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At a little after 8:00 a.m. on Sunday, September 7, more than half a dozen City of Miami police cars are parked in front of an abandoned building on a quiet corner in Overtown. Boxed in by a Florida Power & Light substation, the structure at 470 NW Eleventh St. would seem an unlikely candidate for interest, criminal or otherwise.
A bland union of square and rectangle, its windows and doors are sealed with cinder blocks, cement, and plywood. Peeling paint and growing mold disfigure the faded white walls. Mounds of litter and an unkempt yard contribute to an image of long-term neglect.
Yet anyone old enough to have lived in what was known as "Colored Town" from 1950 to 1963 would recognize the now desolate corner as the site of the former Negro Police Precinct. Those whose memories stretch back further still can recall the dangerous times before Miami had black police officers, and one fine September day in 1944 when five carefully picked men changed all that forever.
On this day, more than half a century later, Overtown's St. Agnes Episcopal Church is hosting a celebration to honor both the pioneers of Miami's all-black police force and its rector's twenty years in the pulpit. The combination is a natural one for Overtown old-timers who remember the church's role in establishing the black police. As the men gather in front of the derelict building, the long history of struggle hovers like a ghost. Uniformed black police officers step from the squad cars. As they mill about in small groups, other vehicles drop off elderly men in suits who greet each other with the easy banter of old acquaintances. Among the elderly men are Edward Kimble and Ralph White, the last survivors of the city's first black police squad.
As early as 1903, black religious leaders and professionals had begun asking white authorities for their own police force in Colored Town -- the area from Fifth Street north to roughly Twenty-second Street and west to the railroad tracks at Seventh Avenue, and the only place in Miami nonwhites could legally reside.
Blacks argued they would do a better job if allowed to police themselves. They also hoped to curtail the violence that white policing of Colored Town produced. For when the white officers entered the area, they usually meted out brutality to criminal and victim alike.
Young Miami was very much a segregated Southern town. "It was understood that in the white community, blacks would be off the streets by dark," says Arthur Chapman, a University of Miami historian. The physical and economic segregation routinely boiled over into violence. Houses that sat too close to the edge of white Miami were dynamited. Black baby sitters were arrested if discovered in Colored Town with their white charges. Black taxi drivers were beaten by their white counterparts. A 1918 report by the state attorney general described midnight raids during which police would storm black homes, roust the occupants from bed, and levy fines.
By 1921 the Ku Klux Klan had arrived in Miami, and many police officers joined. "Everybody was in the Klan back then," says Chapman, whose family stretches back five generations in white Miami. "It was like being a member of church, although they won't admit it today."
The 1920s saw periodic riots sparked by police in Colored Town. In January 1926, for example, fourteen blacks attacked a white police officer in retaliation for a beating he dispensed after one of them had blocked his way. The following year a white patrolman died and at least six blacks suffered injuries during another street battle.
Not much had changed by the 1930s, when a young Edward Kimble lost one of his high school classmates to a random police attack. "White police had a tendency at that time to pull up to a bar and pick out somebody," he remembers grimly. "They'd take them to Dixie Park [now called Gibson Park] and beat the hell out of them." Kimble's classmate, a boy of slight build named Josh Brown, died after one such beating.
Black lobbying efforts for a Colored Town police force gathered momentum after 1934, when local ministers, inspired by the promise of New Deal federal funds to combat urban ills, rallied to expose the poverty and rampant tuberculosis in Good Bread Alley, which stretched from Twelfth to Fourteenth streets between Third and Fourth avenues and was so named (depending on the source) for either the aroma of cornbread wafting from the windows or for its well-known prostitution. At the head of those efforts was Father John E. Culmer, rector of St. Agnes Episcopal Church.
Miami's influential blacks and whites began to meet at local churches to discuss solutions for the Alley. And from those meetings they formed several interracial organizations. One of the most effective was the all-female Friendship Garden Club, which played an important role in pushing the idea of an all-black police force. Though the group was created to beautify Colored Town through organized plantings, it also provided a chance for the white wives of politicians, bureaucrats, and professionals to meet with distinguished women in the black community. "It was the wives pestering their men: 'Why are there no black policemen?'" Kimble says today.