Jane Wilson — and countless others who called Miami home from the late ’40s through the mid-’80s — recalled the sweet, heady aroma of baking bread serenading the senses in South Miami.
Seth Bramson, a leading chronicler of Florida history through his more than 20 books about the region, saw his collection of Florida East Coast Railway memorabilia grow after he shared his tales of local lore with readers.
Haitian activist Gepsie Metellus, executive director of Miami’s Haitian Neighborhood Center, found new voices for her cause after she detailed her deepening connection to the city in her Miami Stories feature.
These are just some of the more than 100 people who have written about growing up in South Florida for the popular Miami Herald Neighbors column, Miami Stories, since its inception in May 2009. The weekly feature is a collaboration by HistoryMiami, historian Arva Moore Parks, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, National Conference on Citizenship Chairman Michael Weiser and The Miami Herald.
Miami might only be 116 years old since its incorporation but its history is rich and vibrant. This is a place where change is the only certainty. Books and photographs capture the places and faces along the way but add personal memories and the stories really begin to come alive.
“It’s your own story, it’s your own life,” says Parks, acting director of the Coral Gables Museum. “When I used to teach history they’d say, ‘I hate history!’ I’d say, ‘What don’t you like about yourself?’ I’d always have them tell me their life history — from their parents to their grandparents. When they would do so, I’d say, ‘ That’s your history.’ ”
Personal remembrances, through oral history, are particularly valuable, Parks says, because it gets to the truth.
“If you are watching something happening it tends to be accurate, they are eye-witnesses.”
And what a set of eyes we have.
‘Miami is for me’
Metellus opened her story in February by recalling an old tourism ad popular around the time of television’s pastel-colored crime drama, Miami Vice: “When I arrived in Miami in the early 1980s, the slogan ‘Miami Is For Me’ was ubiquitous. As someone who had just arrived here from New York, I not only wondered what the buzz was all about, but I did not believe for one second that it could ever apply to me.”
Turns out Miami was for this reluctant arrival.
Metellus, 50, quickly immersed herself in the Haitian community and its issues. The community, she recalls, was recoiling from “the abuses and neglect of the Duvalier dictatorship,” not to mention a period when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified being Haitian as a risk factor for acquiring the HIV virus.
Metellus worked in the fields of research, education, government and community work, with a goal toward empowering and enriching those who had arrived from the island. Today, she’s the executive director of Sant La, the Haitian Neighborhood Center.
Writing her story, she said, was purposeful.
“Miami is a place for new beginnings of so many people and that’s the magic of Miami. I had to sit down and write this story,” she said. “I hope it encourages other people to follow suit. My work is all about making sure our immigrant population becomes fully integrated and becomes self-sufficient, can prosper and open doors for future generations of immigrants from Haiti.”