Hearts and Souls

For more than 100 years, Ebenezer United Methodist Church has survived as a spiritual beacon and social landmark

Throughout the instability post-Bartley, pre-Hall, post-Hall, or whenever, the backbone of Ebenezer has always been its families -- the Thomases and the Francises and the Smiths who have supplied dedicated church members for three and even four generations. People who are rooted in Miami as deeply as anyone. "Once we dig in our heels, we stay close," says Eileen Martin Major, a lifetime Ebenezer member whose great-grandfather's name is etched onto the cornerstone of the old Overtown church. "Family is very important."

Despite the need for new leadership at Ebenezer, there was little initial support for Reverend Brown. He is not an elder in the Methodist Church, meaning he has no voting power in the church hierarchy. Because he never attended seminary, his title is "local pastor," the lowest station in the church. Ebenezer, the crown jewel of the black Methodist Church in South Florida, supposedly deserved a more prominent pastor. Some trustees wondered if a previously part-time minister could even run a church with as many challenges as theirs faced. "I stated if a man controlled a department of police officers for the amount of years he done it there, he can control another business," recalls Tim Smith, one of the trustees. After lengthy discussion, Smith put the matter up for a vote in July 1999. Brown got the job.

The church mime troupe proved to be a popular addition to the youth activities
Steve Satterwhite
The church mime troupe proved to be a popular addition to the youth activities
Methodists like Helen Thornton (center) and Ida Mae Brown (right) may be sensible, but that doesn't mean they aren't moved by the spirit
Steve Satterwhite
Methodists like Helen Thornton (center) and Ida Mae Brown (right) may be sensible, but that doesn't mean they aren't moved by the spirit

Smith is a 69-year-old retired grocer. Most of his week is spent on church business: drafting a lease for the auxiliary hall, unlocking the parking-lot gate for Sunday service, or perhaps rustling up vans for a choir road trip. Once a month he raises money for Ebenezer by selling homemade potato pies in the lobby of the Stephen P. Clark Government Center. Every Sunday, without fail, Smith can be found in the back of the church wearing a suit and a tie that stops just short of his prodigious belly. He offers a handshake, a smile, and a church bulletin to every person who walks through the door.

The Smith family were farmers from Greenwood, Florida, just south of the Georgia border. Tim Smith moved to Overtown in 1946 to join his father, who had migrated down a year earlier in search of steady income. He was only thirteen years old. Nearly six decades after his arrival, Smith still pronounces the city name in the old cracker style.

"As a young boy, Miamuh was a great place to me," he recalls. "We were still segregated at that time. We used the back door, the rear of any establishment. We weren't allowed to eat in a restaurant. But we had our own business areas, with nightclubs and hotels on Second Avenue and Third Avenue. And you'd got more places for young people to go to during those times. We had Liberty Theater and the Ritz Theater. We had three theaters in Miamuh alone and one in Liberty City. And the floor shows were better than Las Vegas! I used to see Ray Charles for 50 cents at the Palm. Fats Domino I saw for 50 cents. All your famous stars were there. Louis Armstrong. All of them.

"I joined Ebenezer in 1949. I was baptized on Virginia Key Beach. I got married in 1950, and my wife, she joined Ebenezer in 1952. All my kids were raised up in Ebenezer, even after we moved from Overtown. My son Jack, he was married here in this building; that's how we tell how long we been here [in Allapattah]. Next month Jack will be married 27 years, so we been in this building for 27 years."

When he was still a teenager, Smith began working for the now-defunct Food Fair supermarket. In time he rose to become the only black manager in the entire chain. He often was assigned to the poorest-performing stores in Miami, in white neighborhoods and black. Through "hard work and preparation," he says, he was able to turn around most of the stores, usually earning him the reward of an even worse assignment. In 1980 Smith managed a store in Liberty City. There were advantages to being a local.

"When the riot came, every store in the area was destroyed and burned up," he recalls. "I had three tractors in my backroom loaded with groceries, and a meat cooler loaded with meat. People never went in my backroom. I had $300,000 in my safe, and no one ever tried to roll it out of the store. Nobody even tried to take my gun."

Smith doesn't believe a young black man in Miami today has as much chance as he did to advance professionally. However rooted black Miamians may be by nature, economic realities are taking a toll. "The black community, it's changed for the younger peoples," he says. "They still feel that they not getting a fair shake of opportunities that, going back years, people like me used to have. I have a cousin in the teaching profession who is now moving to Atlanta. The pressure in Atlanta is not as great as the pressure here, being a teacher. And with more money and with more benefits, that's why she's leaving.

"One of my sons, Tony, he refuse to come back to Miamuh because the opportunity just isn't here for him. The potential wasn't what he was looking for. Business opportunities for the young blacks are not promising here in the Miamuh area. That's why a lot of them go move out when they get married. That's what happened with my kids. And I know other kids, that's why they leave.

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