Florida City's Main Man
Saturday nights usually start off low-key at the Elks Lodge on SW Eleventh Avenue in Homestead; members check in a few at a time at the front door, then find seats at cloth-covered tables in the cavernous banquet room. A disc jockey spins soul selections from the Seventies and Eighties, and some couples immediately hit the dance floor. Most of these early arrivals are middle-age or beyond, dressed in fancy suits or dresses, and sporting weighty gold rings and watches. This 50-year-old Elks Lodge is still the main social spot for the area's black residents, and because this crowd has been coming here for the past decade or two (even longer for some of them), members generally know each other. It's hard to find a black denizen of South Miami-Dade who isn't connected by love, friendship, or family to this lodge.
By 1:00 in the morning, younger professional men and women arrive wearing polo shirts and baggy jeans, miniskirts and spandex tops. The music has taken on a newer, Caribbean flavor: reggae, dancehall, and Haitian compas. As the hours pass the air grows cloudy with smoke, thick with music and laughter; the crowd is exuberant.
Hubert Albury is there on the dance floor, his impeccably shined black shoes stepping and pivoting, the jacket of his metallic-gray suit swaying open with the restrained pumping of his arms. His dance partner is a younger lady friend who also frequents the lodge. Albury is over six feet tall and slender, with short, unevenly shaped hair and a salt-and-pepper goatee. He claims to have shown up here every Saturday night for the past 27 years, save for the Christmas visits to his family home in the Bahamas, and one Saturday a month ago, when he had the flu.
Albury is 65 years old and a member of one of the largest extended families in the Bahamas and the Florida Keys. He has lived in Florida City since 1953 (excluding a five-year hiatus), and for eleven years he was the Elk who oversaw most of the lodge's social functions. That post, along with his popularity among the females, earned him the nickname Rooster. For a time he also ran a canteen at the lodge, serving up his own Bahamian cooking. Now, Albury says, he's semiretired after more than 55 wage-earning years. He's worked as a champion tomato picker; a builder of homes, boats, roads, and a movie set; and, for a few winters, keeper of Herbert Hoover's pipe collection.
Nearly everyone knows Hubert Albury, not only because he's been around for a while, but because he gets involved in virtually every community or charity project in one way or another. Some people describe him as one of their major inspirations. Albury's personal history contains plenty of inspiring moments, but it's also part of the historic Bahamian migration to Florida, which over a century shaped much of the character of Dade and Monroe counties. His mother, a cousin, and a nephew reside in the United States, but most of his family still live in the Bahamas.
His recollections come out in no particular order; he moves, in a single conversation, from the Eighties to the Fifties, as if his memories no longer exist in the past: They're all here with him now. He calls them up between downs in the Steelers-Packers game or the Jacksonville rout of Cincinnati. Some things, like Saturday nights at the Elks club, are more or less sacrosanct to Albury, another being Sunday-afternoon football. He is like most other red-blooded American males from September to January: glued to the TV on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights. But Albury has never really been completely American, partly because he was denied many rights enjoyed by white citizens, but mostly because he was born in the islands and has never quite left them. Another almost inviolable Albury custom: Christmas in the Bahamas in Lower Bogue on the north end of Eleuthera.
"That's where the water is as clear as looking through this room," he says, staring ahead, maybe at the TV or beyond to the shimmery Bahamian seas. Like many islanders Albury has light-brown, almost hazel eyes that contrast strikingly with the opaque darkness of his skin. "That's where people live like people. They celebrate 365 days a year."
While watching TV Albury usually sits in one of two black vinyl recliners in his den, thus keeping an eye out for guests at the back screen door. To find him visitors drive through an opening in a gate and onto the grass in the yard, where two or three friendly mutts greet them. Then they make their way around Albury's Thunderbird motorboat and a maroon Buick Skylark parked at the edge of a small patio.
The den's cypress paneling, crimson-color carpet, and the minimal light, which enters through a window to the back yard, do nothing to brighten the room's general dimness. The blades of a large overhead fan wobble rapidly around a bobbing base. For all practical purposes the back door is the front door of Albury's two-story house (the only two-story on the block, he's proud to say, and one of the few minimally damaged by Andrew). He is still in the process of constructing the place, which he and a former wife built in 1971; he's always knocking out one wall and putting up another one, closing off a porch or adding another room. For the past four years Albury's girlfriend, Ruth Brown, whom he never fails to address as Ms. Brown, and her daughter Trina have lived here, too.
