By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
My earliest image of black Miami was supplied by one of my uncles, a man who always looked nine months pregnant in his thin cotton undershirts. Darting in and out of traffic in his Chevy station wagon, he would explain to me the finer points of race relations. "If a black moves into the neighborhood, the value of your house will automatically go down," he'd say, deftly twirling the steering wheel. "They'll put garbage in their front yards and park their cars there, too." With no way of knowing for ourselves, my five cousins and I bounced along in the back seat like the spring-necked toy dogs allegedly found in every Hispanic's car.
The local TV news seemed to confirm my uncle's appraisal. As the cameras rolled, people - mostly young, mostly men, mostly black - were arrested, handcuffed, and dragged off to prison for committing all manner of heinous crimes. Later, during prime time on Thursdays, I'd tune in to the all-American Huxtables, the very model of tidiness and high-minded goals. All these images, though, were created by other people, and had no basis in my own experience. I could - and did - argue against negativestereotypes, but I felt like a hypocrite; growing up in white, Hispanic parts of Miami, my best friends weren't black. Most of the blacks I knew I'd met through school or work. I'd never been to their houses, never sat at their tables, never met their families. Nor had I ever been invited. What I "learned" about black life, about Overtown and Liberty City, I learned on the streets and television sets of Westchester.
When I recently approached several black Miamians - personal acquaintances and prominent leaders - to ask them what they would think of a story that dealt with black Miami, some of the clubs, restaurants, shops, and churches, about which white outsiders know little if anything, almost everyone responded with enthusiasm - and specific suggestions. "Anything that can help to enlighten one ethnic group about another is beneficial," said H.T. Smith, the attorney who initiated the ongoing Boycott Miami campaign. He added only one caveat: "It just can't be an expedition to the jungle."
Of the dozen people who gave me advice, only T. Willard Fair, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Greater Miami, was wary of the idea. "I find it sort of patronizing when I see a white person in my club," Fair told me. "Why should I expect them to feel overly concerned as a group for going to a black club? Integration is a social goal that will never be achievable. Desegregation was the point."
Everybody else seemed to be in favor of anything that might promote social interaction and empathy between people of different cultures, saying the current lack of exchange is symptomatic of a much greater problem, one that's rooted in our perception of desegregation and integration. "The burden is always put on us to integrate," said Johnnie McMillian, president of the local chapter of the NAACP. "We have never been looked upon as equal - in housing, on the job, politically. If you don't consider someone an equal, why would you want to socialize with them? Integration has to be a two-way street."
And for blacks, the one-way street of integration has been a rough road. "There's an old expression that the white man's ice is colder," Bill Perry, a former NAACP president, told me. "In this community, there are people who have a difficult time accepting the fact that African-Americans are just as intelligent and competent as they are. I get so frustrated. I really believe my life has been shortened by ten years because of my interaction with white people - the stress, the frustration. Things don't get done just because they're right. You have to figure out a way to get the right things done."
The roofs of warehouses and small homes corralled by chain-link fences streak past as Carinne Johnson and I drive north from downtown on I-95. We exit at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (NW 62nd Street) and roll out of the shadow of the overpass and past Liberty City's Edison Senior High School. The business cliches - fast-food restaurants, a Winn-Dixie - soon disappear, replaced by aging establishments and newer places splashed in bold red, yellow, and green.
"Sometimes in college I'd get sick of Wendy's and McDonald's," says Carinne, a University of Miami graduate who grew up in this neighborhood, as we pull into the parking lot of a pink-colored building. Misspelled plainly in big black letters on the side of the building are the words D-A-V-I-S R-E-S-T-U-A-R-A-N-T. "My roommate and I would look at each other and say, `Let's go!' We'd drive from Coral Gables and pig out here. I'd say, `Is that a pecan pie? I'll take two!'"
Carinne stops outside the entrance to look at the handmade earrings and bracelets being laid out on a folding table by a small, goateed man in a rust-brown dashiki. When we walk inside, the bitter smell of boiling collard greens and black-eyed peas is soon dominated by the heavier scent of batter-fried pork chops. We find a table toward the back of the room, beyond the lunch counter where two black men sit on low beige stools that sprout from the cement floor like mushrooms.
