By Michael E. Miller
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Mister Lee is expounding on his youth as one of six kids brought up on a farm in North Carolina. It's a well-worn tale about how he left the sweet potato fields and came to Miami in the late Fifties on vacation after getting out of the Army, and ended up with a job at a local dairy. Before long, he had a wife too, a nice girl from work who he had his eye on right from the start. "I was a mere 27 then," he sighs. "Some of the ladies at the dairy was going to a get-together one Sunday afternoon and they invited me. Well, of course I was going to go along!" He chortles richly. "And in that way we got to pair off. We got married in July of 1961."
The boy marches up to the old man on his stool.
"Let's see man, what you got? Let's see what you got?" Mister Lee teases.
The boy flashes empty palms and a blank look at him.
"What!" Mister Lee asks in mock surprise. "How you going to play the game with no money?"
The boy's face remains expressionless, his chubby short body swaying a little on bowed legs. Mister Lee tries to confound him.
Pause. Scowl. Pause. Grin.
It's no good. The boy's not cracking.
"Here," Mister Lee relents, pressing a quarter in the boy's hand. The boy turns to go.
"Thank you?" the elder reminds.
"Thank you," the boy repeats dutifully.
"All right then, okay," Mister Lee responds, adding, "Once in a while I get my lessons in."
Mister Lee looks at the boy again, this time wistfully. "See this boy, you know he's only 'bout three years old? A big boy, though, huh? I don't know what his name is. There was a time I would have. At one time people used to leave their children here. I'd have snacks for 'em. It were like a day care. They'd go to work early and drop their kid off here. The kid would go to Douglass and in the afternoon come back here. Before they started with school crossing guards, there were some kids that wouldn't cross the street. They'd call me --" he pantomimes a small boy hollering with both hands cupped around his mouth -- "Mister Lee! Mister Lee! I'd stop what I was doing and walk across the street. I did that for 30 years. They finally gave me a plaque for it in 1997.
"It's a shame," he continues. "I'm crazy about kids and they all seem to like me pretty good. But I kinda back up just a little bit now. It's not the same. But back in the Sixties and Seventies? Boy, I raised the kids. I would scold them. Matter of fact, there's guys in their forties, they tell me, 'We used to play hooky from school, we'd have to dodge you more than we'd dodge our parents. Cause if Mister Lee see you, he would take you by the ear!'" he laughs.
Good times and bad
Back in the 1940s, the building on Twelfth Street and Third Avenue that houses the laundry and the $75-a-week apartments above it was a sundry store run by the Barkley family, one of the successful merchant clans that built the neighborhood into a shining example of black prosperity. By 1961, when Mister Lee took on an extra part-time job working at the laundry, ownership had passed into white hands. Overtown was still a kicking place to live, but the decline was slowly coming.
Before he got hitched and moved with the rest of the black middle class of that era to Liberty City, Mister Lee enjoyed a few years living on NW Third Avenue, the heart of Harlem South. The blocks around Second and Third avenues in that day were packed with good restaurants, stores, swanky nightclubs and hotels. Black entertainers hired to sing and dance and fight on Miami Beach weren't allowed to party there, so they all headed to Overtown's entertainment district, where they lived it up to a degree that would put today's South Beach to shame. "Back then, people would get off work, go home to change, and be right back out for dinner," Mister Lee reminisces. "It wasn't nothing to see Cassius Clay or Joe Louis walk the street. It wasn't nothing. Flip Wilson, Sammy Davis, all of them. Soon as I get off of work, I would walk from 21st Street all the way down to 7th Street on the Avenue. By the time you'd make your way back home, it's one or two o'clock in the morning."
He pauses, then resumes, looking out at the street the same way he looked at the last boy who asked him for a quarter. "It's sad that a lot of young people will never know how it was back then," he laments. "There was a history, a meaning to it. They think it's just always been this way. No no no no! We had everything here."
In the late Sixties, the first rippling of a new era of social unrest began to bubble through Miami. The man who owned the Laundromat in Overtown and other black neighborhoods began talking about selling off the place. The Liberty City riots in 1968 during the Republican National Convention on Miami Beach clinched it. "He said, 'I'm going to pull out. You guys should have it.' I think we paid about $30,000." That seemed like a fortune at the time, but back then business was still booming. Lee Bethune and his partner (who died in 1971) had commercial clients as well as residential traffic. "It was a madhouse on weekends," he recalls. "With all the businesses here, people would just walk in. It was right in the neighborhood. Washing then was a quarter, or 35 cents for a double loader, and 10 cents for the dryer. I really enjoyed it then."