Miami-Dade County

Losing a generation

John O. Brown. Johnnie Mae Parris Marsan. M. Athalie Range. Thirlee Smith Sr. All gone. Within six months, South Florida lost powerhouses who demanded -- and ultimately got -- access to public facilities, equal rights and political empowerment for black residents.

Now, remaining civil rights veterans fear the legacy of that generation will go to the grave because their stories have not been told. "The children don't know about us, " said Patricia Stephens Due, an author and former Miami-Dade activist.

Although a park in Liberty City is named after Range and the Broward School Board building is named after respected educator Kathleen Wright, who died in 1985, there are many others who aren't known to today's generation.

Few articles, books and video clips detail the behind-the-scenes work of people like Ralph White, one of Miami's first black police officers; Richard Powell, past president of the Miami NAACP; Eula Gandy Johnson, former president of the Fort Lauderdale NAACP or Margaret Blake Roach, a founding member of the Florida Council on Human Relations and the founding president of the Broward Urban League.

Many of their activities to bring about change were conducted in obscure locations, ignored by media at best disinterested in if not outright hostile to civil rights, and omitted from most history books.

Their passing is not lost on the remaining few who marched beside them. "We're leaving here fast, " said Robert Simms, who worked with Brown as former executive director of the Miami-Dade Community Relations Board.

University of Miami sociology professor Marvin Dawkins said that without a concerted effort to gather their anecdotes and make them easily accessible, whether through oral accounts, scholarly papers, nonfiction books or historical texts, information about their works could be lost forever.

"We're losing a generation of people who experienced things firsthand that make the message more powerful to students and to others, " Dawkins said.


Part of the problem is that few black historians have kept account of the record, said local historian Marvin Dunn, who has authored books about Florida's civil rights struggles.

"[Early records] about white pioneers are lost, too, " Dunn said. "But there's a much better record of white contributions. We have not been writing our history."

Black history was pretty much omitted from public school textbooks until seven years ago, said state Sen. Frederica Wilson of Miami, who pushed a bill requiring that it be included. Fourth-grade social studies textbooks in 62 Florida counties include a section about Florida's civil rights movement and mention figures such as former U.S. Rep. Carrie P. Meek and Patricia Due.

In 1997, while serving on the Miami-Dade School Board, Wilson persuaded local schools to carry a black history curriculum called African American Voices, which teaches contributions of blacks to every student from kindergarten through graduation.

"There is some information that . . . is available, " said Dorothy Jenkins Fields, founder of the Black Archives and one of the researchers on the Voices project. "It's still in bits and pieces. It's still scattered."

Due and her daughter, author and former Miami Herald staff writer Tananarive Due, wrote Freedom in the Family, a memoir that recounts the mother's activism in Florida during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s.

"So many of the foot soldiers were dying. We had to get to the people in a hurry to hear their story in their own words, " said Patricia Due, who now lives in Quincy. "Stories can live forever if they're written. But storytellers don't live forever."


Miami-Dade County School Board Member Robert Ingram is troubled that, with the exception of Range, the people were not celebrated enough while living.

"That's the painful thing. We're the beneficiaries of what they did, " Ingram said.

Chanelle Rose, a doctoral student in the University of Miami history department, said the information is available -- if you know where to look.

Her research took her to the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida in Liberty City, the downtown Miami library and to the African American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale.

"I had to take an eclectic approach, " she said.

Fields said surviving relatives can help by donating letters, funeral programs and photographs their loved ones may have kept.

"I don't think people understand how important it is. Their source materials tell the story, " Fields said.

Pearl Woolridge, head of special collections at the African American Research Library, said the library is a tool that more researchers can use to document histories. "There's always room for people to still write the histories of the various communities here, " Woolridge said.


Parris Marsan's children recently started gathering news clippings their mother kept about her activism. Nicole Parris Henderson said the family would donate what they find to the Black Archives.

"Not until my mother's death and I heard others talking did I realize the significance of what she did, " said Henderson, an administrator at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.

By several accounts, friends describe Parris Marsan as easygoing but a natural leader. The wife of an Air Force staff sergeant, she was thrust into the fight in the 1950s when she insisted that her children be allowed to attend an all-white school being built near the Homestead Air Force Base for the children of servicemen. Air Base Elementary School desegregated in 1959 -- coinciding with Range's successful push to integrate Orchard Villa Elementary in Liberty City.