A large woman, her big white apron contrasting vividly with her skin, hands us small laminated menus, which are divided straightforwardly into categories: meats, starches, vegetables, desserts. We skip the chicken, the meat loaf, the chitterlings, potatoes, and sandwiches and succumb to the allure of the pork chops. When we've scraped the last of the greens and black-eyed peas off our plates and eaten the last crumb of corn-bread muffin, the only thing we need is an afternoon nap.
This 27-year-old restaurant, at 757 NW 62nd Street, is Liberty City's unofficial city hall, home to the monthly Black Lawyers Association gatherings, as well as frequent - and interracial - meetings of employees from Florida Power & Light and Southern Bell. Before it went belly up, Eastern employees also chose Davis as a meeting spot. "We serve anybody," jokes 54-year-old co-owner Roy Sears. "I won't turn anybody away. I take a lot of time with people, asking 'em questions, what they think of this place or that place. After a while I get to know 'em. People come and go, but they come back."
The restaurant, which bears the name of Roy Sears's stepfather, who died in 1970, isn't listed in the local phone book. They don't have their own telephone, Sears explains; they got rid of it because all the calls were disrupting work in the kitchen. If you dial 759-0877, though, one of the two pay phones in the alcove outside the rest rooms will ring. A waitress will probably answer.
Carinne introduces a stout old man in a navy-blue captain's hat who hobbles to a stop in front of our table. He is Wallace McCall, the unofficial mayor of Liberty City. A deeply religious, unpretentious man, McCall presides over the McCall Community Foundation and is a dedicated volunteer at Miami's inner-city schools. When he meets with leaders from various communities, he tells me, he treats them to a meal at Davis. "I bring them here," he says. "Don't tell me to come downtown to your office. I know you have a million-dollar office. Come see where I live."
Besides, he likes the food. "Every nationality of people has their own food," says McCall. "I don't mean to take anything away from anybody, but that Anglo food, like the kind you get at banquets, I really don't like. They mess up their chicken, pour something over it, call it some fancy name, and charge a fortune. We serve chicken all sorts of ways - boiled, baked, fried - but we serve the best parts, the breast. It's simple and good. Next time you're at a banquet, look around and see how much food people leave on their plate. I know I do. After it's over, I go home and raid my Frigidaire."
Davis cut back its hours shortly after the McDuffie riots of 1980. "We were staying open until eight or nine," says Sears, who now opens at 6:00 a.m. and closes at 6:00 p.m. "When the riots started, everybody had to close down and get out of here after dark. The riots didn't touch none of the black businesses, though. They hit all the others around here but didn't touch us at all. It's cool now."
But the legacy of violence has affected the neighborhood's businesses. "The restaurants here close early because of robbery," McCall laments. "It's not safe. You go in the white man's town and it's safe because there are cops there all the time."
The Golden Glades Exchange in north Dade channels traffic three ways: north to the Florida Turnpike; a wide sweeping turn east to exits for Aventura, an up-scale, mostly white enclave of towering condos and high-priced homes; veering to the west, the turn off I take hooks up with the Palmetto Expressway, one passageway into the black communities of Opa-locka and Carol City.
Not long after midnight on a wet Friday, the parking lot of the aging Carol City Street Shopping Center at NW 183rd Street is deserted except for one patch in a far corner. There, about 50 cars are clustered in front of the Studio One 83 complex, one of the most popular night spots in the black community. In addition to the 2000-capacity hall in which the Miami-Dade NAACP recently held its annual banquet, Studio One 83 also houses two nightclubs.
Andre Williams steps out of Miami Nights' double doors and spots me in the small reception area as the doorman takes my seven dollars and stamps my hand. "You must be Eva," he says with a wry grin, leading me to one of a dozen small tables that fill a platform extending toward the crowded dance floor. Carinne had put me in touch with Williams, a Harvard University graduate who grew up in Miami and whose parents still live in Opa-locka. This summer, before he begins his third year of law school at Vanderbilt, Williams is serving as a summer associate in a downtown-Miami law firm.
