On its surface, the planned revitalization of Coconut Grove's black community bodes well for an area left out of the economic boom in the largely white-owned village center to the east. But for Esther Mae Armbrister and other long-time residents, it is cause for concern as well. "It seems to me this community has been fighting to survive ever since they started. There's always been people wanting to change it," says Armbrister. "It's just been one thing or another. We've got to make sure this doesn't turn into that whole thing again."
The development debate in Coconut Grove's black community, made up of tightly knit enclaves steeped in culture and tradition, is not only about what will be built, but also about who will build -- and own -- it. On one side is the Community Action Agency (CAA), a county social-service agency with sixteen elected advisory boards made up of residents from impoverished Dade neighborhoods, including Coconut Grove. On the other side is the Local Development Corp. (LDC), a nonprofit group supported with federal and state funds and private donations. Founded in 1980 to help revitalize area businesses, the LDC has branched out into housing as the developer of Grove Point. The development agency has been the target of old-timers such as CAA advisory-board member Armbrister, who support renewal of their neighborhoods but see the LDC as a Johnny-come-lately doing its best to hand over the rest of the Grove to the whites.
"In my mind the LDC has turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes we made," says Armbrister. "That group was set up to help businesses, which means only two streets -- Grand Avenue, and Douglas Road from U.S. 1 to Grand Avenue. We didn't support them so they could stick their noses into housing, because we had housing under control. If they would stick to what they're supposed to do, it would be fine, but they don't do it." Grove Point, Armbrister says, was planned years ago by the CAA, which bought the property, but the LDC ended up as the developer. The LDC's supporters, she argues, are members of the black community who have reason to welcome white investment.
"Like this one woman -- I hate to call her name," says Armbrister, "but there is one woman who didn't do anything communitywise until her husband died. And after he died, she is everything. She is the spokesman, she is this, that, and the other. But she's nothing to us. See, the whites, they have always gone around getting people who they think should do this and do that and do the other for them. What happens is that some of those so-called community people out there have been buying for the white man and giving the black neighborhood the opinion that they, the black people, own the property. Or they buy for speculation to sell out to white developers. This is one of those things."
Armbrister moved from Plant City to Coconut Grove in 1936 and rented a room at the corner of Hibiscus Street and Franklin Avenue for $1.50 per week. Originally planning to save money to attend Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, she met her husband, Edmund B. Armbrister, the year she moved here, and never left. "I developed too many attachments to this place. I wouldn't live nowhere else but here," she says. "They couldn't even pay me to move off Charles Avenue. It was a nice close bond when I came here. You didn't lock your doors at night, go and come as you please. Lord, it ain't the same today."
In 1947 Armbrister and her husband moved to an old house built out of driftwood and some old lumber on the former site of St. Paul A.M.E. Church, constructed in 1896. It had no running water, and the toilet was on the porch. The couple lived in the two downstairs rooms and rented out the four rooms upstairs. In 1975 she moved into a newly built three-bedroom house on the same lot.
Since arriving in Coconut Grove, Armbrister has been a watchdog for black residents, aiming a sharp tongue and blunt word at anyone and anything she perceives as harmful to her community. "I tell it like it is with no lies," says the woman who at age 75 rattles her walking cane at meetings about sewers and streets, crime and traffic, scolding city officials and looking as if she's going to whack anyone who crosses her. A favorite target is LDC executive director David Alexander, whom Armbrister dismisses with characteristic gusto: "He doesn't know what he's doing. He thinks he knows everything. He just sits there and tells everybody what they want to hear. I can't stand a man who is just breath and britches. That's what I call a man who does not talk out, speak out, you know, just sits there and anything another man tells him, he says, `Yes, yes, yes yes.' He's just breath and britches, because anybody can wear pants and breathe."
Currently Armbrister is working with the city to install historic markers in the area. One would commemorate the Grove's first church, St. Agnes, which was built on Thomas Avenue in 1895 but has since been renamed Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church and relocated to Douglas Road. Others would honor the first six settlers on Charles Avenue, schools, and different settlements. She is also writing a book about the history of the Grove's black community.
