By Michael E. Miller
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"To make a long story short, you had no rights," Albury remembers. "I wasn't used to that. But me, personally, I've had some very good days because after I learned the system and met a lot of people ... I found out if you are honest and sincere, people will recognize it. Where I was from, you had freedom, but you didn't have any money or anything."
Albury dropped out of school in the sixth grade to work at whatever jobs he could rustle up. He was only age sixteen, but passed himself off as an eighteen-year-old when he arrived in the United States in 1950 to pick vegetables. "They don't give you anything in the Bahamas. If you wanted anything, you had to earn it. And I wanted things," he asserts.
Albury was among the thousands of Bahamians who came to Florida under a labor arrangement that was struck between the Bahamian and U.S. governments during World War II. Bahamian farm workers pocketed 25 cents out of each dollar they earned, and the remaining 75 cents was transferred to an account in the Bahamas that the workers could access when they returned home. But many never did return.
Albury worked for H.L. Cox & Son, picking tomatoes, beans, potatoes, and other vegetables. "I could work," he recalls proudly. "Tomatoes, pole beans, potatoes, squash, anything in the field. It was piecework. We got paid by the box. Ten cents for a bucket of tomatoes, 25 cents a box for pole beans. Another boy and I were the best they had ever seen. We set a record of 520 boxes in one day. We were so good, they'd only let us work two or three days a week."
George Gibson, a trim, high-cheekboned man in a fine beige suit and vest, nods. He's sitting on one of the black vinyl sofas in Albury's den. They're drinking cranberry juice and conversing before leaving for a night of partying at the Elks Lodge. "Yes, the Cox boys had the reputation as the best," Gibson confirms. He worked for another grower during the contract days. Neither man is sure of the exact year they met, but they know it was some time shortly after Albury arrived and it was during weekend socializing with the other Bahamian workers at a nightclub in Goulds or one further south on U.S. 1. Gibson worked on contract the entire time, from 1943 to 1965, planting and harvesting all over Florida. In 1969 he got a live-in job as a landscaper at the Sheraton Hotel on Key Biscayne, where he remained until Andrew wrecked the place in 1992. Since then he has been a landscaper at the Miami Beach Ocean Resort. He lives in North Miami now and is widowed, but he's still an Elk and still drives down the Turnpike in his white Lincoln Town Car to spend time with Albury.
Albury went off contract in 1953, after he got married, became a U.S. resident, and moved to Florida City. (He was granted citizenship about five years later.) He still did farm work, but he'd take anything he could find. Some summers he, like Gibson and the other Bahamian laborers, followed the vegetable harvest north to Minnesota. They lived in tents or barracks. "I worked for Bird's Eye," Albury says. "Those folks treated me well. I was up there five, six weeks, and my grandmother passed away, but I couldn't go home."
While working construction jobs, he met G.R. Runken, an immigrant who owned a construction company in Homestead. "Old man Runken was German, didn't have much schooling," Albury recalls. "He saw I had an interest, and he took me by the hand and taught me everything. At that time the average white man would look at you and spit on you. Today you can give me the plans to a house, and I'll give you the keys. I wouldn't take nothing for old man Runken. I'll never forget, we were over there in Leisure City. The first set of houses they built in Leisure City were all concrete, and they kept the hot-water heater outside. Old man Runken was trying to teach me how to lay blocks, and this [employee] came up and yelled at him, 'You letting that nigger lay blocks? Then we'll have another nigger knowing how to lay blocks!' At that time all they wanted you to learn was how to dig a ditch. Old man Runken fired him. Yes he did."
After Runken died in 1961, his son Fred, a career military man, took over operations. By several accounts it wasn't the best business move. After the Runkens fell more than a year behind in completing a funeral home in 1975, the home's owner sued the company for tens of thousands of dollars in business lost and money borrowed. Lydia Walker of Goulds, a long-time funeral director who hired Runken on Albury's recommendation, won a $25,000 judgment. "I never collected a penny of it," she acknowledges. Walker was a close friend of Albury's wife at the time. After Runken was called into the National Guard his firm fell apart.
Albury claims to be one of the first black people in South Dade to buy land. He had gone to a few banks for loans but was promptly turned down, so he went to the only two men around who would sell land to blacks and finance it. "Julius Finkel and Mr. Free, they were Jewish, they sold most of what black people had, and they were honest about it, too. After you paid off your loan, they'd give you the title to the land," he explains. He built a house in 1955 on a lot at Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street in Florida City. "My nearest neighbor was two blocks away. I had a '47 Buick, and I had to weave between pines to get to my place. I bought several pieces from Sixth Avenue to Fifth Avenue."