The sound of island music with a steady calypso beat played during the 10th reunion of one of Coconut Grove’s oldest black families. Young and old, the descendants of pioneer settler Ebenezer Woodbury Franklin Stirrup Sr. came from far and near to celebrate his life.
Born on Harbour Island in the Bahamas, Stirrup (1873-1957) immigrated to Key West in 1888 at age 15 and worked as a carpenter’s apprentice. Returning to the Bahamas, he married his childhood sweetheart, Charlotte Jane Sawyer. A decade later they settled south of the Miami River in the Cutler Bay area before moving to Coconut Grove, where he built the family homestead on Charles Avenue.
The Stirrups had 10 children, six of whom survived into adulthood: Kate Biscayne Dean, born in Cutler; and five born in Coconut Grove, Lllian Maude Mazon, E.W.F. Stirrup Jr., Louise Beatrix Davis, Ralph, and Grace Elizabeth Whitlow.
The turn of the 20th century was the Jim Crow Era. It was a very difficult time of harsh treatment with limited sources and services for black people. Back then, white people were separated from black people by custom and law, a practice that was expected and accepted in every phase of life.
In spite of the limitations, E.W.F. Stirrup Sr. succeeded. With no formal education, he could not read or write his name. A laborer in South Dade’s pineapple fields during the day, he cleared the land during the night. Sometimes he was paid with deeds to land parcels instead of cash.
An entrepreneur, Stirrup used his earnings to buy property from white pioneer John Frow. During his lifetime, Stirrup constructed more than 100 homes, providing an opportunity for newly arriving Bahamians to own their own homes. As he transitioned from an immigrant laborer to a millionaire Coconut Grove property owner, Stirrup Sr. expressed pride in being his own boss, helping his people, and making money. In addition to vast land holdings, he owned numerous businesses.
The confirmation of his becoming one of the largest landholders in Coconut Grove is cited in the 2004 E.W.F. Stirrup House City of Miami Designation Report, 2010 publication “Linkages & Legacies: Historical Profiles Depicting Notable Greater Miami, Florida, Pioneers of African Descent,” and on the Stirrup Family Legacy website, www.stirrupfamilylegacy.org/ewf-stirrup.
Several sources state that Stirrup owned a dry goods store in partnership with William Burdine, a white Miami retailer and founder of the old Burdines department store chain. In later years, Macy’s absorbed most of the Burdines stores. Throughout the family reunion week, June 14-18, Stirrup’s partnership with Burdine and some lost business transactions were among the topics the family discussed.
The oldest family member in attendance was Dazelle Dean Simpson, daughter of Kate Stirrup Dean. Simpson, a third-generation Stirrup and retired medical doctor, recalled her maternal grandfather, “Grandpa Stirrup,” as her hero and role model. With his encouragement, she earned a medical degree and specialized in pediatrics. “And just like Grandpa I helped a lot of people and was my own boss,” Simpson said.
Simpson’s many accomplishments include being the first black board-certified pediatrician in Florida, the first black president of the Greater Miami Pediatric Society, the highest recogniton by the NAACP, Meharry Medical College, and the Family Christian Association of America.
Over time, the Stirrup children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have demonstrated that they are productive citizens. In pursuit of advanced degrees, challenging careers, and starting their own families, some relocated to other communities. They traveled back to their hometown from Birmingham, Alabama; Atlanta; the Bay Area in California; Tallahassee; Las Vegas; Houston,; Mitchellville, Maryland; Indianapolis; and Dallas.
Their careers include a construction worker, entrepreneurs, correction officer, engineers, medical doctors, pharmacists, claims adjudicator, mental health worker, marketing and public relations consultants, a college administrator, directors of the second-generation nonprofits, teachers, librarian, college professors, and an architect.
The idea of a family reunion every other year began with third-generation cousins Norma Townsend (daughter of E.W.F. Stirrup Jr.) and Lewellyn Sidney Whitlow Jr. (son of Grace Stirrup Whitlow) when both lived in Birmingham, Alabama. The first reunion was held in Las Vegas. Other reunions followed in Santa Barbara, California; Miami; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; Nassau, Bahamas; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Hilton Head, South Carolina; and Dallas.
This year’s reunion in Coconut Grove was organized and coordinated by sisters Iral Davis Porter and Carol Davis Henley Byrd (daughters of Louise Stirrup Davis and Dr. Ira P. Davis); and Barbara Stirrup, their cousin-in-law (wife of E.W.F. Stirrup III).
The itinerary included a bus trip to Key West and sites in Miami’s Overtown where Stirrup Sr. once owned considerable property.
In Overtown, the family had lunch at Jackson’s Soul Food Restaurant, visited the Black Archives Historic Lyric Theater Cultural Arts Complex, and toured the Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum. At the police museum, it is noted that Dr. Ira Davis, a dentist and civil rights activist, was instrumental in the appointment of the Miami’s first black patrolmen/policemen.
Returning to “The Grove,” the reunion itinerary included a family meeting and visit to the old homestead, The Stirrup House on Charles Avenue. According to granddaughter Carol Henley Byrd, “ the family also got to meet with the contractor who is rehabilitating the original family home in Coconut Grove. We toured the inside to see firsthand the changes made for adaptive reuse in preparation of it becoming a bed and breakfast.”
The week’s activities ended with a banquet and church service at Christ Episcopal Church. The closing affair, “A Bahamian Experience,” began with a reception featuring historical exhibits of Coconut Grove courtesy of Leona Cooper and the Stirrup family.
Profiles of the second-generation were read by cousins of the fifth and sixth generations: Calieb Simpson, Erin and Colin Townsend, Alana Jefferson, Cameron, Kennedy and Braedon Franklin. The invocation was given by Father Jonathan G.A. Archer. Sisters Ailayna and Alexis Gaffney of the fifth generation presented interpretive dances.
The next Stirrup reunion will be in Las Vegas in 2019.
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.