Black in Blue

More than 50 years ago, five daring young men put on police uniforms and began patrolling Miami's "Colored Town." A couple of them are still looking for justice.

Smith and the MCPBA would return to court to try to break the color barrier for his promotion to captain. In 1971 they won a lawsuit in federal court, resulting in a consent decree that automatically promoted by one rank all black Miami policemen who had served from 1944 to 1960. The city signed the decree but ignored it. "Nothing is given away down here," Smith reflects today. The plaintiffs refiled the lawsuit in 1974. In the wake of a second consent decree, the department appointed Smith major, a position that ranks higher than captain but is appointed, not the result of a promotion. "I didn't ask for the majorship," he says. "I just wanted them to give me my captainship." In 1985 Miami appointed its first black police chief, Clarence Dickson, who had integrated the police academy as its first black cadet in 1960.

The men milling around in the warm September sun line up along the curb when school buses arrive with the Miami Edison Senior High School marching band and the Florida Sunshine Band from St. John Baptist Church. The youngsters, dressed in full regalia of tassels and tall hats, file out and begin tuning their instruments. Soon the entire group, some 100 people, is parading north up Third Avenue to the glee of children and the curious stares of adults.

The crowd marches under several I-95 overpasses, winding past drug addicts and the homeless until they reach St. Agnes Episcopal Church on NW Third Avenue for a ceremony to honor the police officers and Father Richard Marquess-Barry's twentieth anniversary as rector.

The older police veterans and today's younger black officers file into the church. For most, the Colored Town of their youth is but a memory. Interstate 95 literally buried much of the area. Federally funded housing projects of the Sixties did the rest. "Urban renewal!" scoffs Rector Barry. "Nigger removal is what it ended up to be! What happened to Overtown is not the fault of black folk."

The heady optimism that pushed integration and large urban projects is rare on the streets of Overtown these days. Black leaders now find themselves fighting to rebuild a community that segregation first imposed on them. "Even after the police department integrated, we didn't progress -- we regressed," says Barry, who believes that part of the restoration of that community will come only with an understanding of the past. "It's important that we now define ourselves," he says. "Black folk have to stop letting other people define them." From his pulpit, Barry speaks in the cadences of the black church: "There has been no place where the contributions of black police have been noted in this city. You will not find us in the museum on Biscayne Boulevard."

Last month Barry and members of the MCPBA attended a Miami City Commission meeting to propose turning the old precinct house into a museum and community center. Upon their request, the city agreed to allow the MCPBA (the C now stands for community) to act as trustees for the building. Now they must search for funding to restore the structure and operate it as a museum. An advisory panel headed by Barry has applied for city and county grants to get the project under way. Barry says he hopes the center will help anchor even more ambitious projects to revitalize Overtown. The current president of the MCPBA, Sgt. A.J. Johnson, believes the museum could be a means to use old victories to stregthen Overtown for present challenges. As he puts it: "Something from the past to inspire the community for the future.

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