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Cordel, Georgia, is the watermelon capital of the world. "For real," says Billy Hardemon, sitting at a table in the Venetian Lounge at the Biscayne Bay Marriott Hotel, sipping a glass of red wine, recalling the rural town his mother and father left in 1955 to move to Miami. Hardemon seems to take particular pride in relating that little fact about Cordel, turning the potentially racist symbol into a measure of just how far he and his family have come. "We settled in the Grove," he continues, "in one of those shotgun houses along U.S. 1." Billy was born shortly after the family arrived in South Florida, the fifth of fifteen brothers and sisters.
Hardemon doesn't say so (and doesn't have to) but Miami in the mid-Fifties was as segregated a city as there was in the southern United States, and opportunities for blacks were largely limited to domestic and manual labor. "My mother, Ethel, did what we call 'housework,'" says Hardemon, "and my father, L.G., was always some sort of mechanic."
The family relocated to Liberty City around 1960, a time when, Hardemon recalls, a lot of black families were doing the same. "When Overtown was demolished [to make way for Interstate 95], people moved further north." The destruction of Overtown, a thriving community of black-owned businesses, restaurants, and nightclubs, not unlike Harlem in its heyday, still angers Hardemon and, he says, a lot of other people. "Black folks haven't forgiven white folks yet," he believes. "I talk to the elders. I know my history. It's an injustice that hasn't been adequately faced."
Still Hardemon doesn't deny Liberty City had a vibrancy all its own. "When I was in third grade," he remembers, "I got a job cleaning and sorting empties [bottles] and working the register in a local grocery store, Shirley's Market at the corner of Northwest 55th Street and 17th Avenue. I got a real perspective of the community from that store. Everybody came in. Willy the Winehead. Ms. [Athalie] Range [Miami's first black city commissioner]. Everybody."
A wide smile crosses Hardemon's face. "One guy, Mr. B., sold liquor out of the back of his car, you know, behind the store," he explains. "He'd sell other things, too, at a discount. Things he didn't always have a receipt for." Mr. B., suggests Hardemon, was a fence, a buyer and seller of stolen goods. And, Hardemon laughs, "probably the best businessman I ever met in my life."
Talk of Mr. B. sends Hardemon off on the poetics of hustling. "Miami is the hometown of Al Capone," he says, perhaps forgetting that although Scarface kept a home on Palm Island, he was from New York, by way of Chicago. "Miami is a gangster town."
Some blacks might have blurred the line between honest and criminal behavior, admits Hardemon, but they weren't doing anything white folks weren't also doing. "If you were a hustler like Mr. B.," he says, his cadence approaching that of an urban preacher, "that meant you were a hard worker. You weren't hurting anybody." No, indeed. You might even have been perceived as providing a service of sorts, allowing people to acquire from you what they could never have been able to afford in the white-owned stores downtown. Buy a $50 dress for $15. Sell it for $25. Make $10. So what if the shit wasn't exactly yours to begin with? Overtown didn't belong to whites, but that didn't stop them from taking it when they wanted a place to put a highway.
The hypocrisy of the white power structure, insists Hardemon, is transparent. "Hustling wasn't a problem until minoritiesstarted making money off it," he emphasizes. "Dead men voting wasn't a problem until they voted for [former City of Miami Commissioner] Humberto Hernandez," who in 1999 was convicted of election fraud and who, coincidentally, was represented by attorney José Quinon, who also represented Hardemon in his bribery trial.
In the informal economy of Liberty City, Hardemon learned that who you knew was at least as important as what you knew. "We got into Scott Homes [around 1965] because my mother spoke with Charles Hadley [a local civic leader and, Hardemon recalls, Howard Gary's uncle]. As a result, we got two apartments. We knocked down a wall and we had five bedrooms!"
That apartment, the grocery store in which he worked, and school were the limits of Hardemon's world. "I'd see kids playing ball or whatever, but I had to go to work," he says. "I didn't run in the street a lot."
Which isn't to say he wasn't street smart, even when it came to school. "I transferred to Central [Senior High] in my senior year just to get away from an English teacher at Northwestern [Senior High] who had already given me two F's, and was going to fail me," confesses Hardemon.
He had a plan, and it didn't involve going to college. "After graduating [in 1973], I left Miami to go into the army. I wanted to come back with a Cadillac, driving down Seventeenth Avenue. Leaning, you know?"
Hardemon never made it back to Miami in a Cadillac, but he made it back. Often. While stationed outside Atlanta, he discovered there were weekly flights from nearby Dobbins Air Reserve Base to Opa-locka Airport. Somehow he managed, on a fairly regular basis, to talk his way onto the plane. It was on one of those weekend excursions to the old neighborhood shortly after joining the army that Hardemon, for the first time, got into real trouble. "We knew this guy had some money and jewelry," he says, not sure whether to tell the story or not, "so me and two friends from the neighborhood broke into his house." That was the easy part. "The guy came home and started shooting. Actually hit one of my buddies in the leg. Me and the other guy ran out the door and right into a police car." He sighs. No motherfucking cops around when you need one, then you pull some shit ...