"The atmosphere is more charged, more lighthearted," Williams says, sipping a fuzzy navel as the music pulses. "In Miami, in other clubs, the atmosphere, the tenor, is different. I was attracted to one white club because they were playing house music. But people were walking around with their Cavariccis and these attitudes, looking bored. It's not conducive to hanging out and partying. I thought, `You've paid ten dollars to get in. Why are you here?' But here," he says, "it's, `Leave your attitudes and preconceptions behind and you'll have a good time.' We put our little idiosyncrasies aside. You just want to be entertained and be around other people who want to be entertained."
The first chords of Color Me Badd's "I Wanna to Sex You Up" blare through the sound system. We find a (relatively) open space on the dance floor, streaked by the scent of colognes too numerous and varied to catalogue. "When I say high, you say low," the DJ shouts through the loudspeakers. "Hiiiigh," he challenges.
"Looow," the dancers shout back as one.
Williams, whose father works for the U.S. Postal Service and whose mother is a teacher at a local high school, graduated from Ransom-Everglades School, a predominantly white prep school in Coconut Grove. He says his experiences in that environment - succeeding, yet feeling like an outsider - helped solidify his identity as a black American. He'd like to see more of a rapport between the races, which would extend to social activities, including nightclubs. "I don't use the term integration because I associate certain negative connotations with that word. It brings to mind the image of a black man losing his ethnicity, his connectedness with the black community. The burden should not be placed on the African-American to integrate into the mainstream experience. The question should be: Why can't members of either group feel comfortable in either setting?"
Brannard Campbell, brother of 2 Live Crew rapper Luther Campbell, manages another popular night spot in an entirely different setting - Miami Beach. A pastel and neon monolith that illuminates the corner of Fifth Street and Lenox Avenue in South Beach, Luke's employs off-duty police officers, along with tuxedoed doormen, to greet guests. On a typical night, about ten percent of the patrons who hand over the ten-dollar cover charge are white, says Campbell, adding that he "bends over backwards" to make nonblacks feel comfortable at Luke's.
The steep cover helps to weed out "undesirable elements," as does the club's comparatively stringent dress code. "You don't go to a Volkswagen lot looking for a Jaguar," says Campbell, showing me around his third-floor office, reached via a staircase in a corner of the mirrored, tri-level club. "First of all, when people see policemen, they know they have to act accordingly." Campbell, who formerly managed Strawberries Too, a predominantly black club in Hialeah, is familiar with the perils of a clientele that doesn't "act accordingly." The Campbells closed the doors of Strawberries Too this past year after scuffles with city officials over licensing problems and violence at the club. "Hialeah didn't give us police protection. Miami Beach does," Campbell says bluntly. "We also enforce a strict dress code. We don't allow thick gold chains, sweats, sneakers. It just has a tendency to tell you what that person's profession is - people have a tendency to act the way they dress."
And yet it seems that the hint of anything black in an up-and-coming, ever-whiter neighborhood, invites stereotypical reactions. "I was talking to two Canadian girls the other night," says Campbell, "and they had been told not to come here because it's a black club and they might get hurt here. They were told it was dangerous because it's a black club. They came anyway. And they said they had the best time here."
Campbell says he and his brother made a conscious decision to open their club here rather than in a black community. "We didn't want to have a business right in the heart of the black neighborhood because we knew we'd have problems," he says. "If you want to make a profit, you have to put your business in a nice area. We want to educate the black people. We want to make them go to Aventura Mall and to make them feel comfortable on Miami Beach. It bothers me a lot that blacks don't go to Miami Beach because they feel unwanted. I've been to places and they ask you for four or five IDs, when a driver license should be sufficient. I say `Man, I'm getting the fuck out of here and going home.'"
