Celebrating the achievements of Space and Civil Rights Pioneer Alton Yates this Black History Month

Toni Yates Image
Tuesday, February 21, 2023
Celebrating Space, Civil Rights pioneer Alton Yates
Toni Yates looks at the accomplishments of her father Alton Yates, Space and Civil Rights Pioneer.

JACKSONVILLE, Florida (WABC) -- Jacksonville, the City of Seven Bridges, also nicknamed the Gateway to Florida, and as history has it, a gateway to Civil Rights.

It's also the birthplace of an American hero with a long list of accomplishments, 87-year-old Retired Lieutenant Colonel Alton Yates. He's the father of Eyewitness News Reporter Toni Yates.

"What have we got over here, this is from the pope," Toni said.

"It was for outstanding service to the church and the community," Alton said. "The most important picture on this wall of course is this one, my grandchildren."

In Toni's childhood home, Alton and her mom Gwen remember it wasn't all that long ago that something as simple as buying a sandwich at a lunch counter was a right they had to fight for, for their children.

"I never wanted them to experience the same kinds of degradation," Alton said. "Who knew it would turn out to be a bloody afternoon."

Back in the era of Jim Crow, it didn't matter that Alton was in the Air Force, celebrated by Ebony magazine as a space pioneer. Back then, all that mattered was that he was Black, and the lunch counter was for whites only.

There was a place though, where integration was protocol, Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

This is Col. John Stapp nicknamed the fastest man alive.

It's there where young Alton would raise his hand and join Col. Stapp in testing the limits of the body for eventual space travel.

At Holloman, what Alton was working on for the greater good was punishing to the body.

In 1958, he was strapped to what was called the Daisy Track.

"That was the one that could travel a hundred miles an hour in 50 feet. Now, imagine a hundred miles an hour and 50 feet," he said.

"What did it feel like?" Toni said.

"Oh. It felt like everything in the back of your body was trying to come out through the front," Alton said. "But I don't regret it."

At the time, Alton was dating Gwen. But his work was a secret, so he couldn't say much about what he'd been up to.

"I just thought you were out there marching," she said. "And when I saw the name Alton I thought, well there can't be that many Alton's and I read it and I go, 'My gosh, that's my Alton!'"

Four and a half years into serving, a family emergency would cause Alton to have to return to Jacksonville.

In making that drive back from New Mexico through the segregated south, the young airman did not receive a hero's welcome. He recalls one incident at a restaurant.

"As I was seated, two big men came up behind me, and grabbed me by my collar. Remember, I've got on my blue uniform, Air Force uniform," Alton said. "These guys grabbed me, use the N-word, and told me if I didn't get my Black so-and-so out there, I would never make it to wherever it was I was going. Well, I got the message. I bought a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter, and I ate peanut butter and bread 1,400 miles back to Jacksonville."

"I can't even process that. I can't even imagine what that felt like," Toni said.

"It was embarrassing. It was humiliating, it was degrading. And it was something that I promised myself that I never, ever wanted another individual to experience," Alton said.

By the time Alton made it to Jacksonville, he'd decide his new fight would be for change, joining the NAACP's Youth Council.

Inspired by other sit-ins like in North Carolina, those brave activists, some as young as 13, would sit at lunch counters reserved only for white patrons, asking they be served too.

"There you are on the wall there," Toni said.

"There I am. Other members of the youth council, unfortunately at that point we couldn't be served," he said.

Here at the Ritz Museum preserving African American history in the Lavilla neighborhood where Alton grew up, lies a peek at what one of those lunch counters would have looked like.

Normally these peaceful sit-ins amounted to hurled insults and closed counters.

On August 27, 1960, what happened at the downtown Woolworth department store would go down as a stain on Jacksonville's history.

Alton revisits that dark time at nearby Hemming Park, a place named after a confederate veteran, and where white men dragged him and others in the youth council out of that Woolworth department store and beat them with ax handles.

That bloody day would become known as ax handle Saturday. A recently released children's book about Alton's life shows what the youth council faced.

"Some even carried flags or wore uniforms of the confederate army, an army that 99 years earlier had gone to war against the United States. The danger was obvious. Organizers for the youth council saw what they were up against. The members, most of them children, remember, voted to protest anyway," Alton read from the children's book.

Only a few photos of Ax Handle Saturday exist, like those featured in a Life magazine spread, showing the chaos and bloodiness of the day. The mayor and local paper downplayed the true extent of that day. But the scars are still there, just like the scar on the back of Alton's head from when he was struck by an ax handle. But as Toni and Alton visited the park this Black History Month, they noticed a change.

"Jacksonville was once one of the most segregated cities in the south," he said. "Now you can walk around and you can eat anywhere you want."

The confederate statue of Hemming was removed and the park was renamed in 2020 to James Weldon Johnson Park, after the Jacksonville native who wrote the lyrics to "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

A plaque now stands commemorating those brave young activists like Alton.

"It is a contradiction to the mayor's statement that nothing happened in this city," he said.

"Have you ever come across any of those men who came out to attack you guys?" Toni asked.

"One! During the 40th anniversary celebration, one of the Klansmen came and joined us in the march to apologize and he marched up here with us," Alton said.

The local newspaper finally recognized history with an apology, and locals recognized him too.

What was once covered up, was now finally given its due.

"It was never about a hot dog and a Coke," Toni said.

"Absolutely not. It was always about human dignity," Alton said.

Chris Barton, the author of that children's book dedicated to Alton's life, is seeking to spread the word on progress.

"One thing I've learned from Alton's story is the value of taking a longer-term perspective and seeing how progress happens, how we do move forward even when not everything is moving in that direction?" Barton said.

60 years later, not everyone wants to hear the truth. Alton always remains an optimist.

"You see over and over again some of the brutality that men of color are facing in this country," Toni said. "And it's like how do you stay peaceful!"

"So, you cannot lose heart. You must stay focused, you must continue the effort. You know, if you stop all efforts to eliminate those kinds of conditions, they win. And we can never allow that to happen," Alton said.

Perhaps he's right. Right next to that Woolworth exhibit, lies a dedication to James Weldon Johnson.

More than 100 years since those words of hope were first written, progress in action is ringing through for the first time, loud and clear at the Super Bowl.

Let us march on 'til victory is won.

"Because of what you and so many others have done, I mean, my kids can't even imagine not having friends, you know, of all backgrounds," Toni said.

"As it well should be. You know, it is the diversity of this country that makes us so great," Alton said. "And as long as we continue along those roads, we will continue to be great as a nation."

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