The Miami Oral Histories Collection features first-hand accounts of civil rights in Miami. Students at William H. Turner Technical High School recorded interviews and the FIU Libraries’ Digital Collection Center6 digitized, transcribed, and published the oral histories online. It’s a fascinating collection, and we’ve chosen six moments from those interviews to remember the civil rights movement in our city in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
On being a Civil Rights leader in Miami
M. Athalie Range was a civil rights pioneer in Miami, who led numerous efforts to improve schools and city services, establish parks, and organize the black community. She was appointed Miami’s first black city commissioner in 1966, after losing a campaign in 1965 when her opponent hired trucks to drive through white neighborhoods broadcasting the message that a black woman would make laws if they did not vote. In 1971, she became the first woman and the first black person since Reconstruction to head a state agency in Florida when she was appointed Secretary of the Department of Community Affairs. Interviewers asked her what it meant to the black community when she was appointed to the city commission.
“Well, it meant a lot to the blacks of Miami because prior to that time, black people expressed no interest in what was going on. The laws were passed, we were overlooked, our garbage was picked up whenever they got around to picking it up, many, many things that may not seem important now was just thrust upon the black community, street lights were very sparse, no sidewalks throughout most of the area, and as I– when I became city commissioner and began to learn of what it would take to get certain things done for the community, naturally I went after those things. I have said on several occasions that as simple as it is, one of the things that I started in my tenure was a regular garbage pick-up. Can you imagine having to sit in a governmental body and fuss about whether your garbage is picked up or not? Well, that is what was happening. They were — they had regular routes in the white areas for a bi-weekly pick-up, twice per week. And in the predominantly black sections, which was segregated at that time, you were lucky if you got your garbage picked up once in two weeks. So I brought about the idea of having this equalized and after a demonstration of sorts, that did come about and today we still enjoy the equalization. Now if you can imagine garbage being a equal factor, then you know how bad things must have been.”
On the assassination of Dr. King
Rita Gunder moved to Overtown in 1954 with her husband and baby from rural Georgia. She saw Dr. King speak at her Overtown church in the ’60s. She recalls her experience of hearing about the assassination of Dr. King.
“Oh, that was the most traumatic day. It’s like, every time I remember that — I was getting on the jitney on Thirteenth Street and Fifth Avenue Overtown and seemed like the whole city went quiet. I get chills when I think about it now. We were on the jitney. And even then, they didn’t want to talk about it but it came on the air on radio on the jitney that he had gotten killed. That was very bad. Now that’s when it really hit me what our — my family and others was really trying to do to help us have a better life. It was sad. And I had a chance to call the farmhouse where my mom worked. That’s one thing — she was more into it at that time than I was and I don’t think she really recovered from it because she must have felt that we weren’t going to get the opportunities that they had fought so hard for.”
Virginia Key Beach
Virginia Key Beach was the only beach in Miami open to blacks. It was a critical place in black life in Miami, and most of the interviewees in the collection mention the beach. Jacob Sanders worked as a cook in a concession stand on the beach, and describes what it was like:
“Well, at Virginia Key Beach, it was very pleasant over there because we was thrilled to death to have it — have the beach because we didn’t have any other place to go swimming unless you go to what we called the ‘swimming holes’, you know, people always do that, this type of thing. And — but, the — you could — at Virginia Key Beach, you had the — on the other crossing — on the other side, you could see the whites over there, you know, swimming, enjoying the beach. But, they had a lot of facilities over there that we didn’t have on Virginia Key Beach. It was much nicer over there on that side, but we just enjoyed the beach, going out there swimming and they had the merry-go-round and they had the — an area for dancing, you know, the jukebox playing, you know, and this type of thing. They had the train, the train that run around in through the tunnels and all of this, you know, they even had softball fields out there, playing softball, they go out there and play softball and I do remember they had the — they had I think it was two or three buildings, wooden buildings that they moved to Virginia Key and they used them as a — if you — if they wanted to allow you to stay there, if you say it’s qualified to stay in one of those while your at the beach or during vacation time, but most of the time, they was used for entertainers, because I remember, like, Louis Jordan (living?) staying over there, and other entertainers, you know, most of it that’s what they used it for. But, it was very pleasant over there, we enjoyed it, we enjoyed it very much.”
