Exalted Cyclops of the Key West chapter of the KKK. Sterling recommended that the board deny the renaming request.
“Due to the lack of conclusive evidence, we can’t recommend changing the name,” Sterling said.
In the three minutes allowed each speaker from the public, Kaufman presented evidence from three local historians who had concluded with near certainty that J.Y. Porter Sr., the compound’s namesake, was also a local Klan leader.
“The recommendation of the director is woefully inadequate and unreasonably obtuse,” Kaufman said during his three minutes. “The overwhelming evidence is that both J.Y Porter Jr. and Sr. were Klan members.”
The 1921 charter of the Key West chapter of the KKK bears the exact same name as the sign at Porter Place Apartments — J.Y. Porter, with no indication of Jr. or Sr.
Kaufman’s time ran out before he could finish his prepared comments and Chairman Frank Toppino refused to grant him an extra minute to finish.
“You can’t indulge me one more minute?” Kaufman asked incredulously.
Toppino refused. Another member of the public, Patricia Schwermer, used her three minutes to read the remainder of Kaufman’s comments, which ended with, “You have an opportunity to make a statement by removing the vestiges of racism from a place dedicated for white residents only, J.Y. Porter Place, and rename the public facility with something more consistent with our One Human Family community values. I understand that you will likely follow the recommendation of your executive director and staff. Such a decision will not end this controversy. I strongly believe that our community, especially our young people, will not stand for this offensive symbol remaining on public land.”
Toppino then said, “Let’s vote no and move on to something more important.”
Board member John Parks moved to deny the renaming request, but the motion died for lack of a second.
Housing authority commissioner Annette Mobley, one of the board’s two black commissioners, then said she supported the name change. “In the words of John Lewis, ‘We are better than this.’” But her motion also died for lack of a second.
Commissioner Roosevelt Sands Jr., the board’s other black commissioner, suggested the board continue the conversation until all the facts are known.
“Whoever Sam Kaufman is has turned this into a racial issue. I don’t think we ought to take any action,” an indignant Toppino told the board, then stormed out of the meeting.
“This really made me angry,” vice chair Bob Dean said. “I’ve been on this board 49 years. We’ve served thousands of black people and white people. No one on this board is a racist.”
When reached by phone after the meeting, board member John Parks Jr. pointed to J.Y. Porter Sr. ‘s contributions in eliminating yellow fever from Key West, but also said that he would support the renaming if it is proven with certainty that he was also a Klan leader. “It’d be like convicting a person without evidence,” Parks said. “I don’t want to change it without being sure. But Sam Kaufman has caused so many problems. We can’t let this disrupt the work of the housing authority.”
When reached after the meeting, Kaufman said his efforts to rename the complex are not over, and he envisions a community meeting to help spread the word about the issue.