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Hialeah

A historic slice of Hialeah

 

Seminola, whose roots date to the early days of the city’s founding, has a special place in South Florida’s black history

pbuteau@MiamiHerald.com

When she was a small child, Altheria Harris-Ebohon remembers hearing her neighbor describe how she rode in a horse-drawn carriage and traveled past three Seminole teepees on her way to church with her family.

It was the 1920s and her neighbor, Annie Clara Styles-Capers, now 101, lived in a neighborhood called Seminola, just west of the Hialeah Race Track in what is present-day Hialeah.

“Miss Annie came here in the ‘20s and told me that she used to ride past alligators and snakes on her way from Seminola to Milander’s Meat Market down by City Hall,” said Harris-Ebohon, 65, a former middle school teacher in Miami-Dade County.

Back then, there were no paved roads in the predominantly black neighborhood: “The roads here were all gravel except for a little strip we had to walk to school on.” Sidewalks, she said, were built in the ‘50s.

Today’s Seminola is just a fraction of its original size, or about 20 blocks, sandwiched between two industrial areas, just west of Red Road and north of West 21st Street. About 2,000 people live there now.

But the neighborhood has a special history in Miami-Dade County.

Around 1920, Chief Willie Willie headed a Seminole Indian village on land that would become Seminola. Two pioneers — aviator Glenn H. Curtiss and cattle rancher James H. Bright — started buying swampland to develop what would become Hialeah. (They also developed Miami Springs.)

In 1924, Bright, whose home has been designated historic by Hialeah, donated a chunk of land, from Palm Avenue to West Eighth Avenue, so that black laborers building Hialeah Park racetrack and area ranches could live nearby. Curtis and Bright built the racetrack, which opened in 1925.

“Seminola is unique as one of the first black communities in what had been, until recently, Everglades swampland," said Dr. Paul George, a history professor at Miami Dade College. “Indeed, Hialeah was the first municipality carved from swampland in Dade County.’’

Locals have since referred to the neighborhood as Seminola, based on the relationship between the Seminoles and blacks who fled slavery and were welcomed by the Seminoles, according to Harris-Ebohon, who heard the stories from her 101-year-old neighbor.

Harris-Ebohon recalls her childhood fondly.

“We all shopped at the Goodman grocery store because they had everything,” she said. “We also had the best restaurants with real soul food and what people around here wanted to eat.”

She can still remember the smoke signals sent from one of her favorite eateries, Miss Jesse Hill’s “Bar-B-Que.”

“Oh yes, she would smoke ‘em out,” she said. “I could pull a bone right out of those ribs, she cooked ‘em so tender.”

Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernández acknowledged the work the early residents did.

“African Americans made that city,” Hernández said. “It’s a proud and tight community and it is a rich historical part of our city.”

Harris-Ebohon described Seminola as a family-oriented community that maintained its rural roots and old-school values.

“Any parent could come at you with a switch for acting foolish,” said Harris-Ebohon. “And when you got home, you would get another one.”

Neighbors trusted each other to keep their homes safe.

“It was grand, you could leave your door open,” said Harris-Ebohon as she poured through aged photos and historical documents about her family’s history in Seminola.

The black community also stayed up on then-current issues, she said, like World War II, the housing boom and the civil rights movement.

"We saw education as a way to move on up in the world," said Harris-Ebohon, who went on to become a Miami-Dade County middle school teacher for 37 years. “The youth today aren't as serious as we were back in the day.’’

Today, Harris-Ebohon said many of her neighbors have moved out or passed away. During the 1970s, while Harris-Ebohon was still in college, Seminola was roughly 50 percent black, down from nearly twice those levels in the 1920s.

“It was all black then, most came from Alabama for a better life,” Harris-Ebohon said.

A few key parts of the neighborhood remain: Three historically black churches, about 300 apartments, a few stores and a park named after Johnny Cotson, who worked with Seminola youth and encouraged many to go onto college.

Its history of racial divide may have actually helped preserve the neighborhood, historians say. Unlike the rest of Hialeah, which uses a street numbering system, Seminola’s street names were unique: Prairie, Orange and Tigertail avenues, among them.

A neighborhood history, written in 1971, indicates that both physical and racial barriers saved Seminola from being completely absorbed by the surrounding industrial district and its factories.

“The strong community spirit formed over the years, first through the segregation policies of the area and later through local pride and ties of familiarity in the neighborhood, has caused the people to resist the changing nature of the area,” according to a document archived at the John F. Kennedy Library in Hialeah.

“We never really saw a race problem out here,’’ Harris-Ebohon told The Herald in 2007. “People complain all over this USA about race relations and how we were treated, but for us, we were treated very well.’’

The Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida and the John F. Kennedy Library, in Hialeah, contributed to the research of this article.

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