This year James and Ruth Copeland started early in giving thanks for family, friends and community accomplishments. In a recent interview, the couple, living in Miami for more than 64 years, also talked about their early childhood Thanksgiving memories.
One of nine children, James was born and grew up on a farm in the colored section of Slocomb, Alabama, near Dothan, about 20 miles north of Florida. Holidays were spent with grandparents and generations of family members and friends. Thanksgiving, in particular, was a time for games and enjoying home-cooked meals.
Ruth, one of four daughters born to Bahamian parents, began life on Avenue G (now Northwest Second Avenue) in Miami’s Colored Town, now known as Overtown. At that time the boundaries for Colored Town were Northwest Sixth Street to 11th Terrace). At the home of her father’s mother, the family enjoyed the traditional Thanksgiving meal in a festive environment.
James and Ruth met in Alabama at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). Relatives attending Tuskegee influenced him to attend college. She followed her oldest sister Dorothea, a 1947 Tuskegee nursing school graduate. James and Ruth met when a call from the girls’ dormitory requested an electrician to repair a broken steam iron. James answered the call, repaired the iron, and after meeting Ruth, “wanted to make her acquaintance.” They were married several years later.
His interest in becoming an electrician was sparked in high school. James worked with the staff electrician to make repairs in a classroom that burned. As a result, he majored in science and graduated from Tuskegee with a degree in applied electricity. He also served in World War II. Ruth studied home economics in high school and in college. She earned a degree in elementary education at Florida A&M University and later studied at Nova Southeastern and Barry universities.
James and Ruth Copeland were married in Miami on Aug. 27, 1950, at St. Mary’s Wesleyan Methodist Church in Overtown. It was a formal ceremony. Relatives and well-wishers from Alabama and the Bahamas joined locals to salute one of the community’s largest bridal parties — 25 people, including the ring bearer.
Family and friends were as important to the newlyweds as were their careers. She became a substitute teacher and later established a private school in Liberty City, called Centervilla, for children in kindergarten through third grade. It opened in 1965 and continued until her 1999 retirement.
My interview created a time for reflection. James recalled starting his first job in 1950 with Carey Electric, a black-owned company. At that time, black people were not allowed to work in white neighborhoods. There were no black licensed electricians since blacks were not permitted to take the qualifying examination.
“One day while working on Northwest 65th Street and 21st Avenue, the white property owner said the inspector visited after finding out that black electricians were working in a white area,’’ Copeland recalled. “When the property owner told the inspector we were not black, we were Puerto Rican, the work was accepted.”
Later, Copeland contacted local black leaders, including Father Theodore Gibson, Earl Carroll, and Rev. Edward T. Graham. They suggested the black electricians unite and hire a lawyer to go to court. The plan was to force the city and county to allow blacks to take the examination to become licensed electricians. Black electricians wanted to carry out the work they were trained to do and make a living to support their families.
The black electricians won the case, an accomplishment for the community. In 1956 Copeland passed the electrical construction examination and was able to apply for permits. He opened his business and the first home he wired was that of black businessman Benny O’Berry. Copeland Electric and Centervilla Kindergarten were located in the same building on Northwest 58th Street and 17th Avenue. Both businesses began to flourish.
Another accomplishment occurred three years later when the electricians formed the minority contractors organization. The electricians included James Copeland, Andrew Carey, O. C. Goodman, Doc Coleman, Willie Stallworth and J. B. Smith. They were finally allowed to work countywide.
To Copeland, the crowning achievement for black electricians came in 2006 when Richard Way Jr. was promoted to chief electrical inspector for the city of Miami. A native Miamian, Way attended Northwestern Senior High before joining the Job Corps in Simpsonville, Kentucky. There he received his first training in applied electricity. Upon returning to Miami, Way started working as an apprentice under Copeland and earned an electrical contractor master’s license at age 23.
Collectively, Ruth and James Copeland are thankful “for life in general.” They have one daughter, Myrna Copeland, a high school psychologist in Virginia, and two grandchildren, Dr. Zakiya Mudiwa, a veterinarian in Illinois, and Jabari Mudiwa, a car salesman.
When they gather at the Thanksgiving table, the Copelands will give thanks for family, friends and community achievement. They will celebrate the holiday with Ruth’s sisters, Cleora Brooks and Mary Louise Walton, and nephew David Floyd. James is a pioneer deacon at Mount Tabor Missionary Baptist Church and Ruth is a pioneer Sunday School teacher at the church. They surely will be remembered for the families they have helped.
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.