Exposing the Color Line

Once a paragon of tolerance, the city of South Miami has become a hotbed of hate

In the rear of a nondescript South Miami office building, a hidden door is set in a tiled floor. Grant Miller, who uses the place to publish a chain of weekly newspapers, pries it open for a visitor. "Let me show you something," he says. A dank odor issues from the yawning blackness. Rickety wooden stairs lead down to a cramped room where, legend has it, police long ago tossed black prisoners after beating them.

Miller contends the secret prison is a pertinent, and bitter, metaphor for recent events in his city.

He's right. It's as if the cellar door has suddenly been flung open in this small middle-class community near Red Road, just off U.S. 1. A series of racially and sexually charged incidents has scarred the city's psyche and thrust its citizens into a crisis of self-examination. This is how bad it's become: Offensive cartoons depicting blacks as chimpanzees were distributed during an election last year. Ten present or former employees have filed discrimination suits against the city, alleging sexual harassment and racial bias in hiring and firing. One female city hall employee is even accused of harassing male colleagues by suggestively lifting her skirt and performing "fellatiolike" gestures on a piece of pizza during lunch.

Sitting on top of this powder keg is the newly elected Cuban-American mayor, Julio Robaina. The 36-year-old BellSouth technician squeezed into office in February with the help of Herman Echevarria, a veteran campaigner in one of Dade's most politically charged cities, Hialeah. It won't be easy for Robaina to lead the city out of this moral morass. The mayor is accused in a confidential memo of calling black Police Chief Cokes Watson a "nigger," and Watson has sued the city, alleging discrimination. Robaina vehemently denies the accusation. The episode underscores just how nasty things have become at city hall.

South Miami seems an unlikely spot for accusations of overt racism. Such events are unexpected in this city of nearly 11,000 inhabitants, a city that was recently praised by civil rights groups as a mecca of progressive politics. It's a quaint, tree-shaded community that has puttered along in relative suburban quiet for most of its 70-year history. The area was first settled at the turn of the century when shopkeeper Wilson Larkins expanded his grocery store to include a post office. A stop on Henry Flagler's railroad, it was called, predictably, Larkins. Twenty-seven years later, aiming to take advantage of their proximity to Miami, the community's 85 voters renamed it South Miami. Unlike cities such as Miami Beach, Surfside, and Coral Gables, which excluded black residents, the city had a relatively large population of blacks from its inception, according to Dade historian Paul George. Laborers from two industries, railroad and farming, settled there. As in most Southern towns, segregation was endemic.

Almost from the start, the black community in South Miami was more prosperous than others in South Florida. Businessmen like Marshall Williamson, the first black man to buy land in the city, provided an economic cushion for other blacks by providing jobs and loans, George says. In 1963 South Miami became one of the first communities in Dade to appoint a black person to a city panel when a man named Bowman joined the planning and zoning board.

The city has been politely segregated for decades, with mostly blacks occupying the north side of U.S. 1 and others living to the south. According to the 1990 census, whites constitute slightly more than half the city's population, while Hispanics and blacks make up roughly a quarter each.

Starting in 1996, the city's leadership was transformed when voters elected the first openly gay mayor, then the first black mayor. Tom Cunningham, a florist by trade and a former Mr. Gay Alabama, made national news when he was elected. At the time, he was one of only about 100 openly gay elected officials in the country, according to press reports. When Cunningham died of AIDS in 1997, Anna Price, a black administrator with a Ph.D. who worked at the University of Miami, was elected to finish his term. Serving with her were two black commissioners, creating a black majority on the five-member commission for the first time. That meant residents had not voted by race, a sublime achievement in Dade County.

Yet controversy was brewing. About the same time Cunningham was sworn in, one of the police department's top-ranking female officers, Lt. Shirley Bradshaw, accused Chief Rafael Hernandez of sex discrimination. Along with three other women, she claimed Hernandez "inappropriately" touched her and made degrading comments.

Some say the roots of racism and sexism had always been there. Others believe the controversies arose because traditional South Miamians were threatened by a new, more diverse leadership taking power. "I truly believe this is the backlash to having a majority black commission," says Simon Codrington, a 34-year-old black industrial technologist heavily involved in local affairs and politics. In fact Codrington, who publicly decried the racist flyers that appeared during the election, received an anonymous letter last month suggesting he move away. He believes the letter is linked to his role publicizing the flyers.

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