"The first house here was built 101 years ago. It's up here on Charles Avenue on the south side, built out of pine wood. For the most part, the people who came from the Bahamas, they had carpentry in the blood when they were born, I think, because they have done outstanding work without any professional education, you know. They were also good at fishing and sponging. They came here for a better way of life, the same reason I came here. There wasn't no boom then, but they were building the Grove, clearing property. Old Man Stirrup [realtor and builder E.W.F. Stirrup, Sr.], he had come from the Bahamas in the late 1880s and he stopped in Larkins first -- that's now South Miami -- then he came up to Coconut Grove, where more of his own people had come.
"Stirrup had some money, so he paid the men to start clearing lots. He would get a lot for every lot he cleared, and then he would sell the lot cheap to the black men because he had the idea of everybody owning their own home. His own house -- 1897 he built it -- is the two-story building right behind the bank, the last building at the east end of Charles. Across the street, one of his lots behind the playhouse on Charles Avenue was called Stirrup's Quarters or the Bachelors' Quarters. Nobody lived there at the beginning except men -- they were paying something like a dollar and 50 cents or two dollars a week to stay there -- and the men would come over here and work and get enough money to go back to the Bahamas to get their fiancees or send for them.
"Across the street and down a ways to the west, the house that sits way back was Hiram McCloud's house. He and his wife lived there, and they would have the single women there waiting for the men to get to where they could move into a house. In the meantime they did a lot of laundry there. Back then they called Charles Avenue by the name Evangelist Street, until they named it in the late Twenties after an early settler called Charles Frow. But this street was it. It was the main drag. It was the hopping place to be. William Avenue to the north was a back street, nothing but a cow path for years and years. Both Charles and Franklin, the next one over to the south, were rocky, rocky, rocky, nothing but crushed rock -- they used to call Franklin Rocky Road. When I came here, they had eventually gotten 'round to tarring them. "Coconut Grove formed around seven or eight settlements, I think it was. You had Stirrup's up there, you had Counts's Quarters down here on the corner of Hibiscus and Charles Avenue -- that one belonged to Old Man William Counts. I don't know why they always call him `Old Man,' 'cause he had to be young sometime in his life. Counts, he was one of those rich Negroes who could afford a barn and cars and horses; he had men living there who helped develop his property. There also were some white men -- Mundy and Rice -- they were quarters also -- Mundy Town and Rice Town. Mundy and Rice, they had fruit groves and the black people who worked on the premises would work in the groves.
"Katie Biscayne subdivision was another big one. It was owned by Old Man Stirrup and one of the Burdine brothers, up there where Grand Avenue crosses into Coral Gables. But Katie Biscayne was more for people who could afford better-type housing. The houses they built there didn't have shutters like the ones you push up. They had screens and all, like the white people had. As a matter of fact, Stirrup owned once upon a time part of Burdine's downtown, and believe it or not, the Stirrups could go in there and try on clothes and no other black person could do it. And he owned part of the Coconut Grove Theater, and his children could go but they had to go in the back door.
"Now over in Golden Gate, over there between U.S. 1 and George Washington Carver Junior High, that's where the squatters lived. Charles Le Jeune and George Merrick were building up Coral Gables and were using that property to store their lumber, so people would just take some and build a lean-to or a shack. Well, Le Jeune and Merrick wanted to build Coral Gables, but the blacks down in Katie Biscayne were in their way. So they were given the choice of a shotgun house with a lot next door, or just two lots.
"So about fifteen to twenty families moved over there where the squatters were. Some of them moved into these three-room shotgun shacks -- you could stand on the porch and shoot right straight on through the house -- and they would get an extra lot next to it. Many people, instead of doing that, built a house on both lots. This was the way to get the people from Katie Biscayne back to this side. Coral Gables was developing so fast and it was nothing but white people; they didn't want the blacks there. On the other side of Golden Gate, to the north of Grand Avenue, that area developed with Mundy, Rice, and Merrick selling off property. On the other side of the railroad tracks, across U.S. 1, that's where the railroad workers lived. Everyone seemed to want to work on the railroad because they were paying so much money.