In January, 26-year-old Jacqueline Davis opened the Neighborhood Sports Pub at 4930 NW Seventh Avenue, just around the corner from where she grew up. She says the decision to open the bar in a black neighborhood was a deliberate one. "How many guys in the area are going to go to Hooters?" she asks rhetorically above the cheers of twenty-odd customers watching the NBA Finals. "It's just too far to go." Davis's small pub contains four television sets, but no Hooters' Girls. Service is provided by a single bartender, who introduces himself as Freeman. During special events, such as prize fights, Davis installs a big-screen TV set outdoors and offers barbecue on the patio. "Everybody's here to watch the games, not to dislike anybody," the young bar owner says. "If anybody starts trouble, we show them to the door because they mess up business for us. Most of the people call me the House Lady. They know who I am and they give me respect."
Davis is quick to admit that owning a business in this area has its serious drawbacks. "Crimewise it's bad. But if you're going to get robbed, it can happen right in front of your house," she says. And so far, her clientele has been exclusively black. "If we see a group of white people, especially older people," she says, "we'll tell 'em, `Look, you're in a bad area. Get out from over here.'"
Sure enough, at the end of my brief stay, Davis walks me to the door. "I'm okay," I say as I walk toward my car, which I'd parked outside the Elk's Lodge lot across the street. Still, Davis stands outside the door, flanked by the painted figures of Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan, until I pull into traffic and head north.
Twenty blocks west and 30 blocks north an architectural behemoth dominates the 79th Street scenery. For miles billboards, conspicuous by their vibrant patriotic motifs, have heralded the retail giant at 3015 NW 79th Street: Flea Market USA, a white building the size of a K-mart, insulated from the street by acres of paved parking lots, is Liberty City's answer to the shopping mall. In the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce's Visitors' Guide to Black Miami, prepared by Carol Ann Taylor and the chamber's tourism committee, Flea Market USA is described as "retail shopping at the right place."
"It's great, to be honest," says Norma Foster, a clerical worker at Review Newspapers in downtown Miami. "You find a lot of things under one roof instead of going from store to store. It's closer. The bargain is really there. And it's famous, too, because it's the biggest in the area. People travel from the south to go there, even though there are flea markets in their area."
Technically, this is no flea market; everything sold here is brand-new. The vast square footage is packed with vendors selling T-shirts emblazoned with black Bart Simpsons ("It's a black thing. You wouldn't understand."), Nelson Mandelas, Martin Luther Kings and Malcolm Xs, plus denim-and-lace shorts, baby-doll tops, leopard-print pantsuits, sneakers, faux fashion perfumes, kinetic jewelry. On weekends the market sprawls outward to include open-air stands. A couple of stalls offer an assortment of human and synthetic hair, dyed in every shade from platinum blond to dark purple. Salt-and-pepper wigs for the older woman. Twelve dollars buys a six-inch braid; $22 is enough for the twelve-inch version. Between sprees, shoppers can treat themselves to a pedicure, manicure, or haircut at one of several beauty salons.
Although the typical Flea Market USA customer is black, many stall owners are Asian. One, a petite woman, shoos me out of her wig store. "No say anything," she says, waving her hands in front of her face. Carmen Stuart, a frequent shopper, says relations between the owners and customers have been strained. "It's getting better," says Stuart, a housewife from North Miami. "Years ago it was a lot worse. They were rude." Stuart says she shops at the flea market because it's one of the few places that carries reasonably priced merchandise designed for blacks. "Like this," she says, picking up a bottle of hair relaxer. "This is $2.99. It costs $5.99 anywhere else."
"Muthafucka!" booms from a pair of giant speakers in front of Ultra Sound, one of the complex's music stalls. For eight dollars, manager Leo Tejeda custom records tapes with selections from his inventory. "If you buy a tape at Peaches, what are you really buying? One song," says the burly Tejeda. "You might not like anything else on the album. Here we'll make you custom tapes that you know you'll like."
The lights suddenly flicker off, then on again. "This is when things start getting wild," says Tejeda. "This is when it gets wild. A couple of months ago, the last time this happened, there was an attempted burglary at one of the stores. The guy who tried it got killed. It hasn't really affected the business, though," he adds. "I guess you just have to be careful. It's crazy everywhere. Where you gonna go?"
