On July 28, 1896 — 120 years ago — the City of Miami was incorporated. As part of that process, the state of Florida required the city to have more than 300 registered voters. Of those, about one third were black male laborers. (Women did not get the right to vote until 1920 when the 19th Amendment was passed.)
Without the votes of the black laborers, Miami would not have become a city on that date.
Mostly immigrants from the Bahamas and migrants from Southern states, black laborers were the primary workforce that built Miami-Dade County in the first half of the 20th century. With physical strength, stamina, and sweat of their brows, black laborers cleared the wilderness to lay the rails, created the streets and sidewalks, and built and landscaped residences, hotels and other structures.
Some black male laborers were known as stevedores, dockworkers, and longshoremen. They loaded and unloaded cargo ships from all over the world. They also handled cruise ships with a quick turnaround time, helping lay the foundation for Miami’s seaport industry. Indeed, the Port of Miami is known today as the “Cruise Capital of the World and the Cargo Gateway of the Americas.”
In 1936, 40 years after the city’s incorporation, Judge Henderson (Judge was his first name) led Miami’s black laborers to charter the International Longshoremen’s Association, AFL-CIO, Local 1416. A native of Albany, Georgia, Henderson relocated to Miami in his early 20s. He served for 29 years and also held a national office. (Henderson also was the brother-in-law of Garth C. Reeves Sr., publisher emeritus of the Miami Times newspaper.)
In 1956, Henderson was elected international vice president of the Association with jurisdiction from Portland, Maine, to Brownsville, Texas. Locally, his memberships also included the Christian Hospital Board of Trustees and president of the Negro Citizens’ Service League.
After Henderson’s death, Cleveland Turner was elected Local 1416’s president, followed by Clarence Pittman Jr.
A native Miamian, Pittman was president for more than 31 years. He was a graduate of Miami’s Booker T. Washington Jr./Sr. High School and Central State University, an HBCU (Historically Black College) located in Wilberforce, Ohio.
Pittman held several national positions, including vice president of the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast District; executive representative of the International Longshoremen’s Association; member, South Florida AFL-CIO; and member of the South Eastern Dock and Marine Council.
When Pittman died in 2013, then Local 1416 vice president Jakelin Chapman Sr. served in the interim until last year’s election, when Ellis Canty Sr. was elected president.
Canty, former Recording Secretary/Assistant Business Agent, now leads a labor force membership of more than 600 with additional 600-plus day workers responsible for loading and unloading vessels and cruise ships at PortMiami. Born in Baltimore, he started working on the dock while a student at Florida A&M University, an HBCU.
“Despite today’s advanced technology, the shipping industry continues to rely on day laborers to keep the vessels of the world stocked and sailing,” Canty said. “In addition, in our 80 years we have and continue to exemplify dedication, love and concern for the people affiliated with the union and the community.”
On Tuesday, Aug. 9, an 80th anniversary celebration is planned. Lovette McGill and Larry McNight are co-chairs of the festivities, which will include a day of fun, food, and music featuring performances by several community youth groups and well-known gospel and R&B entertainers.
Open to the public, the event will take place on the Ninth Street Pedestrian Mall, adjacent to the Historic Lyric Theater in Overtown on Northwest Ninth Street and Second Avenue, across the street from the ILA union hall.
The highlight of the celebration will be the Fall School Supply Drive for youth living in Overtown and adjacent neighborhoods. To date, donations have been received from the Children’s Trust, Beverly Crawford of State Farm Insurance Co. Cathy Jones, Attorney Neil Flaxman and members of ILA Local 1922.
The distribution of school supplies continues the legacy of supporting the community established by Local 1416’s past presidents.
Local 1416 also participated recently in Global Day of Action, which recognized its role in supplying day laborers to Port of Miami. In 2015, the port processed 4.9 million multi-day passengers — more than any other port in the world. On July 7, Local 1416 joined millions of dockworkers worldwide in highlighting the contributions of Longshoreman workers.
True to its mission, Local 1416 is still going strong, Canty declared, “In the future, we will continue to work diligently and efficiently to keep the great vessels of the world sailing.”
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.