It's 1:35 a.m. and Eunice Liberty is on the phone, fuming with anger. "I didn't work all these years to be treated like this," protests the 93-year-old, who, despite her advanced age, is decidedly more alert than the bleary-eyed reporter on the other end of the line. The object of her wrath is not the two police cars that have pulled up to her Liberty City home to eject a house guest she had invited to spend the night. Instead it is directed at the person who summoned the cops: Georgia Ayers, her legal guardian and a well-known activist in Miami's black community.
The guest herself is a well-known activist, but Ayers exercises legal control of her ward, and the police do her bidding. Over the loud protests of Miss Liberty, as she is universally known, the guest is told to leave.
And so unfolds yet another clash between two icons of black Miami.
Miss Liberty planned for her retirement with all the forethought and attention to detail that marked a lifetime of accomplishment in the service of others. As a political activist and president of the Miami chapter of the National Council of Negro Women, she played an important role in delivering neighbors to the polls to elect the likes of Claude Pepper, Steve Clark, and Maurice Ferre. "Our precinct always had the highest voting rates," she reports proudly. She still exercises her civic duty today -- and not by absentee ballot, she'll have you know.
Miss Liberty's resume includes a master's degree in education she earned at Columbia University back in 1950. As a Miami school teacher she founded a debutante ball for young black women. Many also credit her with persuading the school district to add black history to the regular curriculum.
The indefatigable activist didn't limit herself to politics and school kids. Outraged at conditions for women in local jails, she organized a writing program for them. She even bought a building in Liberty City with plans to convert it to a halfway house to help female ex-cons make the transition to lawful society. "I'm a pioneer, baby," she says with a grin. "I didn't play around."
As her autumn years approached and her husband died, Miss Liberty built a home near NW Seventeenth Avenue and 52nd Street where she and her mother could live out their days in comfort. (Mindful of crime, she had the home designed with small, elevated windows to discourage burglaries.) She also constructed a duplex in back of the main house for her elderly aunts.
Over the years, she paid off the mortgages on the properties she owns. "I am the last to go in my family, and the people who could help me went ahead of me. And a lot of my friends, too," she remarks without a trace of self-pity. Now bent by age, she has trouble getting around, a victim of her own longevity. Despite an iron grip and an indomitable will, she must depend on a walker and an ever-present cordless phone.
Worried that an unscrupulous person might take advantage of her, or that Miss Liberty could suffer an accident at home by herself, Miami police officer Joe Bradwell initiated a series of calls that brought her situation to the attention of Adult Protective Services. On February 14 the state agency dispatched an investigator to visit Miss Liberty. The investigator came away troubled by what she found. Electricity to the residence had been turned off because Miss Liberty refused to pay her FPL bill. (She believed the company was overcharging her but couldn't persuade anyone to check.) The investigator concluded the nonagenarian was too old to live without supervision. "She painted my picture gloomy as she could," recalls an outraged Miss Liberty. "This was nothing but a setup."
Adult Protective Services took the case to the probate division of state court and recommended a guardianship. After a three-member committee examined the case, the court this past April declared Miss Liberty to be incapacitated, a decision that presiding Judge Arthur Rothenberg says he did not make lightly. "It's really tough. Elderly people really cherish their independence," he says, adding, "I made the determination she was not of sound mind." Rothenberg mandated a guardianship, which included stripping Miss Liberty of the right to manage her property, determine her residence, or make decisions about her social life. The next stage of the process involved appointing the guardian.
Georgia Ayers, founder and executive director of the Alternative Program Inc., a nonprofit agency designed to steer criminal defendants toward jobs and away from crime, has known Miss Liberty for more than 25 years and has helped her in the past to pay her bills. A police liaison contacted Ayers about Miss Liberty's situation and she offered to take on the guardianship. Rothenberg was impressed when she and then-Judge Ralph Person presented themselves on behalf of Miss Liberty. "They wanted me to understand how important she was to the African-American community," he says. The judge appointed Ayers co-guardian along with a nephew, one of Miss Liberty's two surviving relatives. "Who better than Georgia Ayers?" asks Rothenberg, citing Ayers's stellar reputation. But soon the nephew dropped out. A lawyer appointed by the court to aid the guardian was unable to persuade Miss Liberty's other relative, a niece, to take responsibility, which left only Ayers. She receives no pay for the job.
Miss Liberty is the first to admit she would welcome a little help -- someone to check up on her, prepare meals, and provide company. With that in mind, she endorsed the choice of guardian, a move she says she now regrets. "I didn't know her like I know her today," she says of Ayers.
The 69-year-old Ayers shares with Miss Liberty a reputation as a strong-willed advocate for her causes. For example, in 1995, when she felt her grandson had been wrongly charged with cocaine possession, she picketed the Hispanic judge presiding over the case while wearing a sign demanding his deportation. "I've got a lot of Miss Liberty in me," admits Ayers, who has called the older woman "cantankerous," "arrogant," and "mean." But Ayers, who had never before worked as a guardian, insists she is just trying to help. "I didn't ask to do this," she says. "She brought this on herself by not paying her light bills. I accepted power of attorney because I didn't want her to be put in a nursing home."
Ayers soon began to assume control of Miss Liberty's considerable assets, which include her property and more than $100,000 in pension funds and cash. (Guardianship laws require the courts to approve most expenditures and generally to review financial transactions.) Less than a month shy of her 94th birthday and accustomed to a life of self-reliance, Miss Liberty has not reacted kindly to Ayers's take-charge attitude.
"I want to go back to paying my bills," she insists. "I built two houses and I don't owe a penny. I had to be pretty good with money, didn't I?" She responded bitterly when Ayers delivered a sealed envelope with five twenty-dollar bills wrapped in a paper towel with "for Miss Liberty" scribbled on it. "Who is Georgia Ayers to give me an allowance?" she asks indignantly. It didn't help that the younger woman sent over workmen without warning to make extra keys to Miss Liberty's house so a caretaker could enter. When the caretaker later walked in unannounced, Miss Liberty refused to sleep until she left. (The woman has since returned and now spends nights at the house.) "I want to know how many people have keys and can come into my house," she demands. "I feel like a prisoner in my own home when this woman comes to spend the night."
Miss Liberty later enlisted the aid of Ernestine Worthy, a board member of the Martin Luther King Economic Development Corporation, to help her realize her dream of creating a halfway house for women. The day before Thanksgiving, Miss Liberty invited Worthy to spend the night at her home. "One thing I like about Ernestine is she listens," she says. "I told Georgia Ayers to shut up so many times it wasn't funny."
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Ayers says she called around and did not like what she heard about Worthy. So when a neighbor she pays to keep an eye on Miss Liberty informed her that Worthy was at the house, she reacted quickly. "I called the police on Ernestine Worthy and I'll do it again," Ayers says hotly.
Ayers arrived at Miss Liberty's house shortly after four policeman walked through the door. Recalls Worthy: "Georgia cussed Miss Liberty out and said if she didn't shut her mouth immediately, then she [Georgia] would call 911 and have them take her to the nursing home right now."
Miss Liberty says the scene with the police soured her forever on Ayers. "From that day on she went down in my estimation," she contends. "If you live alone and someone can go report on you that you need services, there is nothing you can do. I don't be lying. I live these words I'm talking."
Ayers says she will continue to act as guardian for Miss Liberty because the older woman is a community treasure. But Ayers vows to remain firm. "I need to let her know I'm her guardian for good, bad, or indifferent," she stresses. "I don't care what she says she wants. I'm not going anywhere.