"You can't tell it no more, but the strange thing is that for the most part, people from Georgia and other places lived on the west side of Douglas and Bahamians lived on the east side. It was an unspoken thing, you know. There's still a house on Douglas Road, the Blue Chip, where everybody from Georgia would come in and get a room. There was another place called Black Bottom, at Percival and Short. Nobody lived over there except people who were dead stuck for housing and couldn't get none in no other place. These were people low on the totem pole.
"All these settlements took some time to merge. One was Sweeting Town, started by John D. Sweeting on 27th Street and Douglas Road, which back then was called Station Road because it went right by the railroad tracks. Another settlement for black people was Fort Lonesome, out there by the Tamiami Trail. At the time it was considered part of the Grove. That was Mr. Tom Ben's -- he also owned apartments out here on Thomas. Mr. Ben, he made the best moonshine in the Grove. In his yard they had a coconut tree, and the boys had put strips of wood on it and they would climb the tree and watch for the revenuers, because when the revenuers came, they would break up the moonshine still. He made the best moonshine.
"There was another colored settlement called Keboe, where there's a vacant lot on Hibiscus and Grand Avenue. These people came from England to the Bahamas and left the Bahamas and came to America. I was told that they were strange-looking and -acting people, very fair-complexioned, and they stayed to themselves. That was Stirrup's property, and they were working for him. Somehow or another, the settlement caught fire and burned one night and they left. Just like they came, that's the same way they disappeared, into nothingness. Nobody seemed to know how they got where they were going or nothing. They just vanished.
"All the business, everything was right here on Charles Avenue. Old Man Joe Major had a bicycle shop. Old Man Stirrup had a grocery store. There was a soda shop and an ice cream parlor. And then they had a cleaners, belonged to Old Man Summons. He died last year; I didn't even know it. Father Culmer had a pressing club -- a cleaners -- before he was a priest. He also was an organist at Christ Episcopal Church. After that he got married and moved to Overtown and he became a priest at St. Agnes.
"Silas Rayford had the first theater, in a tent, and they looked at what the white people had discarded. That was in 1924. In '28 and '29, after they finally began to get better pictures, all the little bad boys who didn't have any money would sneak in under the side and the big boys who were going to school would sit there and read out loud what was being said. Miriam Peavy's husband used to play the piano, and he'd be reeling and rocking and rolling, but lightly so the children could hear what was being read.
"It was quite a time over here. They had dances up in Stirrup Hall, and boxing at the corner of Charles and Hibiscus. Then on the holidays, you knew that we weren't going to work for you two days before the holidays. Two days before a holiday, you can forget it; you wouldn't see a black face until next week. We couldn't go to the beach like the white folks, because we'd black that water up, muddy it all up. So we had house parties, and during the holidays, everybody walked from house to house, greeting and sitting down and talking. They had bands that played in the streets, and parades, and we used to go out to dances. We didn't miss a dance for nothing. Oh Lord, when Louis Armstrong or some of those other big orchestra players came to town, you could forget it. We'd go out to Harlem Square and Rockland Palace in Overtown, and everybody who was somebody was in their new outfits, wanting to be seen by a lot of people. There'd be all the colors and the big-band sound. It was really something.
"When people were married once upon a time, they would march. One woman lived on William Avenue and she marched in her wedding gown from her house all the way around Hibiscus with her wedding party. They used to walk in the streets from their house to the church or wherever it was they was going to get married. They walked the streets with someone holding their gown. You would look out the window and see the whole wedding party go by. One time two sisters got married -- they lived down on Charles Avenue -- and they walked from across the street to their house and got married on the front porch. The street was blocked off. Then they had a party, and all the food you would want.
"People here were never wanting for food to eat. One man used to have a killing of the hogs once a year. Old Man Counts had the hogs, and they would have a butchering night. Nathan Sands would kill the pigs, and he would go around and find out who wanted what part of the hog and they would clean out the chitlins and the children would make balloons out of them. There also was a crab hole, back there on Franklin where some town houses are now, and anyone could go back there and get some of those land crabs to eat if they liked them. When I came here, everybody had chickens and ducks in their yards. But everyone would lock them up when the gypsies would come. They would have a child in the yard, someone watching the clothes on the line.
