Community Conversations

Forty years later, this board is still fighting battles for people of color in Miami

Misty X. Brown, chief of staff for Miami-Dade County Commission Chairwoman Audrey M. Edmonson,
stands in front of the photograph of herself that was taken by the exhibit photographer, Joe Wesley.  The county’s Black Advisory Board put on an exhibit recognizing the black community’s contributions to the county, entitled, “Vessels 2019: Women of Substance” and “Triumphant Spirits 2019: African American Men.”
Misty X. Brown, chief of staff for Miami-Dade County Commission Chairwoman Audrey M. Edmonson, stands in front of the photograph of herself that was taken by the exhibit photographer, Joe Wesley. The county’s Black Advisory Board put on an exhibit recognizing the black community’s contributions to the county, entitled, “Vessels 2019: Women of Substance” and “Triumphant Spirits 2019: African American Men.”

The Miami-Dade County Black Affairs Advisory Board (BAAB) began its 40th year with an exhibition titled, “Vessels 2019: Women of Substance” and “Triumphant Spirits 2019: African American Men.”

The exhibit was featured in the lobby of the Stephen P. Clark Government Center, during the month of February.

“This is our fourth year producing a Black History Month photographic exhibit honoring individuals who are currently active in the community,” said Retha Boone-Fye, BAAB’s program director.

The board’s roots lie in overcoming impediments that create obstacles to prosperity and quality of life for all.

The Office of Black Affairs, reconstituted as The Black Affairs Advisory Board, is one of seven boards in the county’s community advocacy office.

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Retha Boone-Fye, program director, Miami-Dade Black Affairs Advisory Board

In the spring of 1979, the county published a report titled, “Profile of the Black Population,“ updating it in 1984.

Dewey W. Knight Jr., Dade’s first black assistant county manager, was the man behind the reports. Knight was clear about the intent for the publications. In signed forewords, he described the then county’s black population, ”Bahamians, Jamaicans, and other West Indians…with Blacks migrating from other areas of the United States, mainly from the South (together) add an Afro-American flavor to an already culture-filled South Florida Society… .”

He cautioned that the studies were not exhaustive, rather overviews “of our local Black perspective.”

“The Black community’s contribution goes beyond the construction of the first hotel and the railroad, to the establishment of Miami as a city,” he wrote.

Forty years later, some ask, ”Why was there a need to present problems of the Black community?”

The answer lies in the events of the times. Dade County and Miami were established during the era in U.S. history when black people were not considered equal and received inferior treatment in every phase of life. This behavior was rooted in social norms and supported by the country’s legal system.

By the late 1970s, racial segregation “by law” was being eliminated. A decade earlier, the federal government created Model Cities to end poverty throughout the United States. Some hoped it would provide equality and end poverty in disadvantaged neighborhoods. It did not.

However, millions of federal dollars poured into selected areas of the county, giving residents a voice in how the money should be spent in their neighborhoods.

Knight led Miami-Dade County’s Model Cities program team. The local program received national recognition for developing neighborhood centers countywide that provided access to government services to residents near their homes. Forty years later, many of the centers continue to operate.

Newly empowered, residents in disadvantaged communities demanded access and opportunities. Speaking at a 1978 meeting of the county commission, business owner and community activist, M. Athalie Range, representing the MLK Merchants Association, petitioned for a county agency “to address the specific needs and problems of black people.”

The county commission, led by Commissioner Barbara Carey (Shuler), passed an ordinance that created the Metro-Dade County’s Office of Black Affairs, which began operating in May 1979.

The office appointed Marcia Johnson Martin Saunders as the first director. She and her team sought to find solutions to the many problems facing the black community including lack of economic growth and employment, substandard housing and home ownership. Owning a home could be a key to accumulating wealth.

The current Black Affairs Advisory Board is comprised of 26 members, each appointed by a county commissioner. The scope has broadened to include all black people of color.

In his online message, the board chair, Stephen Hunter Johnson, stated, “members volunteer their time in the County by working to ensure that our elected officials and our County government, pay attention to the issues that impact Miami-Dade County residents of African descent. Through subcommittees they serve as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Black World Community.”

Among the board’s projects:

Miami-Dade County Coordinated Response Team (MDC-CRT), an initiative connecting victims of violence and their families with public, private and government services;

Respect Life! Initiative, a partnership including Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the State Attorney’s Office;

Village Dialogues, a series of discussions engaging the community on issues that impact the quality of life for all residents.

Advocating on behalf of immigrants who call Miami-Dade County home, BAAB has initiated a partnership with the Haitian American Emergency Relief Committee and the “U-Count,” geared toward reducing violence and supporting youth. At the restored Hampton House, BAAB advocated the hiring of local residents on the construction phase of the project.

BAAB also recognizes community “Pillars” and through its “Young Pillars Scholarship,” awards scholarships to post-secondary students.

“We recognize that improving the economic health of the Black World Community will do much to address many of the problems,’’ said Johnson, the board chair. “We are working with local banks to provide concrete opportunities for those seeking the American Dream of home ownership. We are a very busy board.”

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, Ph.D., is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc. Send feedback to djf@bellsouth.net.
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