Black in Time

Urban League leader has been a force for civil rights, housing in Miami’s black neighborhoods

 
 
T. Willard Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami.
T. Willard Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami.
C.W. Griffin / Miami Herald Staff

Special to The Miami Herald

While sitting in the office at the Urban League of Greater Miami waiting to interview its president and CEO, Talmadge Willard Fair, I watched the busy receptionist answering the phone and assisting visitors. All of the inquiries were for housing. The two walk-ins were young black women. Each had a lap baby and a knee baby. While they received registration information, I went in for the interview.

Fair’s office, filled with photographs, plaques and trophies representing his 50 years of struggle and achievement, also contains oversized charts and posters outlining future strategies. At age 74, he has no plans to retire.

With confidence he speaks of his organization’s vision: “for every child born in Liberty City to grow up healthy, happy and successful.” He believes that the only deterrent is his people’s will to achieve. Hopefully, decades from now, when Liberty City’s lap and knee babies are the parents and community leaders, the results of the vision will be realized. For the present, Fair has taken charge of improving life for residents in Liberty City.

The Urban League of Greater Miami is one of over 100 affiliates in the National Urban League. Established in 1910, the National Urban League, a nonpartisan civil rights organization based in New York City, advocates on behalf of African Americans and against racial discrimination. The Miami affiliate started in 1943, working to improve the lives of black people in civil rights, education and economic self-sufficiency. Over time there were several directors.

For a while in 1963, Miami’s Urban League was without a director. By his own admission, Fair was hired by default. He said, “the board was willing to give the position to a young inexperienced man rather that have an outsider appoint someone.” A newcomer to the Urban League and to Miami, he hit the ground running and never stopped. “I didn’t know anything about running anything. I knew everything about being aggressive about the things that I believed in.” At age 24 he became the youngest Urban League president in the history of the national organization.

In 1968, Fair assembled a team to register voters for the November presidential election. Their efforts resulted in a record 1,000 black voters registered per week, through the “Vote Baby, Vote” campaign. Several years later the Greater Miami Urban League’s focus expanded to include housing. During the 1970s the League initiated housing advocacy and construction projects such as the first One-Stop Housing Opportunity in South Florida, the first turn-key public housing project built in Miami’s Central Negro District (Overtown), and the first home ownership programs operated for blacks in Miami-Dade County. He also convened an Inter-Agency Task Force to develop an extensive list of available housing for those persons who had move from the Central Negro District due to the construction of Intestate 195 and urban renewal.

Grassroots interest in providing housing for the masses is not new in Miami-Dade County. At the turn of the twentieth century, decades before Miami’s Urban League was established, several black men were concerned with housing for black laborers and their families.

Pioneer entrepreneurs E.W.F. Stirrup and D.A. Dorsey come to mind. Stirrup, a black Bahamian who relocated his family to Coconut Grove, believed that homeowners were better citizens. One of the largest land owners in the area, he built more than 100 houses in Coconut Grove, providing many newly arrived black Bahamian laborers with the opportunity to purchase their first homes. Further north, adjacent to downtown Miami in the Central Negro District, D. A. Dorsey, originally from Georgia, worked as a carpenter for Henry Flagler, the white industrialist. While working for Flagler, Dorsey bought property, built houses and rented them to black laborers. He amassed so much land some pioneers referred to him, “the black Flagler.” In 1915 he bought the area now known as Fisher Island as a resort, to build a hotel and bathing pavilion. During the era of Jim Crow, by custom and law, black people were prohibited from sharing accommodations with white people.

Now, in the 21st century, although customs and laws have changed for the better, housing remains an issue for many people. Miami’s Urban League, the first affiliate in affordable housing, is a national model. In addition to new construction the Miami affiliate revamped abandoned buildings into affordable homes and developed the first Housing Counseling Agency certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the area.

Critics may see him as aggressive, stubborn and over-confident. Fair defines himself as a social entrepreneur prepared to continue the holistic approach of servicing the target population recognizing the critical need for education, employment and equitable affordable housing. He remains skillful in using various strategic partnerships to succeed in this challenging real estate environment. Over 13 housing projects have been developed, 1,500 units of affordable units created, and 1,200 units are in various stages of development, greatly enhancing the lives of the target population, low- and moderate-income families. Protecting Liberty City’s present and future generations keeps him in charge.

Through the stewardship and entrepreneurial spirit of T. Willard Fair, a diverse board of directors, executive management team and professional staff, the Urban League of Greater Miami has created a real estate arm, New Urban Development, evolving from being local and community-based to a nationally respected organization in community and economic development. Fair takes pride in boasting that the Urban League of Greater Miami is self-sufficient.

“Now we can say what we want to say, do what we want to do, be who we want to be without the support of other folks,” he said. “We’re the largest developer of housing in Liberty City, second only to the city of Miami.”

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to djf@bellsouth.net.

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