My father, for whom I was named, brought his family to Miami in 1935, the last of several moves he was forced to make as he struggled to make a living as a life insurance agent during the bleak years of the Great Depression.
He had made a fortune in Lakeland developing and selling real estate in the delirious economy of the early 1920s, had $250,000 in the local bank, and was planning to retire and enjoy life as a gentleman farmer. In 1926, the year of the bust in Florida, the bank suddenly failed; no federal deposit insurance protected its customers, and my father was ruined, his properties taken by mortgage foreclosure. I was born in that year, and my sister Judy in 1929, adding to his burdens.
In the years following our move to Miami, Dad somehow managed to support the family against all odds by selling insurance to folks who had very little money to spare. My mother, Helen, performed miracles in the kitchen, feeding us with potatoes, cornmeal, an occasional fish, and meat perhaps once a week. We almost literally lived by the cracker slogan of “Grits and Grunts and Coconut Pie.”
My sister and I enrolled in a series of public schools as we moved about the county, finally settling in 1941 near Red Road, the western boundary of Coral Gables. Bird Road was rocky and full of potholes from there, but my teenage buddies and I enjoyed bouncing to the end at Krome Avenue, where we used our BB guns and .22-caliber rifles to shoot garfish and snakes in the canals.
Miami in the 1930s had all the virtues and prejudices of Southern culture. People were friendly, doors of many homes were left unlocked, the few fancy hotels in Miami Beach closed and boarded up for the summer once the tourist season ended. Elite restaurants were very few; dining out was more often in casual and inexpensive places, such as the Mayflower Café, which boasted a huge neon sign: AS YOU TRAVEL ON THROUGH LIFE BROTHER, WHATEVER IS YOUR GOAL, KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE DOUGHNUT, AND NOT UPON THE HOLE.
However, blacks had to endure insults and constant reminders of prejudice in the white social structure: exclusions from employment or memberships, signs in public buildings setting aside separate toilet facilities for “Colored Only.”
In May 1940, I had a taste of fame as the winner of the third South Florida Spelling Bee, sponsored by The Miami Herald. The annual spelling contest, staged in the Bayfront Park band shell arena, had become a big deal with the newspaper. Henry Cavendish was named the Herald Spelling Bee Editor, and his stories appeared for weeks as the preliminary contests were held. Fortunately for me, an eighth-grader at Coconut Grove School, the principal, B.H. Hayes, was determined to have a winner from his school, so he had drilled me relentlessly in his office several times every day. The day after I won the district final, The Herald ran a front-page story and a picture of a grinning big-eared 13-year-old next to the other important story, headlined: “NAZIS 60 MILES FROM PARIS.”
My mother and I were flown to Washington for the National Spelling Bee, lodged in the historic Willard Hotel and escorted by Mr. Cavendish. He wrote daily stories and spent a decent amount of time in the hotel bar. I was close to winning, until misspelling “synchronous” sent me to the showers.
The school system had no residence boundaries for students, and I became a Miami Senior High “Stingaree,” made the invincible football team and studied under wonderful teachers like Miss Lamar Louise Curry, who, now at age 104, still attends alumni events.
After graduation in June 1944, the boys in the class were quickly drawn into World War II, either by enlistment or draft. With many other classmates, I joined the Navy V-12 officer-training program and was assigned to the University of Miami. The University was shedding its image as “Suntan U” and had attracted many excellent professors. Dr. H. Franklin Williams was a historian who spoke with the true accents of his training at “Hahvahd” and was a kind and generous mentor.
Released from the Navy and after earning a degree from the University of Miami, I was accepted by the Harvard Law School, possibly because the mandarins there wanted to see if a graduate of that raw little college in Miami could survive. I did so, returned to Miami and was hired by Dixon, DeJarnette, Bradford and Williams, then considered a large firm (7 lawyers).
There, and in my own firm, my legal work was varied, until retirement more than 50 years later. For over 20 years, my largest and most visible client was the Dade County School Board; as school board attorney, I worked with many serious and dedicated people, among them elected board members Holmes Braddock and Janet McAliley, and strong administrators including Superintendent Ed Whigham and Eldridge Williams, formerly one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, with whom I worked on the difficult problems posed by the desegregation of schools.
I was recalled to duty by the Navy during the Korean War, and as an officer spent two enjoyable years on the island of Guam. Best of all, I met and courted Emiliana Perez, who became my wife. Our daughter Elizabeth grew up and still lives in Miami with her husband and our three grandchildren. So continues our Miami story, which began in 1935.