UPDATED: A memorial service will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 23, and the funeral at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 24. Both events will be held at Mt. Herman AME Church, 17800 NW 25th Ave., Miami.
Georgia Ayers stood only five feet, five inches, but in the Miami community, she towered like a giant.
Ayers, who founded the Alternative Program with Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Tom Petersen to help thousands of first-time offenders find a second chance, died Tuesday morning at her home in unincorporated north central Miami-Dade. She was 86.
“Georgia was a champion’s champion,” said Kenneth Kilpatrick, board chairman of the Alternative Program. “Her impact has spanned many generations.”
The Alternative Program that Ayers and Petersen created in 1982 has worked with the court system to offer an alternative to jail time for people charged with felonies or nonviolent crimes. Her client list swelled to 1,500 names at any given time. She helped thousands over the years find employment and further their education. The two were still working together this week to find a new location in Miami for the program.
“When I think of the very most energetic souls for social justice and progress in our community, I always think of Georgia,” said David Lawrence Jr., a nationally known early childhood advocate and a former Miami Herald publisher. “In the pursuit of what is right and fair, she would face down anybody!”
For many, reaching 80 would be a time to slow down. Not for Ayers, who also co-founded the area’s Daily Bread Food Bank.
Hitting her 80s was just a speed bump. Her passion — and commanding presence — burned with fierce intensity. She didn’t resign as executive director of The Alternative Program until two weeks before her 86th birthday.
“We will move this program forward in her honor. We are looking at ways to expand what Georgia had started. That’s what she asked me to do before she passed,” Kilpatrick said.
“She always worked to befriend and be allied with the police department, the prosecutor’s office and everyone else. Not everyone could do that but that was a skill she had. When Georgia Ayers walked into a meeting everyone paid attention,” said Petersen, now a senior judge.
Miami Police Maj. Delrish Moss was a young homicide detective in the 1990s when he first came across the force known as Ayers.
“The first time I met her I was on the scene of a police-involved shooting,” he recalled Tuesday. “She had with her a group of young men, all of whom I’d put in jail before. And all of them were not only at her beck and call, but she was like their mother. She had transformed these guys into respectful, standup citizens. And how she did that can only be described as a feat of magic because these were guys who were hardened criminals. To see that impact made me take notice of this woman.”
Over the years, Moss and Ayers bonded. “Her name for me was Little Boy even though I was a grown man,” he said. “The more I learned about her the more I admired her because I started to learn that she had been working with the police department since the 1960s during a time we were just coming off the heels of segregation.
“The police department had a lot of transforming to do and Georgia was instrumental in a lot of the change that had to take place,” Moss said. “She made it possible for me to be in a position where I am now — three ranks from police chief. If it weren’t for champions like Georgia, I don’t think that today that would be possible for me.”
Friends, or foes, Ayers never backed down.
“She’s given me everything from a good yelling to a scoop of ice cream,” Moss said.
Ayers commanded the attention of local judges, city officials, public defenders and the media.
“Mrs. Ayres was one of Miami's most influential civil rights activists who worked tirelessly to guide troubled young people away from the criminal justice system and encouraged them to lead productive lives. Her work as the founder of the Alternative Program will always be remembered as well as her contributions to Miami-Dade County’s history,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez in a statement.
When she needed to, she burst beyond the confines of city limits if she felt her community needed help.
“Georgia was a woman who always spoke her mind and fought like a lioness for her principles and beliefs. You always knew where you stood with Georgia, like it or not. With her big heart, Georgia always wanted to bring people together, even if she was dragging them by the ear to get it done,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle.
“What can you say about Georgia?” said admirer Dorothy Jenkins Fields, historian and founder of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida.
You could say plenty.
Born Oct. 21, 1928, in Miami, Ayers grew up in the Railroad Shop Colored Addition neighborhood — now Allapattah — that was built for black railway workers, like her grandfather who worked for the Florida East Coast Railway. That is until they were removed en masse from their homes and businesses by the city government in 1947 after the School Board bought land to make way for a school and park for white children from surrounding neighborhoods.
Ayers, still a teenager, never forgot the night when the local sheriff stormed in and removed her family and neighbors from the only homes they had known. That night it rained, soaking them and their belongings. “The railroad was a way of life for Miami,” Ayers said in a 2011 Miami Herald profile. Her grandmother’s home was long gone but she carried its deed for the rest of her life.
“One of the things she was most passionate about was the railroad shop and for more than a decade she led the railroad shop reunion and really brought together former residents from all over the country to remember that time when they lived in that area and when they were forced out so dramatically,” Fields said. “She told that story over and over again to help us understand what had happened and how far we had come and how far we still had to go. She did that with everything she was involved with and so to hear that her voice is silent is a great loss.”
Ayers’ grass-roots activism grew after a riot tore through Liberty City in 1968 and she took to the streets to help pull city officials and other people to safety. She did the same a decade later in 1980 during the McDuffie riots.
“I remember when Dr. King, before he became popular, came to the Greater Bethel AME Church on Eighth Street. Even us colored folks doubted we could make it. He was so forthright. Just like I push here, we are not afraid to speak out,” Ayers said in 2011.
When an earthquake ravaged Haiti five years ago, Ayers sought to renovate rooms and seek donations at the worn 48,000-square-foot Alternative Program building on Northwest 60th Street to house injured Haitians who arrived in Miami for medical care.
When thieves continued to break into and ransack the already crumbling building, the feisty octogenarian vowed to confront them head on. “I am going to shoot the s--- out of them,” she said.
A new home for the Alternative Program, on the grounds of the Miami Dade Regional Juvenile Justice Center on Northwest 33rd Street and 27th Avenue, has been secured and final approvals for occupancy are on the cusp, Judge Petersen said. The two spoke a week ago and Petersen shared the good news. Bed-ridden, Ayers vowed to Petersen that she would be there for the groundbreaking “even if she had to walk up there from her home near Miami-Dade North.”
That was Ayers. Compassionate and given to a huge heart when you earned her respect.
“I came to Miami as a Vista volunteer in 1966 and found myself in Liberty City and Georgia became part of my life,” Petersen said. “She was still selling insurance in Brownsville and she found me an oddity. A young white guy in Liberty City. But we became close friends and remained close friends for over 40 years.”
Ayers sang Ave Maria at Petersen’s investiture ceremony. “Not many realized that among her many talents she had a wonderful singing voice. Georgia could sing like a professional,” he said.
“When I look in the mirror, I see a human being. We’re all born through the same process and we have different pigmentation of the skin, and that’s the only difference,” Ayers explained in 2011.
“I’m sure the angels came and swooped her up and said, ‘It’s your time,’” said Fields, the historian. “And wherever she is, she’s giving them hell.”
Ayers is survived by two sons, Cecil Ray Jones and George E. Jones, daughter Debra Taylor, nine grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 23, and the funeral at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 24. Both events will be held at Mt. Herman AME Church, 17800 NW 25th Ave., Miami.
Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this story. Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.