James Marshall, 73, of the Richmond Heights Resource Center, recalled how he and Parris Marsan were buffers between angry residents and police officers during Miami's 1980 riots, which were sparked after an all-white jury's acquittal of four white police officers in the beating death of Arthur McDuffie, a black insurance agent.

"She had a bullhorn; I had a bullhorn. We kept the police at bay, " Marshall said. "We told them let us talk to the people."

At the April 21 funeral, Miami Dade College administrator Chester Fair described Parris Marsan as Sojourner Truth, Angela Davis and Martin Luther King Jr. in one package.

For each story recounted, untold numbers of others still must be captured, Fields said.

"So many of their stories will never be told about how heroic they were, " she said. "People living in the first half of the 20th century fought for civil rights every day."


John O. Brown, Florida's first black ophthalmologist, and others formed the Congress of Racial Equality to stage sit-ins at lunch counters, department stores and movie theaters.Brown, who died May 2, also led protests to desegregate Miami's public beaches.George Simpson, a friend and medical school classmate, said Brown was always on the front lines."He said 'If you're going to be a black man at that time, you'd better be prepared to fight.' "

Eula Gandy Johnson, a Georgia native, moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1935 and became a powerful voice for civil rights. Friends described her as the "Rosa Parks of Fort Lauderdale." In 1957, Johnson became the first woman president of the Fort Lauderdale NAACP. She pushed to integrate the city's beaches and public facilities, and fought for desegregation in Broward's public schools."Freedom is written in the hearts of black people, " Johnson told The Miami Herald in 1992. "I had courage. But let's say this: When you are right and believe you are right, God gives you courage." Johnson died in January 2001.

Henry Latimer, the third black judge to sit on the Broward Circuit Court bench, spent his early years in segregated Florida schools, using discarded books from white schools. He fought that practice when he became a teacher at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale in the mid-1960s. Latimer was one of the first black students to enroll at the University of Miami law school and was a founding member of the Urban League of Broward County. After leaving the bench, he rose to prominence at several high-profile South Florida law firms. He also provided pro bono legal services to Fort Lauderdale's poor residents, and encouraged other corporate lawyers to do the same. Latimer died in January 2005.

Johnnie Mae Parris Marsan broke into the civil rights arena in the 1950s when she demanded her children be able to attend the same school as white children from Homestead Air Force Base. The school, Air Base Elementary, desegregated in 1959. "These children have played on the base together. That's the secret, " she told The Miami Herald on opening day.In the 1960s, Parris Marsan headed the Miami chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Council. She worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Mississippi and Alabama. Parris Marsan also led poor people's marches in South Florida, Tallahassee and Washington, often with her children in tow. She died April 9.

M. Athalie Range fought against decaying, segregated schools before launching a political career that took her to Miami City Hall and Tallahassee and Washington. She advised scores of state and local power brokers and later became one herself.In the 1960s, she became the first black to serve on Miami's City Commission. The next decade saw her become the first black -- and woman -- in Florida history to serve in a high-ranking state government post, as director of the Department of Community Affairs. And former President Jimmy Carter appointed her to serve on the National Railroad Passenger Corp. Range died in November of 2006.

Margaret Blake Roach, a fixture for social justice in Broward for three decades, was the founding president of the Urban League of Broward County and a charter member of the Florida Council on Human Relations. She and husband Cato Roach were active members of the National Conference for Community and Justice. A native of Tennessee, Margaret Roach overcame bitter memories of Jim Crow and dedicated her life to education. Through her activism, she was determined to build bridges between races. Margaret Blake Roach died in July 1999; her husband died in March 2000.

Thirlee Smith Sr. started as a shoe shiner at Normandy Isle Golf Club, saving his money to purchase businesses in Opa-locka, which was opening up to blacks. Beginning in the 1940s, Smith operated a billiard hall and a restaurant.He also engaged in his own style of civil rights activism, conducting voter registration drives in the billiard hall. He helped scores of Opa-locka residents to register."Only people who were self-employed could advocate publicly, " said his daughter, state Sen. Frederica Wilson. "People who had bosses couldn't really advocate or step out front." Smith died May 21.