At 2:00 a.m. the neon sign at Club Rolex stands out like a jaundiced star on this desolate stretch of NW 27th Avenue. The parking lot at 120th Street is as filled with cars as its gaping potholes are with muddy water. Two men I know recommended Rolex, calling it a "rite of passage" for younger black men and a hideaway for the few older customers. The three of us walk past the heavyset uniformed guard sitting outside the open door. One patron, his wrist being stamped after paying the $3.50 cover charge, is more blunt. "It's earthy, like, `If you don't like it, get the fuck out.' And," he adds, "you don't have to worry about seeing boss man."
One of my companions flashes me a malevolent grin as we walk through the metal detector and into the crowded room, past the buck-naked woman sliding painfully down the fireman's pole on the bar and the dozen other "live nude girls" of all shapes, sizes, and colors, smoothly grinding in front of small groups of men. We find a small side table, and another dancer, a short, Hispanic-looking woman with an ass the size of two basketballs, struts by, a helium-filled balloon rising from her back, the ribbon clamped between her dimpled cheeks.
The real action is taking place in the middle of the room, where the early birds have circled their chairs around five dancers, like so many covered wagons. Reclining in his seat is one very large man, swiveling a cellular phone between his legs in sync with the undulations of the busty woman inches from his face. His companions look on with the wide-eyed fascination of little boys sneaking their first peak at a girlie magazine.
Suddenly I feel something, as if a roach or a spider were crawling up my neck. As I turn my head toward the creeping offender, I'm blinded by a mass of long hair. One of the dancers has leaned against the back of my chair, her hands planted on either side of my shoulders, her butt gyrating in the air for the benefit of the two men sitting behind us. After a couple of minutes, she accepts her tip and methodically combs the room for her next customer.
It was the search for more customers that convinced the owners of Club Rolex to convert the club from a disco to a nude bar in March 1990. "With regular clubs, you have a lot of teen-agers, a lot of violence," says manager D.C. Gold. "They use the clubs as a gang meeting place where they'd fight. The only way to eliminate that was to look at the clientele. With a nude club, you have to be over 21, so we get a more mature clientele. We get lawyers, accountants, schoolteachers, cops - cops from Broward come down." And although the club is frequented mostly by black men, Gold says the occasional woman or nonblack also drops in. "We have husbands bring in their wives, just to check it out," he says. "On birthdays a sister brings in her brother, you know, like a present. We have bachelor parties. We get blacks, whites, Hispanics, Indians from the reservations. They don't come here to mess with nobody. Everybody's respectful of each other."
I return to Studio One 83 and its Jazz Room with Bill Perry, former president of Miami's NAACP and inveterate jazz lover. It might be a bit of an awkward moment: the association's annual dinner, held this year at the club's banquet hall, has just ended. Perry, who is now the principal of C.O.P.E. North, a Dade high school for teen-age parents, did not attend. "I guess you might say I was pushed out," he says with a laugh, describing a rift with the organization that dates back to Perry's 1982 "buy black" campaign that was rejected by NAACP national president Benjamin Hooks. "I had been thinking about resigning," Perry says. "But [Hooks] sent me a letter saying I'd been suspended."
Nevertheless, Perry's personal relationship with current members seems not to have been affected, and he greets his ex-colleagues without a trace of discomfort. "People here are cordial," he says afterward. "It's a good mix. There's a sense of kinship that you don't find in other clubs. It's not elitist. When I walk into other places, I don't know anybody. The difference here is when I walk in, I'm looking for someone I know. I don't have a country club. This is my country club." For the past five years, he's regularly made the half-hour trek to the club from his home near Jackson Memorial Hospital. Perry says the recent news that Studio One 83, although managed by blacks, is actually owned by a white attorney, took him by surprise. "I feel suckered," he says, adding that he's since contemplated taking his jazz money elsewhere. "But where else can we go? I've got to go somewhere. But I'll go with reservations."
