Going South

Civics and spirituality. Politics and prayer. In the ongoing battle against inertia, Goulds bares the conflicts at its core.

The school board at first refused to comply with SOUL's demands, suggesting instead that the black students return to Mays High. But eventually, in the summer of 1970, after a couple of riots, the board ended the Rebel era at South Dade. Johns went on to champion other civil rights causes, including a long public battle to compel the Metro-Dade Police Department to hire and promote more black officers.

Johns's father, an army sergeant, had moved his family from Fort Benning, Georgia, to Miami shortly after Odell was born. Johns graduated from Booker T. Washington Senior High in 1949, earned a bachelor's degree at Florida A & M, joined the army, then returned to FAMU on the GI Bill for a law degree. While in school in Tallahassee, he relates, he and about a dozen cohorts were thrown in jail after a big dance-hall fight. When he calculated the huge sum their bondsman got for a few hours' work, he decided he'd do that, too. (He also took the bar exam, but flunked.) In 1959, at the age of 28, he came back to Miami to live with his father, who was a cook in Miami Beach.

Married and having started a family, Johns sought to buy a house in Brown Sub (now known as Brownsville), the neighborhood where he'd grown up. Too expensive, he thought. He looked south, in Richmond Heights, but felt you didn't get enough there for the money. "Then I came down through Goulds, and I met Mr. Arthur Mays," he remembers. "He said, 'They're building some houses over yonder.' He said, 'You ought to go over and take a look at them.'" Mays, a black sharecropper who became a wealthy landowner, and his wife Polly were among the community leaders who in 1914 started the first school for black children in South Dade. In 1935 they were also instrumental in establishing Goulds Elementary, the region's first permanent public school for blacks. (That building, now part of Mays Middle School, has been designated a historical site.) The Mayses went so far as to purchase school buses to transport children to the school from all over South Dade; Polly Mays drove a bus for fifteen years.

For about $10,000, Johns ended up with a bungalow -- the dominant architectural style in the area -- east of U.S. 1 in what is now central Goulds. He opened Odell's Bail Bonds in 1966 and a few years later founded Odell's Insurance Agency. Pastor Bonny Coney was a bail-bond client several times during the Seventies, Johns recalls, as a result of numerous arrests for theft, robbery, and drug possession before he turned to religion. ("He bailed probably 50 percent of Goulds out!" Coney confirms. "Not only me but a whole lot of other people who are [now] doing good.")

"When I first came to Goulds, I perceived the place as a little dirt-road, bean-picking community," Johns relates with a dismissive wave of a well-manicured hand. "I had them to beautify Allapattah [Road, a main thoroughfare]. That road was not paved, the red lights weren't there. I'm also the first chair of the CAA advisory board. I was on the first Legal Services board. The type personality I am is not the type from Goulds. I was raised in Overtown." He pauses, rubs the crease between his eyes where his amber-tinted glasses rest. "Basically it was a slight challenge [to initiate civic improvement]. I felt I had something to offer the community and that was my way of paying back what I get from the black community at large."

Johns had a natural gift for playing the political system, for cultivating officials who could channel pieces of the pie to South Dade. "I fought like the devil to have that [CHI] center in Goulds," he asserts. The system worked the other way, too: Politicians who needed voter support in South Dade had to know how to play Johns's game. Rep. John Cosgrove, a seven-term state legislator whose district used to include all of east Goulds (it's now just a small section), thinks of Johns as "the unofficial mayor of Goulds. I know him from several different perspectives," asserts Cosgrove, a lawyer who once handled a case for Johns's bail-bond business. "I've always found him to be accessible, fair, honest in every dealing I've had with him. He's got tremendous health problems and he takes a licking and keeps on ticking."

(Others see things differently: "He used to have a lot of power as far as elected officials," says a county staffer familiar with South Dade politics who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Everyone had to kiss his ring." Adds another observer, a Goulds resident who likewise asked not to be named: "The mention of his name evokes fear.")

Johns still bears some rancor toward former county commissioner Larry Hawkins, who lost a bid for re-election last year in the midst of a state ethics commission investigation into sexual-harassment allegations and his dealings with CHI, among other matters. "The first problem Larry Hawkins had was created by me," Johns boasts. "We went to the State Attorney on him." Johns alleged that as chairman of the Health and Human Services committee, Hawkins had threatened to slash funding to CHI if the agency didn't change its insurance carrier to a company Hawkins was working for. Hawkins explained that at the request of his mother (a CHI board member at the time), he merely had asked his company to review CHI's policy to determine whether it was excessive A which later prompted CHI's carrier to reduce its rate. As for funding cuts, Hawkins argued, most social-service appropriations were cut that year. Late last month, a Florida Commission on Ethics hearing officer found that Hawkins had sexually harassed three former employees and had performed some insurance business on county time, but that he had not acted improperly in the CHI insurance matter.

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