Last Saturday, members of the old Booker T. Washington Junior/Senior High School and the Overtown community joined with some younger members to say a heartfelt goodbye to James “Mr. BTW” Hunt.
Before the service at New Jerusalem Primitive Baptist Church, we greeted each other with hugs and handshakes with the people whom we have been blessed to grow old with. We remembered what it was like when we were teenagers, cheering James on as he ran the ball for the school’s football team.
We spoke of dating and school dances and, as always, there was Eugene Strachan, remembering his glory days (“I played football, and she was a majorette and my girlfriend,” he said, referring to Yours Truly.)
Then the conversation turned to the reason we had gathered — to celebrate the life of James Hunt, who had turned 80 this year. It was for good reason that we called James “Mr. BTW.” I don’t know of anyone who fought harder to keep the school alive — the first black high school in South Florida — than did James.
Until integration came to Miami-Dade County Schools, Booker T. Washington Junior/Senior High School was considered one of the best in the state, and maybe in the country. Those of us who were blessed to attend the school believed our motto — “Not the Largest but the Best” — and tried to live up to it.
Our principal, the late Professor Charles L. Williams, and our teachers made us feel that we were indeed privileged to be a member of the student body. They treated us like college students and expected us to behave as such.
At a time when the future didn’t look so bright for blacks — America in the 1950s — these men and women encouraged us to dream big and reach for the stars.
Back in its glory days, Booker T. was where Mrs. Elaine Adderly started a nursery school where parents could leave their children in a safe place, and where high school students could get on-the-job training. After graduating from Booker T., many started their own nursery schools/kindergartens.
It was where Helen Culmer taught us girls to cook and sew like pros.
It was where Marian Shannon taught journalism to her students like there was a job waiting for us at the then all-white Miami Herald. At the time, there wasn’t.
It was where Leila Williams taught the choir to sing arias from operas and Broadway musicals. And where Sarah Scott Martin taught us drama that sent a few of us, like Lucile Mounts, Raymond Arana and Tommy Lane, to careers in the movies, theater and television.
It was where jazz greats like Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson developed much of their talent under the tutelage of Timothy O. Savage, the leader of Booker T.’s marching and concert band.
And it was where John Glover was groomed to later become the highest-ranking black in the FBI.
In 1967, at the dawn of school integration, our beloved BTW “University,” as we proudly called it, became a junior high school. Many of our choice teachers were transferred to white schools. There was talk of phasing out the school completely.
James, a graduate of Florida A & M University, had become an educator in the Dade County Public School System, first as an elementary school teacher and later as a principal. In addition, he was an active member of the BTW Alumni Association.
Together with the Association and many others, James led the fight to keep BTW open and return it to its status as a senior high school.
In 1999, a new Booker T. Washington High School opened its doors, and he was the school’s first principal. In 2000, the school graduated its first class. I was there, along with members of classes dating back to 1936.
I met James when my family moved to Miami from Williston in Central Florida when I was 6. Overtown back then was a small, tightly knit community where people looked out for each other.
I can remember him playing marbles with Floyd “Jake” Dorsett and Floyd’s brothers. Then, at the end of my fourth grade year, my family moved to Fort Worth. I can still see the faces of the neighbors who had come to say goodbye and to bring us pound cake and fried chicken for the three-day train ride. (Back then, blacks couldn’t eat in the dining car.)
All these memories flooded my mind as I sat during the service for my friend, who three months earlier, had asked me to sing at his funeral. I was so surprised that I told him, “You may have to sing at my funeral.”
We both laughed. On the morning after his death, his dear wife Elsa reminded me of our conversation.
Last Saturday, I honored his request by singing, “If I Can Help Somebody,” a song James had requested.
Later, after an eloquent sermon, “The Good Samaritan,” which was also requested by James, Elder Kenneth Dukes, pastor of the church, lead the congregation in a refrain of the song.
He said it spoke of the life James lived.
Urban League celebrates a birthday
Anyone who has ever worked or volunteered for the Urban League of Greater Miami is invited to attend the 75th anniversary celebration of the League, and the 55th anniversary of its president and CEO, Talmadge Willard Fair.
The celebration will include a family-style picnic on Nov. 24 at Hadley Park, 1350 NW 50th St.
Call Latonia Richey at 305-696-4450 to RSVP and for more information.
Learning to pray
Nate Frederick, a member of the Christian Science Board of Lectureship, will present an inspirational talk at 2 p.m. Sunday at First Church of Christ Scientist, 410 Andalusia Ave., Coral Gables.
The program is entitled, “A Spiritual Adventure to Learn to Pray and Heal.” The event will also feature a concert by vocalist Carlos Danaan and pianist Linda Kerstein. Frederick, considered a spiritual adventurer who has traveled the world sharing healing insights, exploring new cultures and performing music, will speak about the fundamentals of effective prayer and how healing is truly possible for everyone.
Admission is free and the community is invited. Call Leigh Marion at 305-569-9188 for more information.
A tree of joy
The Outreach Freedom Ministry at the Universal Truth Center for Better Living has launched its annual Joy Tree Program, which collects holiday gifts for children of the incarcerated.
If you want to donate, gifts will be accepted at the church, 21310 NW 37th Ave. in Miami Gardens through Dec. 9.
Cards with the child’s name, age and gender will be placed on the Christmas tree in the church’s Community Room for donors to select. Donors may select as many names as they desire, and are asked to purchase at least two gifts per child (at $15 each). Gift cards or donations of any amount will be accepted. Gifts may be wrapped or unwrapped.
Mark your calendars now for the annual Hanukkah celebration presented by the Inter-American Chapter of Hadassah. The celebration will be at 6 p.m. Nov. 29 at Temple Beth Sholom, 4144 Chase Ave. in Miami Beach.
The program will feature the North Miami Pops Band conducted by musical director Bruce Bailey. The band will perform “Music of Our Heritage,” which will include traditional Jewish songs, Broadway, Latin and popular selections.
The event will also feature a kosher dairy buffet of finger foods, hors d’oeuvres, desserts and beverages prepared by Chef Rosita Betancourt.
The cost is $30 per person at the door and $25 per person if paid by Nov. 23. Make checks payable to Hadassah Inter-American Chapter, and send them to: P.O. Box 546166, Surfside, FL 33154.
For information, contact one of the following committee members: Beby Gambach 305-866-4700; Mata Olchyk, 305-867-5887; Lola Order, 305-534-7034, or Esther Litvin, 786-539-8115.
New alumni board
Congratulations to the newly installed 2018-2020 executive board of the Booker T. Washington Alumni Association. They are: Roberta Daniels, president; Dr. Mary Hylor, vice president; Madeline Atwell, recording secretary; Marilyn Bellamy, corresponding secretary; Joan Ballard, treasurer; Barbara Burrows, financial secretary; Richard Demerit, parliamentarian; Johnnie Fields, sergeant-at-arms, and Gloria Taylor Stewart, chaplain.
Attorney Channel Jefferson of the Community Redevelopment Agency presided over the installation ceremony.