The Hialeah Gardens "Darkie" Problem

Official city policy: Black people not welcome here

Medardo Martin was convinced that Hialeah Gardens city officials conspired to close down his business and run him out of town. Why? Because his roller-skating rink sponsored a weekly event called Soul Night that attracted a primarily young black crowd, and crowds of young black people were unwelcome in Hialeah Gardens.

That's a pretty big conspiracy for such a tiny town to hatch. Most observers would consider it a stretch -- unless they knew a little something about Hialeah Gardens or they happened to be sitting in the jury box listening to Martin's tale. In which case they might well end up believing him. And indeed that's exactly what happened last week in the federal courtroom of Judge Paul C. Huck.

After three days of trial testimony in which Martin claimed the City of Hialeah Gardens violated his constitutional right to "enter into contracts with nonwhites," jurors hearing the case agreed. They ordered the city to pay Martin $633,000 in compensation for his business costs.

Who could blame them? This is what the jury heard at trial: The police chief kept in his office a cassette tape of racist songs he would play for people "just for the humor." This same man became police chief at a time when his law-enforcement license was suspended. (He had been arrested in 1992 and charged with drunk driving and assaulting a police officer. He later agreed to a plea deal that allowed him to avoid a felony conviction.) Jurors also heard a mayoral aide recount how the city's former mayor routinely called her "darkie" and "lesbian," while slinging epithets like "nigger" and the derogatory Spanish slang molleto at others. That former mayor was not present at the trial. She's been convicted of vote fraud, insurance fraud, and solicitation to commit murder in a plot to kill her ex-husband. While her convictions are being appealed, she's lying low.

Perhaps more to the point, the mayoral aide and another former city hall employee both testified they witnessed the mayor order the police chief and the city's code enforcement director to close the roller rink so blacks would not "darken" her town. The code-enforcement director was not called to the stand, though. He was later fired and now he too is suing the city.

That image of Hialeah Gardens was evidently much more credible to the jury than the spin by the lawyers defending the city -- namely, that Martin was a failed businessman seeking to blame others for his misfortunes.

Hialeah Gardens is a tiny little burg of some 20,000 souls wedged in between Hialeah on the east and Okeechobee Road on the west. This is where Martin built and opened his Thunder Wheels skating rink in November 1994. Thunder Wheels was the first of three roller rinks Martin owned, the two others being in Kendall and on Flagler Street near Sweetwater. Martin maintained that he never had problems at those two establishments. But after initiating Soul Night in Hialeah Gardens in 1997, he claimed the city targeted him. He advertised the event on radio station Power 96 (WPOW-FM 96.5), and within a year it became a hit, drawing large crowds.

It also drew the wrath of Mayor Gilda Oliveros, known as the "miniskirt mayor" for her provocative dress. Medardo Martin's Miami lawyer, Michael Feiler, who tried the case with partner Martin Leach, amended the sobriquet to the "molleto mayor" in acknowledgment of the racist term she was allegedly fond of using.

"The mayor complained to the chief that there were too many blacks at that business," testified Rosa Levy, who was an assistant to Oliveros in the mid-Nineties. "She said she didn't want that because it would darken her city." Levy, whose mother is Afro-Cuban, recounted how Oliveros treated her and the one other black city employee: "She said we were her darkies." To hear Levy tell it, that was the affectionate side of Oliveros. For others with dark skin the mayor would spit out a string of racial slurs ranging from the Spanish slang "chardo" and "molleto" to the more prosaic "nigger."

"For her it was funny," Levy shrugged.

Attorney J. Frost Walker III, defending the city against Martin's lawsuit, contended that the fact Mayor Oliveros hired two black employees indicated she was not a racist. Walker called witnesses from city hall who claimed they never heard the mayor utter racist vitriol. One of them was Hialeah Gardens Police Chief Keith Joy.

But Joy's credibility was diminished when he was forced to admit he once owned racist music. On the witness stand, the hip-hop-detesting top-cop-with-an-arrest-record acknowledged he once owned a cassette tape known as a "Johnny Rebel" recording. According to Feiler these are underground country-music satires that liberally use racial epithets in songs like "My Wife Left Town with a Nigger." In a pretrial deposition the chief said he played the tape in his office for select people.

"Who was there?" Feiler asked.

"Not anyone African American," replied the chief. "[It] probably would have offended someone." The chief explained that the tape was just one of those things "that gets passed around for humor's sake." Later he added, "I didn't think it was funny."

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