The den, like other rooms in the house, is full of household items, knickknacks, and memorabilia. On a wall next to a framed replica of a Dolphins helmet hangs a color closeup of Malcolm X with one of his famous exhortations printed beneath his chin: "By any means necessary." An ironing board piled with clothes is set up next to a wet bar. Stacked on a counter behind the bar are four plaques awarded to Albury during the Eighties by the Fraternal Order of Elks Overseas Lodge No. 1078 "for outstanding service."
There is another Elks club near Florida City catering to the area's white citizens. There's also a white VFW lodge and a black VFW lodge, though the latter has been out of commission since Andrew. "Down here they have two of everything," Albury notes with a hint of distaste. "The VFW post, right over there ..." He points out his window a few blocks to the east. "They just opened again for the holidays. Andrew tore 'em up. They had to rebuild the whole place. I go over there and let 'em use a lot of my equipment."
The hog-plum tree in the yard begins blooming in the spring, and by fall the small round fruit ripens so yellow and sweet that the smell fills the air for blocks around. "The birds and squirrels will get them just like that if you don't pick them right away," says Albury. He sells the plums and the lychee nuts from another tree to a Cuban man who comes by. He keeps or gives away the other fruit.
He knows all his trees and remembers the spots where others grew before Andrew. On the surviving trees it's easy to see the hurricane's mark: twisted trunks and new limbs. The allspice trees came from cuttings, the Spanish lime from his grandfather's yard; a puny pecan tree from Jimmy Carter's hometown of Plains, Georgia, also the hometown of a former girlfriend. ("I don't care if it don't bloom," Albury says. "I still talk to it.") He also has a Persian lime, a few grapefruits, and tangelo, mango, and avocado trees. Plus palms and a cactus as tall as the house. Behind a hurricane fence on the east side of the yard is Albury's robust vegetable garden, which is fertilized with his fish guts. "This is the Winn-Dixie bread basket here," he declares, pointing out okra, collards, cabbage, broccoli, five varieties of onions, tomatoes, and pole beans. Then there are the banana, bell, and serrano peppers.
Albury picks the smooth, perfumed leaves of the allspice and dries some to use as seasoning in his cooking. He also boils it to make tea. "It's good for the high [blood] pressure," he explains. "I had high pressure for fifteen years, and my doctor never told me."
Ten years ago in this yard Albury hosted one of Larcenia Bullard's first campaign parties. Bullard, whose husband is an Elk and who lives in nearby Richmond Heights, has been a state representative for the Democratic Party since 1992. Albury cooked up his famous pigeon peas and rice, pork and chicken souse, collard greens, barbecue, potato salad, and Bahamian-style cornbread. He set a few dozen tables in the shade and threw giant squares of plywood on the ground. "He even had a board in the middle of the yard in back where people could dance so they wouldn't have to worry about dancing in the dirt," Bullard recalls. "Back then I had very little support in terms of money; I didn't know how to raise money. I didn't know I had to raise money, and he was one of those who stretched his arms out to introduce me to various people in the area. People like Hubert are low-key activists. They're involved, but people don't know just how involved they are. He really wanted to make a difference in his own way."
Albury's life has developed a bit like his house: You can't tell where all the halls lead, one part is built over another, and the rooms are situated in unexpected places. He has been married twice and has trouble keeping track of his many girlfriends. With two girlfriends he has had six children: Hubert, a truck driver, is 34 years old and lives in Greenwood, Mississippi; Alberta Nixon, age 31, works for BellSouth in Miami; Calvin, age 29, teaches fourth grade at E.L. Whigham Elementary; Kathleen, 28 years old, is a pharmacist in Cutler Ridge. Nineteen-year-old twins Herbert and Hubert recently graduated from Robert Morgan Vocational Technical Center and, until a few years ago, worked part time with their father in his construction company, Albury & Sons.
Albury remains on good terms with most of his former wives and girlfriends, surely a testament to his good nature and their forbearance. They don't accuse him of being insensitive or unkind, and they don't call him a womanizer. (A friend of one of his wives, however, labels him a "scoundrel.") But he doesn't mean harm. He's impulsive and he never took well to jealousy or possessiveness. One woman who was with him for more than a decade and didn't want to be named concludes: "I just think a single life would be better for him. He has a mind of his own."
For his part Albury once again uses an apt market metaphor, this time to explain his approach to love and marriage: "If you can't get it at Winn-Dixie, you can get it at Publix. Life's too short to fight."