The club itself is a cool, dim room reminiscent of small New York jazz joints - minus the smoke. Tonight the sole source of smoke is a four-piece band and its sultry-voiced female vocalist. As she rolls into the opening bars of "I Want to Feel the Fire," the party at the next table responds with approving shouts. "You don't find this in other clubs," says Perry, "the talking back to the band, saying, `Bring it on down!'" The singer's voice rises to a heavenly, raunchy pitch, her movements and those of the audience punctuated by palms waving skyward, capturing a bit more of the spirit.
For years Miami's white and black communities reveled in the legendary jazz and blues clubs of Overtown. Before desegregation and the urban surgery caused by the construction of I-95, when headliners such as Sam Cook, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Sammy Davis, Jr., played the major hotels on Miami Beach, they had to go to Overtown for accommodations. There they'd spring into spontaneous jams at the Mary Elizabeth Hotel, the Lyric Theater, the Knight Beat, the Harlem Square Club. "Whites would go to the Overtown clubs," explains Lavan Smiley, a Jazz Room habitue and a born storyteller with a temperament to match his name. "It used to be that the black man was afraid of the white man. Now the white man has become afraid of the black man. It's like keeping a dog chained up for years, beating him, abusing him. Then all of a sudden you remove the chain. After a while, the white man starts fearing that the dog is going to attack. So he doesn't come into our community."
Not everyone views the separation between the races as unnatural or undesirable. "White folks never said they wanted to integrate into black society," says the Urban League's T. Willard Fair. "So why should we place the responsibility on them? We're the ones who raised the whole issue of integration. We didn't say we want white people to come to Liberty City. We said we want to be able to go to Coral Gables. We didn't say we wanted white people in Booker T. Washington [Middle School]. We said we want to be able to go to Miami High. We didn't say, `Ya'll come to the Satellite Lounge [in Liberty City].' We said we wanted to go downtown. Now we've done that. Whether you go or not is not the issue. It would concern me only if white people said, `I'm not going there because there are niggers there.'"
All agree that slavery, forced segregation, and urban renewal have left significant scars. "We as a people have been deprived of our culture. We reflect it but we don't understand it," says Earl Wells, a retired associate superintendent of Dade County Schools. Fourteen years ago Wells and his wife Eursla, a retired junior-high-school principal, opened Afro In Books & Things at 5575 NW Seventh Avenue in Liberty City. The store's shelves are lined with hardcover and paperback titles by Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, and Nikki Giovanni. The Wellses also carry an extensive selection of biographies and other nonfiction, as well as artworks, jewelry, and clothing imported from Africa.
"It's the only bookstore that has a very high level of African-American books," says the NAACP's Johnnie McMillian, suggesting that I go see for myself. "If they don't have a particular book, they have access to it. Contrary to what you might read or hear about us, many of us are readers, so we have a chance to meet here and share ideas on new readings."
This past year McMillian's organization published a study of state-sanctioned history books used in Dade County classrooms. The study, performed in conjunction with the University of Miami, illuminated the abysmal manner in which white authors tend to treat black issues. "In some instances, the very popular people were left out or barely mentioned," McMillian recalls. "For example, they didn't mention that Martin Luther King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and that it's still around." The NAACP graded the books on a scale from zero to 100, with 70 representing a passing grade. "None of them passed," McMillian says. "The highest grade was 46."
Afro In Books proprietor Wells, who estimates that about fifteen percent of his customers are whites, believes that the white-dominated publishing industry places little importance on accurately depicting the black experience. "Unless a book touches their fancy, they may or may not publish it," he says. "Unfortunately, most of the textbooks are written by European-Americans who tend to exclude the history of African-Americans or Africans in general. That's one of the reasons we exist." To compensate, Wells says, he relies on black publishing houses, such as New Jersey's Africa World Press and Chicago's Third World Press.
