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Louise Buie

Wednesday, December 3
Area civil rights pioneer dies

By Sonja Isger, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2003

RIVIERA BEACH -- Louise Elizabeth "L.E." Buie was a one-woman wrecking ball that pounded away at nearly every barrier to blacks in Palm Beach County at a time when the repercussions could prove deadly at the worst and alienating on good days.

But with the Lord at her back, Mrs. Buie refused to step down and later rarely failed to take credit for every door she opened and every black person who walked through.

Mrs. Buie, who led the county's NAACP as its president for 14 years in the 1950s and '60s, whose counterparts and contemporaries included Medgar Evers and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., died Tuesday after a brief illness. She was 89.

Not quite 5-feet tall, Mrs. Buie became the most imposing figure in the battle for area integration.

Since 1937, when she joined the local NAACP branch, Mrs. Buie fought to walk across the whites-only beaches. She battled segregated schools, hospitals and restaurants.

In 1961, she even dabbled in sports: She marched on Connie Mack Field in West Palm Beach for the rights of "Negro" players to room with their white teammates and for the rights of all blacks to sit in the grandstands.

For a decade, she repeatedly fought and cajoled Riviera Beach and West Palm Beach city officials to hire blacks not merely as janitors and laborers, but as firefighters and police officers. Where sit-ins and marches were the norm elsewhere, Mrs. Buie -- once a domestic employee on Palm Beach -- often succeeded with sheer force of personality, her friends say.

"For a short lady, she stood very tall to speak for people who were oppressed, and she'll be greatly missed," said retired Judge Edward Rodgers, the first black judge in the county, who met Mrs. Buie some 50 years ago.

"She was very diligent in pursuing what was wrong. She did so much, 'til there were very few people who would refuse her."

In pushing the integration of Palm Beach County's public and private institutions, Mrs. Buie's voice, as NAACP president, often stood alone.

When the local branch filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1965 regarding four local hospitals -- St. Mary's Medical Center, Bethesda Memorial Hospital, what is now A.G. Holley Hospital and Good Samaritan Medical Center -- which refused to admit black patients, some of her colleagues suggested the move was perhaps premature.

But Mrs. Buie stood her ground.

"This is the law of the land. If they haven't caught up, it's not my fault. We have a job to do," she was quoted as saying in The Palm Beach Post.

Her boldness had a price, reports her longtime friend and protégé, Michael Brown, mayor of Riviera Beach, who spent some Sundays driving Mrs. Buie to church and spent many hours tapping her wisdom.

Brown said Mrs. Buie, whose day job at the time was selling insurance, once told him that her own neighbors would sometimes refuse to buy insurance from her out of spite.

What frustrated her most, he said, was that "at the times she was fighting, calling people to help, black people, they either attempted to undermine her, undermine the effort, or sat on the sidelines -- but rushed through the doors to eat at the table when they were open."

But little daunted her.

"I once said, 'You know Mrs. Buie you were the state organizer for the NAACP... you were this poor black woman and all the power structure knew who you were, they knew where the meeting was and when it was. And you were traveling these treacherous roads... they knew you were coming and you knew they knew. What gave you the strength?'

"And she said she was always protected by the Lord. She said, 'My Father always took care of me.' "

Sometimes Mrs. Buie picked up causes that continue to be concerns decades later.

In 1968, for example, she lead the local NAACP's call to get rid of the school district's "all white" textbooks that neglected to tell the history and contribution of blacks in this country. They asked that a course in "Negro History" be added to the curriculum.

When she wasn't working for a cause through the NAACP, Mrs. Buie was leading the call through other organizations, including the Palm Beach County Voters League, the Inter Civic League and the YWCA. And after careers as a domestic worker and insurance saleswoman, she went on to work as a home health care nurse.

Life did manage to hand Mrs. Buie some insurmountable obstacles. In September 1959, her only son, Paul Charles Buie, was killed after the beer truck he was driving crashed into a Pahokee canal. He was 27 and left behind a wife and two young children.

Still, Mrs. Buie continued to take the microphone at city hall and clamor for equality. She once told an audience that her drive was sparked by a simple question from a little girl.

"She asked why can't I sit at the counter and eat with the rest of the people."

Funeral services have been tentatively set for 11 a.m. Monday at the Roanoke Baptist Church, 1320 Douglas Ave., West Palm Beach.

sonja_isger@pbpost.com

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