Ms. Brown seems to understand. She works as a nurse at Everglades Academy, a juvenile correctional facility that is just down the road. She's from Mississippi. While in Homestead visiting her mother about five years ago, Ms. Brown and her two girls decided to stay. She and Albury met at the Elks club, naturally; she says she didn't like him at first, but it wasn't long before, as she puts it, she was "standing in line with the other girls."
When Ms. Brown is in another room speaking on the phone, Albury looks pensive. "We have our differences," he says, shaking his head, "but I won't trade her in. Naw. I won't trade her in."
Every year in Marathon the citizens celebrate Grace Jones Day with games and cakewalks, speeches and band music, and lots of Bahamian food. Jones was Albury's great-aunt, the sister of his mother's mother, and an early community activist. Grace and her husband, Harry Jones, were among the rush of islanders who came to Key West in the early 1900s to find work. The end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865 devastated the Bahamas, which were a transshipment point for the blockaded, cotton-producing Southern states during the fighting. "The Bahamas fell into a deep depression; people were starving," says Cudjoe Key writer and historian John Viele, author of several articles and three books about early Caribbean and Bahamian history.
Grace and Harry arrived in Key West in 1919. Both worked until moving north to Marathon in 1933. Grace became a leader in the black community there and in 1941 founded the Upper Keys' first school for black children (their only classroom until then was in a church).
Meanwhile Grace's niece Kathleen Cash married Mathland Albury in the Bahamas, had five children, broke up with Mathland, and in 1948 moved back to her hometown, Key West. Hubert Albury, the third child, and his older brother Willias were raised in Lower Bogue by their father's mother, Albertha Kelly, and her daughter, Lilla Johnson. They lived in a wooden house only about twelve-feet square. "In the islands they train boys as well as girls. Them floors had to be scrubbed every Wednesday and Saturday. Wednesday was my day, and I scrubbed on Saturday, too," Albury recalls.
When Albury and his mother tell their family history, their memories are full of contradictions, holes and switched sequences, made more elusive because there are no surviving witnesses to fill in the many gaps. One such questionable account comes from Albury's grandfather, Bertram Cash, and it rings true for Coconut Grove in the early Twentieth Century.
Three decades before Albury arrived in Florida, Bertram Cash and his brother Tommy, like many Bahamians of the day, migrated to the Miami area to work on Henry Flagler's railroad. They were laying tracks when Tommy got into an argument with a white man and apparently struck him. Immediately after the incident a white posse, formed seeking vengeance on Tommy. When the group couldn't find him, it called in the Ku Klux Klan, then very active throughout South Florida. The Klan, too, was unsuccessful in its manhunt, so the group targeted Bertram, his pregnant wife, Salaney, and their two sons, Lloyd and Leroy. To avoid their inevitable fate of tar and feathers or worse, they started walking south, heading for Key Largo, where Bertram's cousin, a Mr. Buckner, awaited them. "They hid in the bushes during the day and walked at night," Albury says. "They walked all the way to Homestead." The family eventually made its way to Key West, where their third child, Kathleen, was born.
Miami historian Paul George, an authority on Miami's early days, says not only was the Klan a force to be reckoned with, but it was particularly irked by Bahamians, who were unaccustomed to being kicked around in their home country, and were less likely to tolerate such treatment here. According to George a Florida circuit court judge once complained from the bench that "uppity" Bahamians were exceptionally hard to control. This only inflamed the Klan. Several kidnappings, assaults, and lynchings were recorded from the Grove south to Goulds and Homestead. "The Klan showed up in a big way on a Sunday night in 1921," George says. "They marched down Flagler Street with 150 members. Soon afterward they showed up at a church in Coconut Grove, where H.M. Higgs was the pastor. After his sermon the Klan essentially kidnapped him and sent him back to the Bahamas."
By the time Albury arrived in Florida, the Klan had retreated somewhat, but not much else had changed for people of color. No bank would lend a black person money to start a business or buy land; black people weren't allowed on downtown Homestead streets after dark, nor could they take refuge in a public shelter during rainstorms; and of course, even if a bus was empty, blacks were forbidden to sit anywhere but in two seats at the back.
"To make a long story short, you had no rights," Albury remembers. "I wasn't used to that. But me, personally, I've had some very good days because after I learned the system and met a lot of people ... I found out if you are honest and sincere, people will recognize it. Where I was from, you had freedom, but you didn't have any money or anything."
Albury dropped out of school in the sixth grade to work at whatever jobs he could rustle up. He was only age sixteen, but passed himself off as an eighteen-year-old when he arrived in the United States in 1950 to pick vegetables. "They don't give you anything in the Bahamas. If you wanted anything, you had to earn it. And I wanted things," he asserts.
