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Donor Chandra Bivens Carty Shares The Story of Her Grandfather Cleveland Williams

Manatee Community Foundation donor Chandra Bivens Carty is passionate about creating opportunity for people of color through scholarships. Her family history in Manatee County lives on through her giving and her story. She shared this writing about her grandfather Cleveland Williams in response to a question we posed to leaders about their inspiration during Black History Month.

My name is Chandra Bivens Carty, I am the oldest child of Naomi Williams Bivens and Joseph Theodore Bivens. 

This is my story about my grandfather Cleveland Williams, who was a major influence in my life.  I learned from him how to turn a rejection into an opportunity of accomplishments.  If it is God’s will, the only thing that will stop me is myself. 

I was born in 1954 and I lived with my parents in my grandfather Cleve’s house.  The family called it the “Big House”.  It was a two-story wood frame house with four bedrooms on the first level and approximately eight rooms on the top floor.  There were stairs left of the kitchen that led to the floor where the roomers lived.  My brother and I played on those stairs almost daily growing up as a kid in the 1960’s.

I am number 11 of about 15 grandchildren.  By the time I was born, granddaddy was already 70 years old.  He had lived most of his life and built his empire of rooming houses. 

To me, granddaddy was bigger than life.  I remember granddaddy sitting in his chair on his front porch with a Camel cigarette in his mouth.  He used his walking cane to get around.  He also used it to discipline the energetic grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  In my young eyes granddaddy provided all the candy I could imagine.  Anytime, I needed to go get candy from Mr. Trydall’s store, there on 3rd street, granddaddy would let me reach my hand into his ceramic change tray and grab a hand full of change.  Granddaddy taught me to ask boldly for what you want.  Hold your head high and speak clearly.

The living room was the place where the family would gather for family activities.  There were strict rules.  On Sunday you had to go to church.  We could not play “Old Maid” or any other card games on Sunday.  Mom would beg granddaddy to let us play our games, but granddaddy was firm.  Grandmother Bessie had a piano and would play church songs.  Grandmother had fine china and would insist that the children practiced proper table manners.  The was no running or screaming in the house.  Granddaddy taught me that families have rules that must be obeyed.

The “Big House” was the place of refuge for all the family members who needed some tender love.  Family was important and family helped each other.  Granddaddy taught that the family must get along.

Who was Granddaddy Cleve?  He was the anchor around which the family revolved.  He kept us grounded and safely planted.  He was a man of a few words, however, when he spoke, you reacted.  He was a medium built light-skinned black man.  Some people called him red.  The story was that he had some Indian blood. 

He was well respected in the neighborhood.  He only had an 8th grade education, but he made certain that all of his children attended college.  He hired teachers to educate his first-born Irma.  The teachers taught in one of the rooms on the second floor of the big house because there was no school for Negro children. 

His boss became furious when granddaddy mentioned that he intended to send his daughter to college.  He refused to give granddaddy any more work.  That did not stop him. He was determined that his black child would get the same education that his boss’s white children received.  So he left Bradenton and went to work in the shipyard in Tampa so that Irma could get an education. 

Granddaddy was determined to provide equal educational opportunities for his children.  He instilled in me that there was nothing you could not accomplish.  Your skin color did not define your abilities.   He never spoke about what you could not accomplish.

Mr. Cleve, as he was called in the community, would hire a crew of men to clear the thick trees and granddaddy would sell the wood to the hotels and local shops as firewood.  Granddaddy bought and sold property from 1909 – 1930’s.  He is recorded in the 1916 Bradenton City Directory as the owner of a lunchroom.  There was an attached room on the right side of the big house that was a restaurant and a hair salon. 

Granddaddy’s rooming house served as living quarters for the local workers.  I would sometimes go with granddaddy Cleve or my mom Naomi to collect rent.  I would also write the receipts for the rent collected.  From an early age, I was in training to continue granddaddy’s rental business. 

Granddaddy bought property from Mr. Singletary and other prominent white businessmen in Bradenton.  He was able to borrow money during the 1930-1950s from the banks.  According to some, this is unusual for a negro man to borrow money from institutions.  His records show that he repaid all his loans.  In 1951, granddaddy acquired a building permit to begin the construction of my mom’s home at 816 Third Street and to make renovations to what he called “The Tin Building”. 

The Tin Building was a rooming house made of tin.  I don’t remember the number of rooms it housed.  When my parents’ home was completed in 1955, we moved.  Granddaddy and grandmother lived a few feet away next door.  I could run from my house to granddaddy’s house anytime I wanted. 

Granddaddy was awarded the contract to clear the Hammock Drain in preparation for the bridge across the Manatee River.  He would take us fishing along the Manatee River and show us the oyster beds; he enjoyed the outdoors, boating, fishing and hunting.  I remember the chickens he raised, the eggs I would collect, the vegetables he would grow.  But most of all I appreciate the unconditional love, the respect and the leadership.  There was no problem too big that God and the family could not help you overcome.  

The evils of segregation did not prevent the Williams family from being one of the respected Negro families in Manatee County.  I was never told you could not do something because you were black.  Granddaddy did not make millions of dollars, he did not write books, but he taught me as a black woman there is no challenge too great. 

I became one of the top students in my class at Southeast High School.  I graduated from the University of Florida and Emory, and I am in a two-year Integrative Medicine Fellowship.  I have my own Nutrition Consulting business.  I believe in lifelong learning.   I am thrilled to partner with Manatee Community Foundation.