Garth Reeves reflects on nearly a century in Miami
Garth Reeves still remembers the battles from 70 years ago when black people in Dade County were banned from playing golf or going to certain beaches.
And while he led the movement to break down those barriers, the longtime editor of The Miami Times, South Florida’s premier black newspaper, says the community still has much to do. The next few years in Miami — amid a contentious political climate — will be crucial in determining how South Florida grows and evolves.
“The world is so interesting today. That’s why I wish I could live another 10 years,” said Reeves, 98, who was honored Friday afternoon when Miami leaders named a portion of an Overtown street after him. “I think it’s going to be a very interesting decade coming up. I think it’s going to be quite different from what you see now.”
Reeves, publisher emeritus of the weekly newspaper started by his father on Sept. 1, 1923, said today’s political divisiveness reminds him of the work he and others did in the 1940s and 1950s. Then, black people in Miami-Dade County were restricted to playing golf only on Mondays, when they faced sprinkler-soaked fairways. Black residents were also banned from the county’s white beaches; they were forced to go to Virginia Key Beach, long known as the “colored” beach.
Reeves was part of a group that staged a protest at Crandon Park in Key Biscayne. He and five others, with bathing suits on under their business suits, stepped into the water and swam for about 15 minutes. Nobody stopped them. From then on, black swimmers made their way to beaches across Miami-Dade.
Through those actions he met leaders like former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who helped Reeves and other activists with their seven-year legal battle to expand golf course access.
Reeves said his drive to fight for change came from returning to Miami after almost four years in the Army during World War II and realizing there was so much work to be done.
“I became a bit more what the white people called pushy, some call it militant,” Reeves said. “I said this has got to go; it’s time to get rid of this attitude.”
The street that now reflects Reeves’ name is Northwest Sixth Street between North Miami and Seventh avenues; it houses the Historic Lyric Theater and the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida. Reeves is a board member of the Black Archives.
The world is so interesting today. That’s why I wish I could live another 10 years.
Garth Reeves, 98, publisher emeritus of The Miami Times
At Friday’s dedication, a crowd of a few dozen, including local leaders, gathered to salute Reeves and the Miami Times for providing information to Overtown and other black neighborhoods consistently for decades.
“This community has to let you know while you’re here, again and again and again and again, that we love you,” said Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon. “Everyone reads your paper for what the word is and that’s powerful.”
Dorothy Jenkins Fields, founder of the Black Archives, said the ceremony was a “pre-birthday celebration” for Reeves, who will turn 99 in February.
“I’m gonna make it to 100. I say a lot of prayers about it and [God] listens to me,” Reeves said Friday to applause and laughter from the crowd.
He thanked the attendees, then took time to comment on the $400 million “Miami Forever” bond that Miami voters will consider Tuesday.
“Please read the bond issue carefully and if it’s not written to suit you, if you’re not getting enough of that $400 million, you must speak out and speak out loudly,” Reeves said.
The Miami Times and the city have been a part of Reeves’ life since his earliest days. His father, Henry E.S. Reeves, a master printer from the Bahamas, moved his family to Miami when Reeves was 4 months old. Wanting to provide information to Miami’s black community, he started the newspaper, initially printing one page at a time on a small hand press in his Miami home.
After Reeves graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Miami and Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, he joined the Army during World War II, serving from 1942-46 in the European and Pacific theaters. When he returned from the war, he started his long career with the newspaper, becoming publisher and chief executive when his father died in 1970. He held that post until 1994, when his daughter, Rachel Reeves, was named publisher and CEO, a position she still holds.
Today, his North Miami home is littered with new and old copies of the Miami Times, as well other newspapers, including the Miami Herald, the New York Times and USA Today. He moves around deftly and his eyes light up as he talks about the city’s history.
He can recall a time when Overtown was truly the center of black Miami before the construction of Interstate 95 and changing demographics splintered the community.
“We had our own piece of the pie out in Overtown, and we were satisfied to stay over there and have our own fun,” Reeves said. “We had our own bank and our own churches and our own school. We had accepted segregation, although we never gave up the fight.”
As the newspaper’s top executive, Reeves would often advocate for issues in the black community in ways that didn’t always fit into traditional journalistic objectivity. Reeves worked to get black representation on the Miami City Commission and the Miami-Dade school board, and would openly advocate for black voters to support different causes.
“In the newspaper business, sometimes you help people get elected. Somewhere down the line you might pick up the phone and say this guy is a good choice,” Reeves said in an earlier interview with the Miami Herald.
Over the years, Reeves has received honorary degrees from Barry University, Florida A&M and Florida Memorial University. In 2011, Reeves was presented the Legacy of Excellence Award by the National Newspaper Publishers Association and the John B. Russwurm Award, which recognized The Miami Times as the top black newspaper in the country.
This past August, he was honored as a Hall of Famer by the National Association of Black Journalists at their annual convention in New Orleans.
Carolyn Guniss, a former executive editor of The Miami Times and president of the South Florida Black Journalists Association, was there.
“They just let him talk,’’ she said. “We understood, in that moment, that this was someone who was 98 years old, still had his faculties and could fly from Miami to New Orleans to pick up his award. I think it was just a moment that had everyone in awe.”
She views Reeves as not just an important figure in integrating public spaces and fighting for civil rights, but also for advocating for black journalists. Guniss noted he took unpopular views when his black-owned paper depended mostly on advertising from companies without minority ownership.
“By doing that, he could’ve made economic disaster for himself,” Guniss said. “It’s that sort of fearlessness that I don’t know if we talk about enough with people of color.”
Reeves said he has never shied away from controversy. In fact, his latest movement is putting pressure on black churches, getting them to build financial literacy in the community, including establishing credit unions.
“I think the church should be a social institution; you should be helping other people,” Reeves said. “That’s gonna be my last shot and then I’m gonna shut up after that.”
He also hopes to establish an endowment for the Black Archives so it can continue to host programming and expand.
And though he maintains his fighting spirit, he’s come to terms with having to move on one day.
“I used to say, ‘I love life so much that when they call my name I’m going kicking and screaming,’ but now I don’t feel that way anymore,” Reeves said. “I don’t think I’ll have too many more [years] left, but 98 isn’t a bad number.”
This story has been updated to clarify the boundaries of the street designation.