Black in Time
"Good morning, everyone. Welcome to Miami-Dade Transit's seventh annual Black History Tours," begins veteran bus driver Craig Rolle. For now Rolle is sticking to the prepared script, a 21-page tome fashioned by Dorothy Jenkins Fields of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation. In honor of Black History Month, the Metrobus, about half full of passengers, is bound for a three-hour expedition through Miami's black communities.
At this for the past five years, Rolle has the ease and experience to diverge from the text once in a while, which makes the tour more interesting. While the transit authority's Peggy Geddis drives, Rolle, standing with microphone in hand, speaks. Geddis fights a brief battle with I-95 construction on the way to the first stop: Coconut Grove's McFarlane historic district, Miami's first black settlement. In the 1880s Key West Bahamians immigrated north and worked at the Peacock Inn, South Florida's first hotel, located near what is now Charles Avenue. Eventually they acquired land along the street.
As Rolle delivers this information, 57-year-old Jean Marie Cineus of Brooklyn, New York, furiously jots down notes on a scrap piece of paper. He has been visiting family in Little Haiti but will return to the Northeast in a few days. Once a schoolteacher in Haiti and now a food vendor at the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey, he is a voracious consumer of historical data and souvenirs. He sits with Lula Richardson, a 45-year-old Overtown resident he met on the bus. As Geddis turns north on to SW 37th Avenue, Cineus regales Richardson with tales of his travels to other cities. He mentions being in love in Paris, and boasts of visiting New York City's Times Square, but when Rolle resumes talking, Cineus raises a finger to his lips like a reverent schoolchild reminding himself and others to hush up. It is time to learn.
Beyond the Grove the bus stops in Overtown, Little Haiti, Liberty City, and Brownsville. Along the way the physical history of black Miami looms in an array of shapes and tones: dark reminders of past injustices, fading landmarks flirting with extinction, and spots made inaccessible by Hurricane Irene's deluge. On Twelfth Avenue in Liberty City, the remnants of a five-foot wall that once separated blacks and whites can still be seen. As if in hopeful counterpoint, the tour passes the sites of many historic churches, some of which are still standing, such as the Mediterranean Revival-style Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was built in 1896. Constructed in 1913, the Lyric Theater on NW Eighth Street has undergone recent restoration. Long before I-95 came crashing through the heart of Overtown, the Lyric flourished as a center of a vibrant black nightlife. Today paintings featuring the faces of 27 prominent blacks decorate the playhouse's southern façade.
The journey, like the landscape it documents, takes on a fluid quality. As Rolle reads from the script, other narratives spill out. After passing Georgette's Tea Room, a thirteen-room structure built as a guesthouse for black celebrities and entertainers, Richardson offers a bit of trivia. "What about Clyde Killens? He is a living legend. He brought those famous people here," she tells the guide. Later Rolle comments on the well-known promoter's home at NW Eleventh Street and Second Avenue. "Sometimes [Killens] will be out there, and he'll wave," he says.
In Liberty City Tangelia Standifer, a 37-year-old Miami native, recalls vivid scenes from the 1980 riots. "This was the heart of it," says Standifer as the bus turns west on to NW 62nd Street from Twelfth Avenue. She puzzles over the gory details: "They cut a man's ear off...." Rolle turns off the microphone for a moment. "That's another history," he remarks.
On these bus rides, black history is like that -- all-encompassing, wide-ranging, from darkness to light, from script reading to oral storytelling. After the tour Standifer sums it up: "I was raised in Miami. We live and work here, we travel through it, but we don't really know it. So I am happy I came. I learned a lot."
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