Frankie Shannon Rolle, 89

Educator, 'Coconut Grove matriarch' and activist Frankie Rolle dies at 89

 
 
Frankie Shannon Rolle, Coconut Grove activist and educator, died at 89.
Frankie Shannon Rolle, Coconut Grove activist and educator, died at 89.

hcohen@MiamiHerald.com

Frankie Shannon Rolle turned Coconut Grove into a real-life Cheers.

The old TV sitcom’s theme song touted the fictional bar’s reputation for drawing people together, “where everybody knows your name.”

That was Rolle’s gift to the community and to the generations of children she guided since moving to Miami in 1946 after graduation from Florida A&M University in Tallahassee with a bachelor’s degree in physical education.

Rolle, 89, died Monday and family and friends remember a selfless woman.

“She was like the matriarch of this community,” said Barbara Jordan, who served with Rolle on the board of the Helen B. Bentley Community Health Center in Coconut Grove.

“Whatever there was that needed to be done, Frankie would step in and do her share. She was like a mother to many people,” Jordan said. “You would be surprised at the number of people she helped with getting an education.”

When Rolle retired from George Washington Carver Middle School in 1987 after a 42-year career, the school’s gymnasium was named in her honor. In 1984, as part of Carver’s 60-year anniversary, a Frankie S. Rolle Scholarship Award was established for students who overcame obstacles.

The Miami-Dade County Social Services Building in Coconut Grove was renamed the Frankie Shannon Rolle Neighborhood Center.

The Bahamas Goombay Festival in Coconut Grove also came to life thanks to the efforts of Rolle and her late husband, jazz musician Billy Rolle, and a group of merchants from Grand Avenue and the Bahamas Tourist Office in the mid-1970s.

“People don’t realize the importance of Bahamian culture in this town,” Rolle said of the festival during its 23rd run in 1999. “These settlers came in the [1880s] and built up much of the Grove. Some of those buildings are still standing. Their descendants still make up a lot of the Grove today.”

But buildings and festivals and honors only tell part of Rolle’s story.

“People you talk to will say ‘Billy and Frankie’ because that was the team and that team effort could make a difference in many lives all over Miami-Dade County. And they never stopped,” said Henry Givens, former director of the Coconut Grove Economic Development Center.

“On their dying bed they were still trying to do something to help young folks in this community. We have Goombay and a lot of that is through their hard work and Frankie was tireless. We are a better community because she walked this way and I have nothing but great joy that I knew her.”

Givens, 73, recalls the first time he met Rolle. He was a student at Mays Community Middle School. Rolle, a physical education teacher and counselor at Carver, reached out to the young man from the neighboring school.

“I shall never forget Frankie taking me aside and telling me what side my bread was buttered on,” he said. “She was very good with kids. She knew how to engage them in activities but knew how to make sure they stayed in their place. Some of her teachings are with me to this very day.”

Rolle’s daughter, Melodie Rolle-Mitchell, can attest to what Givens says because she remembers sharing the family home with students from all over the county when she was growing up with siblings Billy Rolle Jr., Zachary, and Jeanette.

“When she was at Carver for 42 years, during segregation and integration, we had a house that was always crowded,” Rolle-Mitchell said.

There was a place to sleep, food on the table, and everybody prayed together.

“A lot of kids had to come from schools in Homestead and Goulds and Florida City and instead of having them go home late during segregation she allowed them to live with us. She always gave her heart. She was a beautiful person.”

Born in Jacksonville, the oldest of four daughters, Rolle captained FAMU’s undefeated 1943 basketball team and became only the fourth woman inducted into FAMU’s sports Hall of Fame in 1979. She earned her master’s in guidance counseling and school administration at Indiana University.

She met her husband in Overtown where he played jazz in the neighborhood’s hot spots and the two were married for 46 years until his death at age 70 in 1998.

Through the years, Rolle was a member of the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority, the Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce Advisory Board, and the Black Archives Board of South Florida. When Grand Avenue and Liberty City erupted during the May 1980 McDuffie riots, Rolle was on the intersection of Grand and Douglas urging calm. She knew everyone. They knew her.

Range Funeral Home manager Steve Trice, a family friend, calls Rolle “an icon of Coconut Grove. She was a trailblazer who believed in justice and equal rights.”

Givens chuckles when he recalls the Rolles’ style back in 1950s Miami. “Frankie and Billy had this green and white Buick Special; four-door. You were happy when they gave you a ride because you wanted to be seen in that car.”

In addition to her four children and 22 grandchildren, Rolle is survived by her sister, Sophia White, of Jacksonville. There will be a litany service at 5 p.m. Sunday at Christ Episcopal Church, 3481 Hibiscus St., Coconut Grove. The funeral will be at noon Monday at the church.

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