Albury was among the thousands of Bahamians who came to Florida under a labor arrangement that was struck between the Bahamian and U.S. governments during World War II. Bahamian farm workers pocketed 25 cents out of each dollar they earned, and the remaining 75 cents was transferred to an account in the Bahamas that the workers could access when they returned home. But many never did return.
Albury worked for H.L. Cox & Son, picking tomatoes, beans, potatoes, and other vegetables. "I could work," he recalls proudly. "Tomatoes, pole beans, potatoes, squash, anything in the field. It was piecework. We got paid by the box. Ten cents for a bucket of tomatoes, 25 cents a box for pole beans. Another boy and I were the best they had ever seen. We set a record of 520 boxes in one day. We were so good, they'd only let us work two or three days a week."
George Gibson, a trim, high-cheekboned man in a fine beige suit and vest, nods. He's sitting on one of the black vinyl sofas in Albury's den. They're drinking cranberry juice and conversing before leaving for a night of partying at the Elks Lodge. "Yes, the Cox boys had the reputation as the best," Gibson confirms. He worked for another grower during the contract days. Neither man is sure of the exact year they met, but they know it was some time shortly after Albury arrived and it was during weekend socializing with the other Bahamian workers at a nightclub in Goulds or one further south on U.S. 1. Gibson worked on contract the entire time, from 1943 to 1965, planting and harvesting all over Florida. In 1969 he got a live-in job as a landscaper at the Sheraton Hotel on Key Biscayne, where he remained until Andrew wrecked the place in 1992. Since then he has been a landscaper at the Miami Beach Ocean Resort. He lives in North Miami now and is widowed, but he's still an Elk and still drives down the Turnpike in his white Lincoln Town Car to spend time with Albury.
Albury went off contract in 1953, after he got married, became a U.S. resident, and moved to Florida City. (He was granted citizenship about five years later.) He still did farm work, but he'd take anything he could find. Some summers he, like Gibson and the other Bahamian laborers, followed the vegetable harvest north to Minnesota. They lived in tents or barracks. "I worked for Bird's Eye," Albury says. "Those folks treated me well. I was up there five, six weeks, and my grandmother passed away, but I couldn't go home."
While working construction jobs, he met G.R. Runken, an immigrant who owned a construction company in Homestead. "Old man Runken was German, didn't have much schooling," Albury recalls. "He saw I had an interest, and he took me by the hand and taught me everything. At that time the average white man would look at you and spit on you. Today you can give me the plans to a house, and I'll give you the keys. I wouldn't take nothing for old man Runken. I'll never forget, we were over there in Leisure City. The first set of houses they built in Leisure City were all concrete, and they kept the hot-water heater outside. Old man Runken was trying to teach me how to lay blocks, and this [employee] came up and yelled at him, 'You letting that nigger lay blocks? Then we'll have another nigger knowing how to lay blocks!' At that time all they wanted you to learn was how to dig a ditch. Old man Runken fired him. Yes he did."
After Runken died in 1961, his son Fred, a career military man, took over operations. By several accounts it wasn't the best business move. After the Runkens fell more than a year behind in completing a funeral home in 1975, the home's owner sued the company for tens of thousands of dollars in business lost and money borrowed. Lydia Walker of Goulds, a long-time funeral director who hired Runken on Albury's recommendation, won a $25,000 judgment. "I never collected a penny of it," she acknowledges. Walker was a close friend of Albury's wife at the time. After Runken was called into the National Guard his firm fell apart.
Albury claims to be one of the first black people in South Dade to buy land. He had gone to a few banks for loans but was promptly turned down, so he went to the only two men around who would sell land to blacks and finance it. "Julius Finkel and Mr. Free, they were Jewish, they sold most of what black people had, and they were honest about it, too. After you paid off your loan, they'd give you the title to the land," he explains. He built a house in 1955 on a lot at Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street in Florida City. "My nearest neighbor was two blocks away. I had a '47 Buick, and I had to weave between pines to get to my place. I bought several pieces from Sixth Avenue to Fifth Avenue."
But in the early Sixties, Albury says, construction work was scarce, and he needed to find something more. "So I saw an ad in the Miami Herald that they needed a houseboy in Key Largo, the Anglers Club," he starts out. "So I put in for the job. They check your background and fingerprint you. Well, I got hired." He leans back slightly, cocks his head, and goes on with the story. "You want a clue about what I did? The name is Herbert W. Hoover. I worked for him. Every morning at 5:00 or 5:30 I had to get up and make a fire in his fireplace. He had seven or eight pipes and I had to clean every one of them. I had to pull out his chair. I'd say, 'Good morning, chief,' and he'd sort of make a noise. He was hard of hearing."