"See, they used to have gypsies back there on Franklin in the wintertime. They would winter here and steal everything they could. Every year the gypsies would come down with all this jewelry on and tell all kinds of lies in great big cars; I don't know where they got those cars. Even back to the early Twenties, you had gypsies. Most of the time they stayed on Franklin, any place they could find a vacant lot.
"Back then this part of Coconut Grove was separated from the white part. There was actually a wall, all the way down from Douglas west to where the water plant is. But after you, meaning the whites, started sending your children over here to school, you had to break the wall down so they could come in from Kumquat Avenue. But it's a one-way street going from the white part to the black part. All they've done is knock out part of it for the cars to come through, that's all. The other part is still there."
Walls to keep out the blacks didn't stop the whites from devising ways to take over the area for themselves. In 1936 the county commission approved a plan to relocate blacks from the Grove to three "model towns" in southern, central, and northern Dade, with cooperation from the City of Miami. "But when the younger black men returned from the military training camps and from fighting the war," says Armbrister, "it was a different kind of attitude, because they were not going to be treated like the older blacks had been treated. The younger ones had seen how other people in other places were living and the blacks in those other places were not taking this kind of stuff off the whites that we were taking here. The young ones, they put an end to that right quick."
In the Sixties, the city, county, and federal governments proposed various public projects in Coconut Grove. Black residents again started to buzz about losing their community, about being relocated in the same way blacks in Overtown were moved to make way for Interstate 95. But unlike Overtown, where most people were tenants, Grove residents owned the land and were well organized. In the mid-Sixties, they formed the Coconut Grove Homeowners and Tenants Association and successfully blocked many of these "improvements."
"In a way things haven't really changed that much. Going back a long way, people have thought there's something wrong here that needs to be fixed. They sit up there just like the county commission when it would tell us [the late County Commissioner Theodore] Gibson was our leader because he was the commissioner. But he was supported by you, not us. They would point out that his wife, Thelma Gibson, is a leading citizen of the Grove and she does this and she does that -- but she hadn't been doing it. Look at Father Theophilus Pollard. He was the black priest of Christ Episcopal Church and he and Miss Etta Clark founded St. Alban's Day Nursery. You know they don't give Father Pollard, neither Miss Etta Clark, credit for founding the St. Alban's Day Nursery.
"During the middle Thirties war clouds began to build up in Germany and the women had no place to leave their children while they worked. They had to leave them with old people who most of the time were too tired to take care of themselves, much less somebody else. So Miss Clark and Father Pollard got a grant from WPA -- that was the Works Progress Administration during Roosevelt -- in 1938 to open St. Alban's, and they hired other people to come in and do the cooking and the cleaning, and they hired teachers.
"Then in 1945, when peace was declared, the government withdrew financial assistance. So we, the mothers, the people in the community, walked the streets asking people to give us so much a year or a month to keep that school open. My husband was a bartender at Club 77. I would go up there and he would give us a fifth of whiskey, and when we sold that out, I walked back from wherever the party was and got another fifth of whiskey, and we sold that at 50 cents a drink. We served chitlins and fish and chicken sandwiches, and on Saturday afternoon this woman on Grand Avenue would let us use her yard to sell them. And then we would have teas, affairs where you get to show your clothes as well as be picky-picky-picky and have little delicate sandwiches to eat, and a program. That's what we used to do.
"We didn't charge people but a dollar and a quarter a week. Can you imagine? A dollar and quarter a week to take care of a child a whole week. When we went up to three dollars, many people decided to take their children out because they couldn't afford it. So to keep the nursery open, we just went begging for money, and United Way would help from time to time. We also got the help of some of the Miss Anns.
"All the white women we always referred to as Miss Ann, I don't know why. We would tell Miss Ann what we were trying to do and were doing, and she in turn would tell other Miss Anns. The white women got involved by us telling them what we were trying to do, and they helped keep the nursery open. That was the start of what it is now. You all run it now. It's all just about white run. It's what you might call a white charity case. And it tees me off. They have the nursery down there, they got another nursery, and they don't even have a picture of Father Pollard or Etta Clark in the building.
