T. Willard Fair was ‘the Muhammad Ali of black Dade County’


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Special to the Miami Herald

I was born in 1939 in Winston-Salem, N.C. I’m the last of eight children. I was born to John Fair and Mary Lou Fair.

People ask me about the name “Talmadge,” which is an unusual name for me to have. The day I was born, I came home and the insurance broker came by and inquired as to whether or not my mother had named me. She said no. He said, “Why don’t you name him Talmadge?’’

The irony is that Herman Eugene Talmadge, Sr., was a segregationist. [Talmadge, a U.S. senator from Georgia from 1957 to 1981, was one of several Southern senators who boycotted the Democratic National Convention of 1964 after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.]

I finished high school in 1957. I went off to Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C. The most exciting part about being there was this was when the Civil Rights revolution was beginning. I couldn’t wait to get out of class to go downtown Charlotte and protest.

I went to graduate school in Atlanta. Atlanta was the bedrock of black intellectual society. With all those colleges and students there, we demonstrated every day. When I finished graduate school, I had a master’s degree in social work.

I was 24. My notion was that I would volunteer for the Army, but they wouldn’t take me because of an injury. So now it’s 1963, I’m home and have no job. I went up to the Winston-Salem Urban League and told them I was looking for a job.

The head of the Winston-Salem League asked me to work for the Urban League, which was founded in 1910 to improve the lives of black Americans. He found an opening in Miami. Around August 1963, I took my first plane ride to Miami for an interview.

I don’t know whether or not they intended to hire me, but I intended to be hired. I convinced them that I was like Jesus, that I could walk on water. Even though I had no experience, I had commitment and dedication. Long story short, I got the job.

The director of the Urban Renewal Program was looking for a deputy director, and they wanted the deputy director to be a person of color because the greatest impact of the Urban Renewal Program and I-95 would be on black people who lived in Overtown.

James Whitehead, then CEO of the Miami Urban League, got the job and left. They were getting ready to start a search for a new CEO when the board heard that Whitney Young Jr., the executive director of the National Urban League, was planning on filling the vacancy in Miami with one of his friends.

As a result, the board became upset. Before they let someone else pick the new CEO, they were willing to give it to a young, inexperienced man.

They said, “You want this job?’’ I said, “If you all want me to have it, I’ll take it.’’

I became the youngest president and CEO in the history of the Urban League movement at age 24. I didn’t know anything about running anything. I knew everything about being aggressive about the things that I believed in.

Our role was to begin to do the things to make life better for black people in spite of the circumstances. In 1963, we started with a staff of three people. In less than a decade, we became the largest Urban League affiliate in the history of the movement in terms of employees. We had 476 full-time employees, plus 25 part-timers and four consultants.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a formula. In whatever city he’d visit, he’d identify the top black lawyer, the top black preacher and the top black activist in that city. When he came to have his first meeting in Miami at Mount Sinai Baptist Church, I was chosen as the activist. I got a chance to meet Martin and I’ll never forget it.

I was the Muhammad Ali of black Dade County and I was talking the talk. I was talking back to white folk, sassing white folk. I couldn’t wait to get to the conference in Louisville, Ky., just step out and say, “Yeah, I’m here! Ol’ bad T. Willard.’’

While I was writing my decade of progress report, it said the Urban League of Greater Miami was doing great but its constituency was not. I realized then that we’re not here to do great for ourselves. We’re here for the people who we’re supposed to serve.

We came up with a leadership Miami component. We began to look at identifying persons to place them on boards. We identified more than 400 young black people. They came through our leadership training classes and we placed them throughout this community. We integrated every workforce in Dade County.

If you were black, you could not work east of Biscayne Boulevard. That was the unwritten code. We changed that. We ran the open occupancy law. We drafted that law and got it passed.

The next step was clearly a step that my parents understood, education. I know today that the only thing that is broken in my community is the will to achieve.

We decided to make the league self-sufficient. Now we can say what we want to say, do what we want do, be who we want to be without the support of other folks. We’re the largest developer of housing in Liberty City, second only to the city of Miami.

We have the freedom to be as aggressive as we want to be in helping change the system. Martin said, ‘Free at last, free at last.’

Well, we’re free, we’re free.

This story was compiled by HistoryMiami intern Lisann Ramos, as recounted by T. Willard Fair

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