Celebrating the New Year, traveling from Miami to their ancestral home in the Bahamas, is a tradition of the Poitier family. They attend Midnight Mass, share family meals and stories, and party on Bay Street in the Junkanoo celebration in Nassau.
A star example is the celebrated thespian Sidney Poitier, the first black person to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. In the 1940s, Sidney and his brother, Cyril, came to Miami from Cat Island for a couple of months and lived Overtown with their great-aunt, Ida Celeste Poitier.
This year, in addition to bringing in 2017, the family can also celebrate the public acknowledgment and high praise of two family members, both native Miamians: Bernadette Poitier and her niece, Joni Poitier.
Over time, Bernadette has received recognition and numerous awards for service to her church and the community. On Nov. 19, the Office of Black Catholic Ministry of the Archdiocese of Miami presented her with the Saint Martin de Porres Award for Excellence.
During the 1990s, she worked closely with Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Overtown. Miami’s first Charter Grand Lady for the Knights and Ladies of St Peter Claver, Mother Katherine Drexel Court#288, Bernadette is presently Grand Lady of the Court and also serves as area director for the Gulf Coast District.
Recognized Alumnae of the Year by The South Florida Chapter of the National Alumnae Association of Spelman College, she is a Golden Life Member of the Miami-Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and was recently appointed chair of Health and Human Services Facet, the Miami-Dade County Chapter of the Links.
A career administrator with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Bernadette was administrative assistant to School Board member William H. “Bill” Turner and later executive director in the Office of the Superintendent of Schools. She retired from the district in May. Her community service continues and she opened a consulting firm.
Following in her Aunt Bernadette’s footsteps as a high achiever, Joni, now lives in Jacksonville. An attorney with Moseley Prichard Parrish Knight & Jones law firm, she was recognized in August by the American Bar Association as one of the top young lawyers in the country. According to an article in the Financial News & Daily Record, she was named by the ABA as an “On the Rise” Top 40 young lawyer, one of three in Florida and the only one in Jacksonville to earn the honor. Those recognized for this national honor exemplify a broad range of high achievement, innovation, vision, leadership and legal community service.
In response to my questions about motivation, Joni reminisced about her desire to study law. She recalled being inspired in fifth grade by a former U.S. prosecutor’s visit to Miami’s Pinecrest Elementary School. He talked to her class about making the streets safer for Miami-Dade residents. She remembered what her father always said, “We are on this earth to serve.” After hearing about the prosecutor’s work and his community service, she decided on a law career.
A 1998 graduate of Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove, she earned also Bachelor’s Degree at Spelman College before graduating from Vanderbilt Law School. Her first legal job was in the State Attorney’s Office. Currently, her work is focused on civil defense for corporations along with maritime legal work.
In addition to her legal career, Joni is active in the community. Busy at St. Pius V Catholic Church, she also volunteers with the Women’s Board of Wolfson Children’s Hospital and serves on the board of directors for Family Foundation of Northeast Florida. Recently, she was appointed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott to the Florida Elections Commission and recognized by the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women in Jacksonville for her contributions to the community.
A member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and the National Alumnae Association of Spelman College, Joni mentors students through the Jacksonville Public Education Fund and the Jacksonville Bar Association Young Lawyer Section Ribault Mentoring Program. She also mentors students at Edward Waters College. Following in the steps of previous family entrepreneurs (her grandfather and father owned several business), she recently started an event planning business venture.
Bernadette and Joni built their careers and community service on the foundation laid by their fraternal fore parents James and Olive Jarrett Poitier, Bahamian immigrants from Cat Island and Nassau, respectively. Because job prospects and working opportunities were limited in Nassau, their ancestors immigrated from the Bahamas around 1915 settling in Miami’s Colored Town/Overtown.
They rented a house at 324 NW 17th St. and saved enough to purchase a home at 2177 NW Sixth Pl. This home, located in front of the wooden wall that separated the black community from the white community, is where they raised four children: Verna Poitier (Braxton), Joseph Poitier Sr., James W. Poitier, Jr. and Frederick Poitier.
Bernadette and her brother, Joseph Jr., are the children of Joseph Sr. and Josephine (Eve) Spicer Poitier. Their father, a pharmacist, was the co-owner of Economy Drug Stores & 2, Community Drug Store and Cinderella Pharmacy. Their mother was a Miami-Dade County Public School educator for 47 years. Her family, the Eves, immigrated from Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic, in the 1920s and also settled in Miami’s Colored Town/Overtown.
Joni is the daughter of Joseph Jr. and Arleen Lofton Poitier. Joni’s father, a graduate of the University of Miami School Medicine, is a psychiatrist. Her mother is a retired pharmacist, who was born in Daytona Beach and raised in Lake City, Florida.
Their other daughter, Alexandria, attended Miami schools and was was a member of Jack and Jill of America. In 2014 after graduating from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Alexandria volunteered in Surat, India with Doctors Without Borders. Currently, a Research Coordinator in the STEM Translational Communication Center at the University of Florida.
Alexandria represents the next generation of Poitiers and Loftons preparing to make their contributions. Younger cousins, including David and Stephen Johnson, Jada Simmons, and Michael Smith Jr. are valuing education by developing careers and building on failures. Joni’s advice to them: faith, family and engaging in something you love doing are important keys to success.
Another cousin on the Eve side, Vennda Rei Gibson, social columnist for the Miami Times, continues to host family gatherings, serving the traditional Bahamian Brunch for birthdays, Christmas, New Year and Boxing Day, sharing family traditions and successes throughout the year.
Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.