Changing Times

For more than 80 years the Miami Times has been the voice of the black community, but fewer and fewer people are listening

Early civil rights leaders in Miami, such as the city's first black commissioners -- Rev. Theodore Gibson and Athalie Range -- often had Bahamian roots. The Reeves family was part of that tradition. Henry Reeves's son Garth participated in the integration of public golf courses in 1949 and public beaches in 1958. The younger Reeves was also responsible for the gradual radicalization of the paper as the civil rights movement gathered speed. H.S. Reeves had a more moderate outlook than his son.

When Gibson and another black leader, Rev. Edward T. Graham, were each sentenced to six months in jail and a $1200 fine for refusing to reveal the names of members of the local NAACP chapter to a state legislative committee in 1963, the Miami Times published eloquent editorials that helped fuel church rallies in support of the ministers. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually vindicated the men, effectively killing the McCarthy-inspired witch-hunt for supposed communist subversives within the civil rights organization in Miami.

When Overtown began to be destroyed by the white community's land grab to make room for I-95 and the I-395 connector, the black middle class decamped to Liberty City and points north. Desegregation further diluted the community's economic power. Dunn counted no fewer than seven black newspapers in Miami's first few decades, including Reeves's first media venture, the short-lived Miami Sun. These papers served a population of less than 30,000 blacks, concentrated in Overtown, Coconut Grove, and portions of South Dade. Of these the Miami Times is the only one to survive. There are a few more recent tiny outfits, such as the Gospel Truth, and South Florida Newsweek, but for all intents and purposes the black paper with influence has been the institution of the Miami Times.

Former Miami Times reporter Wilson Louis 
believes the paper serves an important role in the 
community
Jonathan Postal
Former Miami Times reporter Wilson Louis believes the paper serves an important role in the community

Besides the obvious need for a black voice in local media, the paper endured because of Garth Reeves's ability to straddle both black and white worlds. He built his father's business into one of the city's most successful black enterprises. Eventually the printing company was shut down, and the newspaper drove the family's fortunes. Reeves also parlayed his ability to network in white and Hispanic circles into profitable real estate deals all over the county. He partnered with developer Armando Codina, banker Raul Masvidal, and black architect Ron Frazier to grab a minority share of downtown's Bayside Marketplace when it was under construction.

He became a majority owner in the Peoples National Bank of Commerce. Peoples was in financial trouble when Reeves and a handful of other black investors pumped money into it beginning in 1992. They wanted Florida's only black-owned bank to remain viable. The Reeves family sank millions of its own money into the bank over several years to keep it afloat, but the institution suffered from poor management and bad loans. In 1999 the Boston Bank of Commerce absorbed Peoples, which had been targeted by federal regulators.

In 1985 Knight Ridder chairman Alvah Chapman invited Reeves to become part of the Non-Group, a powerful fraternity of the most influential businessmen in town. He was also the first black on the boards of the United Way and Miami-Dade Community College. It does not get any more establishment than that, although Reeves argued these invitations were mere tokens.

This talent for mixing socially with the same people he vehemently criticized in print has, over the years, been attributed to his genteel personal style and his ability to broker influence both ways. For instance, it is generally acknowledged that the Miami Times wielded decisive influence in electing the City of Miami's first Hispanic mayor, Maurice Ferré. The paper also ended his tenure in 1985 after he led the commission's effort to fire the city's first black manager, Howard Gary. Reeves was among black leaders to successfully lobby for Johnny Jones to become the first black superintendent of schools. In 1988 Reeves agreed to publicly support the school district's $980 million school construction referendum in return for the district funneling more jobs and contracts to the black community. Again black voters made the difference in the measure's passage.

On the other side of the equation, Reeves managed to become an icon to blacks, even though his comfortable social and economic status far removed him from the daily lives of most Miami Times readers. In 1990 H.T. Smith and a few other black attorneys organized a three-year nationwide black boycott of Miami that cost the tourism industry millions. (The boycott was sparked by the snubbing of South African anti-apartheid legend Nelson Mandela by Cuban-American elected officials, who denounced him for refusing to repudiate his old ally Fidel Castro.) Smith says the paper was instrumental in that struggle. "Every week for 150 weeks, the boycott message was disseminated when we couldn't get decent coverage anywhere else," he recalls fondly. "It was through the Times and the churches that the leaders were able to keep readers informed. It has a special place in my heart."

Yet there's another side to Reeves. One example: his neglectful ownership of the Crispus Attucks slum complex in Overtown, which residents had dubbed New Jack because it was overrun with gun-toting drug dealers and addicts. In 1999 New Times chronicled the efforts of a group of poor single mothers fighting to get Reeves to fix the deteriorating building for which he received Section 8 funding. "I don't know what [the tenants] were trying to prove, what they were trying to do to me," Reeves said at the time. "I have a reputation in this community. They weren't anybody but poor people; I think they were being used [by others who wanted the building closed]." Eventually the county canceled his Section 8 funding because none of the apartments was even close to code. The city ordered the place vacated. In 2001 it was finally demolished, leaving nothing but vacant land and roughly $600,000 in liens and fines from years of code violations.

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