For several decades, the last week in December was filled with fun and excitement at Miami’s Liberty City Square Housing Project. Today’s column highlights first- hand accounts from pioneer residents sharing holiday traditions and thoughts about the future of their beloved public housing project, Liberty Square.
Pioneer Gladys Jones Lynch recalls, “when we were growing up, the city blocked off 63rd Street for us to roller skate all day long with neighbors and children visiting from other ‘Negro’ neighborhoods. ”
Born in 1935, Lynch’s family moved from Colored Town/Overtown to Liberty City and settled in Liberty Square, affectionately called “the Projects.” It was 1939 and she was 4 years old. She remembers the original home as a small, cramped three-room shanty in Overtown. Liberty Square was the low-cost federal public housing development built on the outskirts — the suburbs of Overtown.
The boundaries in the city of Miami: Northwest 12th Avenue on the east; Northwest 67th Street, north; Northwest 15th Avenue, west; and Northwest 62nd Street, south.
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Delighted to be in the far-away area some called “the sticks,” Jones Lynch, her mother, father, sister and two brothers were comfortable in their new home. It had three bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and living room, with all of the modern facilities including electricity, gas range and refrigerator. Their apartment was located in a clean complex with grass in every yard.
Equal to the new physical setting were the traditions celebrated by the Liberty Square residents throughout the year. For her, Christmastime was the most memorable. “Every Christmas morning we got up early and dressed for skating. The girls wore blue jeans and the boys coveralls with red plaid handkerchiefs,” she recalled. “Dorsey was the only high school in the area at that time and we welcomed Booker T. Washington, Carver and Mays students to join us. We skated all day each wearing a pair of No. 5 Union skates.”
Another tradition at Christmastime and other holidays were the programs at Liberty Square Project Community Center put on by the teachers of Liberty City Elementary School. Earlier, there was no school auditorium and Liberty City Elementary was located in portable classrooms where Charles R. Drew Elementary School now stands on Northwest 17th Avenue and 60th Street.
Their family was required to move from Liberty Square in 1953 when the father’s income exceeded the maximum allowed for public-housing residents. He was a gardener. They moved to a single-family house in Liberty City.
A year before, Edna Devoe and her son Rodney moved into “the Projects.” In a recent conversation, she reflected on her experiences from 1952 to 1972: “Then Liberty City was quiet and peaceful. There were beautiful lawns and flowers with rose bushes all around and the streets were clean. Most importantly, we did not lock our doors because there was very little crime. When something happened, everyone who knew about it said something. Families looked out for each other. There was a strong sense of community.” Her son participated annually in the Christmas roller-skating tradition.
Now 92, Devoe speaks directly about living in federal public housing: “As was expected in those days, when the family income increased, we moved out and bought a home. For us that was progress: giving another family the chance to move in, earn money, save, build credit and eventually buy their own home. … That’s the American dream!”
Delores “Jackie” Rawls was born and grew up in Liberty Square, where she lived with her grandmother, mother, and sister. A 1959 graduate of Miami Northwestern Senior High School, she said that living in “the Projects” gave their family a “jump start.” By the time she was in high school, the Christmas skating tradition attracted such a large crowd that 65th Street became the main venue. She believes that such events at Liberty Square helped unify the black community.
Phillip Walker’s family moved into “the Projects” in 1947 and Hattie Williams’ family moved in the following year. When the two married in 1965, Phillip and Hattie moved out into a single-family Liberty City residence. They recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
Nearly five years ago, after meeting at the funerals of numerous former residents, they decided to put their retirement resources to good use. The Walkers organized Liberty Square Project Family and Friends. A volunteer organization, they annually provide scholarships to Northwestern students who live in Liberty Square. They are also working to retain the name of Liberty Square Housing Project and the historic recognition of the Community Center.
From the 1940s until the 1970s, the annual Christmas skating tradition attracted black youth from neighborhoods throughout Dade County to a central location, Liberty Square. With no social media available, it was by word of mouth they came from Bunche Park, Opa-locka, Overtown, Railroad Shop, Brownsub, Coconut Grove, Goulds, Perrine, Homestead and Florida City. Phillip Walker recalls, “ there were few fights. Rivals in sports we were friends during the holiday season and we created lifelong memories.”
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.