Miami's Hidden Past

An artist acts on his discovery that the city was born in slavery

Willie Keddell is an artist who tills the fields of perception. The urban furrows of marginality are his seedbed of imagination. Those who have encountered his stereoscopic (3-D) works in a gallery setting have perhaps found themselves experiencing an eerie sense of déjà vu, of recognizing a slice of desolate urban landscape fleetingly noticed through the window of a speeding and locked car, of discovering the overlooked with fresh eyes.

The soulful aesthetic of his work is abundant with concrete decay, the graffiti of untrod spaces, and the plaintive lament of the dispossessed. Operatic in nature, his images of railroad tracks to nowhere, Bobby Maduro Stadium's dying gasp, or decrepit husks of old Miami creaking under the bulldozer's gaze reflect Keddell's sensitivity toward the city's historical texts and subtexts. His subjects are struggling for survival, wary before the oblivion of memory.

Since 1999 Keddell has been engaged in an effort to bring an artist's sensibility to the tangled history of two Miami landmarks -- the William English plantation slave house/Fort Dallas, and the Wagner homestead. Eventually he enlisted in this effort a crew of "at risk" teenage apprentices from the Troy Community Academy, and a project was born: "Love & Slavery in Miami."

Troy Community Academy students (clockwise from 
left) Sheenailla Green, Operrlyne Chandler, Ronchell 
Jones, and Demetrius Walker mixed history and art at 
Lummus Park
WILLIE KEDDELL
Troy Community Academy students (clockwise from left) Sheenailla Green, Operrlyne Chandler, Ronchell Jones, and Demetrius Walker mixed history and art at Lummus Park

Details

Ongoing. Tours every Thursday between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.; Saturdays by appointment; Call 305-638-7008 (Willie Keddell at Troy Community Academy).
Lummus Park, 404 NW 2nd St.

He first stumbled upon these historic structures while walking his dog through Lummus Park, located in downtown Miami immediately west of I-95 near the north bank of the Miami River. Established in 1909, Lummus was the city's first park. It had been shuttered during most of the Nineties after becoming a haven for the homeless, some of whom later approached the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union in hopes of forcing the city to reopen it.

Keddell, who was photographing night work under bridges and in isolated inner-city crevices most people would actively avoid, had moved to a studio across the street from Lummus Park and was curious about the buildings, which had been moved there years earlier to escape demolition.

The more he read about the buildings, the more he investigated the surroundings and spoke with locals at the park and others in the community, the more he saw the structures as living canvases rich with the impasto of revisionist history. This provoked an agitprop side of Keddell. He wanted to spread the story of these structures and their past.

He discovered that the slave house originally was part of a plantation owned by one Richard Fitzpatrick, who purchased from Bahamian immigrants agricultural land along the Miami River. Some 60 slaves owned by Fitzpatrick worked the land until the outbreak of the bloody Second Seminole War (1835-1842), when he vacated the property.

A U.S. Army garrison then occupied the building and a portion of Fitzpatrick's property, which was christened Fort Dallas. Soldiers occasionally headed upriver and into the Everglades to do battle with the Seminoles.

When the war concluded, Fitzpatrick's nephew, William F. English, a South Carolina planter, took over the property, re-established it as a slave plantation, and added new buildings. English reportedly owned nearly 100 African slaves. (He left his Village of Miami in the early 1850s to join the hordes venturing to California in search of gold.) Later the slave quarters, built of coral-rock limestone, were used as a post office, a trading post, a flophouse, a courthouse, a whites-only teahouse, and a meeting place for the Daughters of the American Revolution, who lobbied for its designation as historic landmark.

The Wagner homestead, the oldest known house still standing in Miami, was built in the 1850s by William Wagner, who had brought his Creole wife, Eveline Aimar, here from South Carolina to escape harsh laws prohibiting interracial marriage.


Keddell, feeling that the buildings were somewhat hidden from the public yet illuminative of Miami's birth pangs, saw in them, and their latent narratives, an art project with educational potential for the community. Says Keddell: "My understanding is this: To expose is art. Reflecting the unnoticed is what I do in my photography. Now, after working on this project the last several years, the most rewarding aspect is the prominent members of the community -- politicians, educators, and others -- who tell me they had no idea slavery existed in Miami."

To bring awareness to the role slavery and prejudice played in the pioneer city, Keddell, working with Troy Community Academy, obtained a "Learn & Serve" grant from the Florida Department of Education to develop and implement "Love & Slavery in Miami," a student project exhibiting historical documentation and photography of the landmarks' pasts, as well as a performance piece based on the lives of the Wagner family.

The students, who wrote and performed the play, have been active in the ongoing task of maintaining the buildings. They worked with the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, local historian Paul George of Miami Dade College, and Keddell as project coordinator in researching and selecting photographs and artifacts for the exhibit. Those involved in the project range in age from thirteen to eighteen, and came to the Troy school through the juvenile-justice system.

Photographic documentation and artifacts exhibited inside the William English slave house/Fort Dallas are of a historical nature and do not fall under the rubric of fine art. Yet they are engaging because the art here is in the argument these inner-city kids make in reanimating these objects, rich in the tensions, nuances, and subtleties of a fledgling community trying to get a handle on itself, a chameleon with as many incarnations and growing pains as the landmarks themselves.

This past February the Miami-Dade County Public Schools began bringing students to Lummus Park for field trips, marking a turning point for Keddell's patient efforts to expose the hidden in plain view. A visit to the park, a tour of the buildings, and a chat with artist/activist/ caretaker Willie Keddell provides a broader vision of the place we live, just as stepping back from a painting to view it deepens our perception. Keddell encourages us to experience our surroundings in three dimensions.

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