Not far from Wells's bookstore, on the fringes of one of Liberty City's crime-ridden housing projects, the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, 6161 NW 22nd Avenue, offers African-based dance, art, theater, and music programs to young blacks. The county-funded center, which opened in 1975, is home to many local groups, including Theater Afro Arts, one of the oldest black theater groups in the Southeast. "Along with economic depression, there's other deprivation taking place in this area," says center director Marshall L. Davis. "There are no movie theaters, for example, few restaurants, few clubs. One of the reasons they built this facility is because the area is so deprived. It's the center that gives people hope and some reason to come out of the situation they're in."
Davis's son Marshall Jr., who studied tap dancing at the center, was named 1991's top teen dance champion on Star Search, the national talent competition hosted by Ed McMahon. "The art that is truly American - jazz, tap dance - came from the African-American community," says Davis. "If you cut off education, interaction, you stop growing and you become like a stagnant pool. We don't have to assimilate. What we're offering is different. We're developing our own identity and opening the doors for others to appreciate."
Andre Williams is waiting for me outside Mount Hermon African Methodist Episcopal Church in Opa-locka, the white steeple rising above him like the mast of a tall ship. He leads me out of the scorching midmorning sun to the alcove of the church, where an usher opens the wooden doors for us. The ®MDNM¯ hushed voices of a hymn wash over us like an airy baptism. As Rev. Conrad Jenkins steps to the dais, the choir's soft singing fades. "I have the honor of introducing our speaker," Jenkins says brightly. "He was born in the 1700s. He fought in the War of 1812." He steps back from the pulpit, presses a legal pad to his nose. "Oh, wrong notes!" he exclaims.
Chuckles rise from the congregation. This Sunday's speaker is C. Ellis Jenkins, Conrad's father. "That's what you get for letting your son introduce you," says Pastor Jenkins, eliciting another round of laughter from the assembled worshipers. He makes use of the humorous moment to affirm that here there's room for all expression. "We can't shout for joy in our downtown offices. We can come here and shout `Hallelujah!'" he says. Soon Jenkins will trade in the light cheer for a mood of more immediate urgency. "We can't let the drug dealers take over," he cries, framed by the "Lord is Redeemer" banners that adorn the dais. "If we do, we might as well go to heaven right now."
The pastor's words are met with nods from his parishioners, including Georgia Ayres, the softspoken founder of The Alternative Program Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps released convicts find jobs and education. Ayres, a member of Jenkins's congregation and choir since 1978, calls herself "just a little social worker" whose faith carries her through her work with troubled young men and women. "I've never strayed from what I was taught," she says. "I believe if you treat people the way you want to be treated, then good will come back to you."
The A.M.E. church was formed 200 years ago by Richard Allen, who broke away from the white-dominated Methodist church because it refused to allow blacks to take communion. Although generally more subdued than their Southern Baptist cousins, Mount Hermon's members don't lack spirit. "We are an emotional people," says Ayres with dignity. "Mount Hermon is a spirited church. Every church doesn't react like we do. We feel that when the spirit hits you, you rejoice in the Lord."
A group of young singers from the Better Way Foundation, a drug rehabilitation program, steps to the dais. The church pianist tears into the first strains of a bluesy number, and for the next half-hour the quintet stirs, rocks, and cradles the congregation. "Yes, sir, yessir," affirms one of the women sitting behind Andre and me. "Look at the kids," Andre says, pointing toward a row of children swaying and clapping in one of the pews. Even the stewards and reverends sitting on the dais wave their hands, stand, clap, punctuate the songs with Amens.
During the two-hour service, several congregation members step to the front to speak. One young woman presents her dad with his Father's Day gift. A proud, elderly woman, whose legs have been amputated, is helped to the front of the church to speak. She's recently moved to Miami from another city in Northern Florida, she says, and brings with her a letter of referral from her former pastor. She emotionally explains her desire to continue doing God's work. "Everyone has the opportunity to participate in the service," Jenkins says. "We try to include everyone."
As the closing hymn begins, Jenkins signals for everyone to rise and join hands. Andre is on my right, but I'm sitting across the aisle from my nearest neighbor. She steps into the space between us; I move out from the pew and extend my hand. At the end of the hymn, we all raise our clasped hands high and join the choir in the last prolonged Amen.