Threats and violence over desegregation
G. Holmes Braddock served on the Miami-Dade school board from 1962 to 2000 and helped lead integration efforts in Miami. Today, a high school in Kendall bears his name. Braddock’s mailbox was blown up, and he faced numerous threats as Miami-Dade Schools were desegregated. Here, he describes an incident during that time.
“…One afternoon I called my wife, I was leaving my office in Coral Gables and I called her to tell her — always did — to say I was on my way home. And it would normally be about twenty or thirty minutes. And just as I was walking out, the phone rang and I got a phone call, took me probably twenty, thirty minutes on that phone call. Anyway, I don’t call her again so I go home and as I pull in the garage, she comes out of the house into the garage and man, I mean, she looked scared to death and she wondered if I was alright. I said, “Yeah.” Well, she said just after I had called that she’d gotten a call from somebody saying I was (not going to arrive home alive?). And when all of a sudden now I’m thirty minutes late, she say she thought for sure somebody got me. She didn’t know anything about the phone call and I didn’t think to call her a second time to say I’m on my way. But, I mean, those were the things that went on then and it’s hard to imagine today, see, that those things happened. That’s thirty years ago, thirty-five years ago (but most of that was?) and it’s hard to think now that those things went on because all this happened before ya’ll were ever born, maybe before some of your parents were born, at least they were little kids when it was happening. So, thank goodness times have changed. They’re not right yet, but they’re better.”
Leading black media in Miami
Garth Reeves came to Miami in 1919 from the Bahamas. He was a veteran of World War II, and he began writing at his father’s newspaper, The Miami Times, after the war. Reeves later became publisher of the paper, Miami’s oldest and largest black newspaper. Reeves was a civil rights leader in the city, leading the charge to integrate parks and beaches, and he later became the first Black to serve on the boards of Miami-Dade Community College, Barry University, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, and the United Way of Dade County.
“I moved over and started writing articles about discrimination and prejudice. At that time, the main thing was really — it was still lynching and discrimination and segregation, and that’s what we talked about. We pointed it out to the people. You might not be able to do anything about it, but at least we want you to know about it that what you’re doing is wrong and it should be corrected and I think that our newspaper did a good job because the Miami Herald and the Miami Daily News, which was publisher at that time, was not gung-ho about the civil rights of black people. They didn’t publish anything much about the civil rights of black people. They didn’t publish anything much about protests. They published the news and it kind of went along with everybody else; it’s a status-quo. But the Miami Times was always there talking about the segregated patterns and why are the black schools so different from the white schools? Why have the white schools got more facilities than the black schools? And we thought it was very important to keep hammering those things home, and we stayed on it, we stayed on that all the time. We kept pointing out the inequities of the system which were many and I think today, a lot of people have benefited by our protest and we were strong in that. We took part in all the protest movements, all the Civil Rights Movements; we were represented all the time. We brought the news as it was, we didn’t print just what any other — any person other than us wanted to say, but we tried to bring the news as it happened and tell the truth, tell it as it was. And I think that’s one of our legacies today that we hung in there.”
On the future of equality
James Gross moved to Miami in 1944 at age 17 from the Bahamas. In his interviews, he encouraged students to pursue school to push equality forward.
“I think we have made some changes, we have done well. I think we have done well. We could have done better. Was it our fault we didn’t do better? No, I don’t think it’s our fault. I think that the same old evil, that same old evil- the segregation evil- still exists, still lurking underneath, you know what I mean? Comes in different ways, different clothing so to speak, but it’s the same old thing trying to hold black people down. And it does exist here and it’s gonna depend on you young people to root it out, and how you go about root it out? By getting yourself an education, that’s how you root it out. You don’t root it out with no guns and knives and all that foolishness because that will never work. You’ll root it out by educating yourselves and applying your education where it’ll be better for you and your children. So that what I’m depending on all of you to do, get yourself an education, be prepared.”