Lu Vickers’ childhood in rural Chattahoochee was filled with stories. The small town shares a strange past with the state’s mental hospital, but more than that, Vickers always had her young ears open for local gossip while she used her imagination to craft stories.
Now a published author and writing professor at TCC, Vickers says that paying attention to the world around you is the greatest advice she can give students.
“I love going to antique stores and places where people know each other,” says Vickers. “You hear these southern voices starting to tell crazy stories. “Listening to people can give you ideas and I think that’s imperative if you want to be a writer or an artist.”
It was spying a billboard for Weeki Wachee Springs State Park that set her on the path to becoming a writer on Florida history because she was inspired to go see the park. Though Vickers started out as a fiction writer, meeting a group of older mermaids who called themselves “The Tails of Yesteryear” encouraged her to temporarily put her novel aside and write non-fiction.
She went on to publish books on Cypress Gardens in addition to “Remembering Paradise Park: Tourism and Segregation in Silver Springs.” The accompanying photographs of the latter and most recent book are on display at the TCC Fine Art Gallery through March 25th.
“You just have to give yourself to a project like this,” says Vickers. “My insatiable curiosity about things helped push me along.”
Vickers met Paradise Park’s official photographer Bruce Mozert through her past book projects. Co-author Cynthia Wilson-Graham, an advocate and educator, was instrumental in installing a historical marker for the exclusively African American park and shared her research with Vickers.
Hooked on learning more, she embarked on writing a book about this tourist destination that was only open for 20 years.
“I felt it was important to get these stories down,” explains Vickers, who says many first-hand accounts were disappearing as people passed away. “I’d seen the photos and spent a lot of time researching the history of African Americans traveling after slavery.”
Vickers’ own family did not do much traveling. She read constantly and made up her own stories in middle and high school, a love of language and words beginning at a young age. As a student in Florida State University’s creative writing program, Vickers’ mentor, Jerome “Jerry” Stern gave her invaluable advice on parsing out the five or more stories she might have in a piece and focusing on just one.
As a teacher at TCC, she takes the same prompts she gives students to encourage her own practice and travels as much as she can. Vickers’ won a National Endowment for the Arts grant for fiction writing, and has had work featured in the Florida Flambeau and the Tampa Bay Times.
Though she didn’t set out to tell stories of Florida’s landmark sites or forgotten past, she feels a particular passion for preserving sites like Paradise Park in the words of the people who were there.
“I let this book be an oral history,” says Vickers. “It’s written in a style similar to feature writing as it’s very people-oriented. Then I make connections that people might not have made on their own.”
Her favorite passage opens with a quote from author Zora Neale Hurston, who talks about a river running underneath the ground and coming back up to the surface. It reminded Vickers of Paradise Park as a sister spring to Silver Springs State Park, hidden under the water. Though many claimed they didn’t know it existed, she believes that white privilege and willful ignorance played a significant role in its obscurity.
Pouring over microfilms and online news archives, Vickers found few mentions of Paradise Park.
The majority of her book consists of hours of interviews that she transcribed and worked into each chapter. The book is laid out to cover how African Americans traveled post-emancipation — how they were accepted in some areas until segregation set in and how thriving black communities disappeared after desegregation.
“People talked to me about how much they lost,” says Vickers. “An attorney, Dorsey Miller, said when you have integration that means melding together, but that’s not what happened. They just shut stuff down…Paradise Park got closed and bulldozed.”
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