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It's 1:35 a.m. and Eunice Liberty is on the phone, fuming with anger. "I didn't work all these years to be treated like this," protests the 93-year-old, who, despite her advanced age, is decidedly more alert than the bleary-eyed reporter on the other end of the line. The object of her wrath is not the two police cars that have pulled up to her Liberty City home to eject a house guest she had invited to spend the night. Instead it is directed at the person who summoned the cops: Georgia Ayers, her legal guardian and a well-known activist in Miami's black community.
The guest herself is a well-known activist, but Ayers exercises legal control of her ward, and the police do her bidding. Over the loud protests of Miss Liberty, as she is universally known, the guest is told to leave.
And so unfolds yet another clash between two icons of black Miami.
Miss Liberty planned for her retirement with all the forethought and attention to detail that marked a lifetime of accomplishment in the service of others. As a political activist and president of the Miami chapter of the National Council of Negro Women, she played an important role in delivering neighbors to the polls to elect the likes of Claude Pepper, Steve Clark, and Maurice Ferre. "Our precinct always had the highest voting rates," she reports proudly. She still exercises her civic duty today -- and not by absentee ballot, she'll have you know.
Miss Liberty's resume includes a master's degree in education she earned at Columbia University back in 1950. As a Miami school teacher she founded a debutante ball for young black women. Many also credit her with persuading the school district to add black history to the regular curriculum.
The indefatigable activist didn't limit herself to politics and school kids. Outraged at conditions for women in local jails, she organized a writing program for them. She even bought a building in Liberty City with plans to convert it to a halfway house to help female ex-cons make the transition to lawful society. "I'm a pioneer, baby," she says with a grin. "I didn't play around."
As her autumn years approached and her husband died, Miss Liberty built a home near NW Seventeenth Avenue and 52nd Street where she and her mother could live out their days in comfort. (Mindful of crime, she had the home designed with small, elevated windows to discourage burglaries.) She also constructed a duplex in back of the main house for her elderly aunts.
Over the years, she paid off the mortgages on the properties she owns. "I am the last to go in my family, and the people who could help me went ahead of me. And a lot of my friends, too," she remarks without a trace of self-pity. Now bent by age, she has trouble getting around, a victim of her own longevity. Despite an iron grip and an indomitable will, she must depend on a walker and an ever-present cordless phone.
Worried that an unscrupulous person might take advantage of her, or that Miss Liberty could suffer an accident at home by herself, Miami police officer Joe Bradwell initiated a series of calls that brought her situation to the attention of Adult Protective Services. On February 14 the state agency dispatched an investigator to visit Miss Liberty. The investigator came away troubled by what she found. Electricity to the residence had been turned off because Miss Liberty refused to pay her FPL bill. (She believed the company was overcharging her but couldn't persuade anyone to check.) The investigator concluded the nonagenarian was too old to live without supervision. "She painted my picture gloomy as she could," recalls an outraged Miss Liberty. "This was nothing but a setup."
Adult Protective Services took the case to the probate division of state court and recommended a guardianship. After a three-member committee examined the case, the court this past April declared Miss Liberty to be incapacitated, a decision that presiding Judge Arthur Rothenberg says he did not make lightly. "It's really tough. Elderly people really cherish their independence," he says, adding, "I made the determination she was not of sound mind." Rothenberg mandated a guardianship, which included stripping Miss Liberty of the right to manage her property, determine her residence, or make decisions about her social life. The next stage of the process involved appointing the guardian.
Georgia Ayers, founder and executive director of the Alternative Program Inc., a nonprofit agency designed to steer criminal defendants toward jobs and away from crime, has known Miss Liberty for more than 25 years and has helped her in the past to pay her bills. A police liaison contacted Ayers about Miss Liberty's situation and she offered to take on the guardianship. Rothenberg was impressed when she and then-Judge Ralph Person presented themselves on behalf of Miss Liberty. "They wanted me to understand how important she was to the African-American community," he says. The judge appointed Ayers co-guardian along with a nephew, one of Miss Liberty's two surviving relatives. "Who better than Georgia Ayers?" asks Rothenberg, citing Ayers's stellar reputation. But soon the nephew dropped out. A lawyer appointed by the court to aid the guardian was unable to persuade Miss Liberty's other relative, a niece, to take responsibility, which left only Ayers. She receives no pay for the job.