"Part of the problem is that instead of giving us what we need, they're always trying to give us things they want. Like when we were trying to put Charles Avenue in a historic district. Once there was a plan and they wanted to develop the first six houses on both sides of the street. When I saw the plan, I couldn't believe it. They had Stirrup Walk, and Stirrup Plaza, and antique shops -- all this in the first six houses. I said, `Over my dead body and I'm not going to die to convenience you.'
"And that McDonald Street extension thing. They wanted to extend that street through one of the oldest parts of the community to connect Grand Avenue and Main Highway. They wanted to come on through and dump their garbage -- their traffic and all this sort of stuff -- on William and Charles avenues. I said, `Like hell they're going to do it. Uh-uh. No way.' I told them to carry it on down Grand Avenue and dump it onto Main Highway and go on down to Cutler Ridge where all the exclusive white people's houses are. Just knock the trees down and make the road wider and put some sidewalks in. Let the white folk deal with it and see what they think. But you think they're going to do that? Hah!
"Then we were promised an overpass from the Metrorail station, which is where Henry Flagler's old railroad station was, to get past U.S. 1. The traffic is too heavy and they drive so fast -- by the time you get a little ways, the light has changed. I got caught out there one day and the only thing I could do was wave my walking cane and holler. Further down there are great big apartments where we have between 350 and 400 people living, and they have children who have to fight that traffic to get over to this side of the road for school. It seems like they're saying, `You accept what we give you or you don't accept anything at all.'
"I have tried to get them to put a four-way light down here on Charles and Hibiscus, so they finally came up with four-way stop signs. When I asked them for a light, I was told that you have to see how many people are killed at a spot before they give you the light. Instead of these things, we get 24-hour grocery stores from the LDC. Who is going to be up 24 hours? Coconut Grove is just not that large. Part of the problem is that some people are not as active as they should be, and there's a lot of people who are just waiting for money in their hands. That's more important than anything else to them. The Stirrups are not doing anything. They're just sitting. They aren't doing what you would expect somebody of their stature to be doing. They should be more active. The one sister that was active -- Lillian Mazon -- died about nine years ago, and after she died, that just killed the Stirrups off.
"And those people in Golden Gate. For the most part, they didn't even take an active part in getting Golden Gate settled. They call themselves the Lola B. Walker Homeowners Association, but we couldn't get any of those people to come to the meetings while Lola Walker was living. Lola tried to get them to come and they wouldn't come. We had only two representatives from Golden Gate. Then after Lola died, everybody wanted to do this and do that and use her name.
"Right now I'm still telling the City Commission that the toilets they have out here at Grand Avenue Park look like the toilets they had back in the Twenties. Since May of last year, the children have been without a decent place in which to rest in the afternoon and to go to the bathroom; they had some old stink toilets, those portable things. In May of 1990, they put the portables out there and kept them nine or ten months. That job was supposed to take between 60 and 90 days. They might have fixed the toilets, but they're still working on the building, so as far as I'm concerned it's still Tobacco Road.
"One day during the McDonald extension thing, I went walking with Jack Mulvena, the guy who runs the Department of Off-Street Parking, and he told me, `Armbrister, when you die, girl, they're going to have a feast.' Now Barbara Johnson over at the CAA says the funeral should be at Dade County Auditorium so they can have me propped up in the casket so that when they come around to view my body, they can see me with my mouth shut and my lips sealed -- I'll be laying out there cold with gloves on 'cause they've never seen me with gloves on before. And they can hit me on the head or do what they want to do and say, `Damn, Armbrister sure enough is dead. Damn, she's dead and she can't talk, man.' So Mulvena says, `Armbrister, the day after we bury you, we are going to go into Coconut Grove and all this stuff you've been telling us we couldn't have, we're going to take it.' Then he had enough nerve to hug me.
"The thing about it is, they won't be taking nothing from me. They'll be taking it from everybody, because this is Coconut Grove. Not the Black Grove or this new thing they've come up with, where you're now considered as living in the West Grove. I don't know who came up with that phrase or that name. It's Coconut Grove, and that's what we've always called it. That's what it was when I came here in 1936. That's how it should stay.