Hoover, an avid fisherman and frequenter of the Keys, stayed at the Anglers Club during the Fifties and early Sixties. The exclusive resort even had a "Hoover cottage" until the former president died in 1964. "He put that pipe in his mouth and started writing," Albury continues. "He'd sit there sometimes four hours writing. There'd be two guards there with him all the time. I'd leave and come back around 12:00. Bring his food over from the dining room. Then at 5:00 I'd have to go back and clean up."
Albury worked at the Anglers Club for two seasons, then found out about a construction job on Ramrod Key. It was on the set of PT 109, a movie-in-the-making about President John F. Kennedy's World War II experiences. Albury remembers building seven pieces of the PT boat for use in different shots and having to position some of them in the water for hours while the director and cameraman searched for the right shot. "I'd be submerged in the water, and I'd go to the stern and hold it exactly where they wanted it," he recalls. "It would make me so angry. One shot would take three or four days. Sometimes it would be a week. And then they blew the boat up anyway."
After that he returned to more commonplace construction work. "Warner Bros. offered me a job when we were wrapping up. They wanted me to go to Hawaii with 'em," Albury says, shaking his head. "They were making another movie over there. But I was young and dumb. I was married then, and my wife said, 'What you wanna go to Hawaii for?' I had a house and a car, I knew everyone here, and I just thought I should stay here. Believe it or not, I think that was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made."
He got divorced in the late Sixties and moved to an apartment in Goulds. By then he had fathered four children out of wedlock. He married for the second time in 1971 and returned to Florida City, where he built his present home and planted his fruit trees. It was during the Seventies that, in addition to his usual variety of jobs, Albury did some work for the Zion Coptic Church. The religious order became notorious in 1979 after several members were tried and convicted in Miami on federal marijuana importation charges. But for years before that the Coptics lived a virtually self-sufficient existence at a big agricultural operation near the Everglades. "He built all their food barns," says Lindsay Bell, who was on the crew and credits Albury with teaching him the trade. "He would draw in the dirt with a stick and say, 'Okay, just fill this in.' One wood barn on Howard Drive is still standing."
Albury knew what the Coptics did with marijuana, but he never saw anything untoward. "They were the greatest bunch of people I ever knew. They treated all their help like they were a part of them. When they killed a cow, like every other week, everybody had food. Whatever they raised they shared. They'd give you potatoes, malanga, eggs, chicken. Every employee went home with four or five pounds of meat," he says.
Bell was a young white kid from Miami who'd just gotten out of the Army. "Hubert just kinda pulled me in and took care of me," Bell says. "He taught me much more than construction, everything about construction. I love him way beyond anything I would feel for my parents." Later Bell and Albury worked several jobs together. Today Bell is a film electrician in Miami.
And Bell was the first person Albury saw the day after Hurricane Andrew tore through South Dade. Albury was alone at home during the storm and, like many others, didn't expect anything much out of the ordinary. The morning after, like everyone else, he was in deep shock. "When I got up that morning and looked around, I saw the house next door, bigger than this one, all in my yard. I've never felt like that in my life. I was so nervous, I grabbed Lindsay, and I must have squeezed the air out of him. He brought water, milk, food, gas," Albury recalls.
Sometimes on those clamorous Saturday nights at the Elks club, Albury, savoring his Bacardi as usual, remembers the opportunities he squandered when he was young. He waxes sentimental about the men, women, and children no longer in his life. He visualizes the pink sand and turquoise water in the pristine reaches of north Eleuthera. He shakes his head and brings his palm down on the table every few minutes for emphasis while he's talking. "I'm living a life I don't like," he laments. It's just his way of wondering whether he should have returned to Lower Bogue, back where he really belongs.
George Gibson, who gave up drinking a number of years ago, nurses a cranberry juice and listens. There's not too much to say after almost 50 years of friendship. The island music pounds away. Albury's fishing buddies stop by the table. One presents him with a Cuban cigar. He half-stands to shake everyone's hands.
"I love people that mean well," Albury decides, settling back down. He fixes Gibson with a look of pure alcohol-enhanced appreciation. Albury regards Gibson as closer than a brother. "I wouldn't take nothing for George Gibson," he says. After a while he spots a woman he knows. He'll have to get up and dance.
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