Miami-Dade County

Eight MacArthur fellows had Miami connections

Poet Campbell McGrath, a 1999 MacArthur Fellow and FIU professor.
Poet Campbell McGrath, a 1999 MacArthur Fellow and FIU professor.

Today’s news reports are filled with stories about tragedies and human suffering, near and far. Last week, it was refreshing to hear the long awaited announcement on WLRN public radio about the 2014 MacArthur Fellows. While no local person was named to this year’s class of 21, Miami can be proud that since 1981, eight MacArthur fellows were either Miami natives or lived in the area when they received their awards. Their accomplishments provide good news.

The Chicago based MacArthur Foundation’s Fellows Program recognizes individuals with a track record of achievement and the potential for significant contributions in the future. Historically, known as the “Genius Grant,” it is awarded to individuals engaged in the process of making or finding something new, or connecting the seemingly unconnected in significant ways. Each fellow receives a stipend of $625,000 over five years with no strings attached. Recipients can spend the money as they see fit with no stipulations, no proposal and no reporting.

According to the foundation’s website, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur were successful bankers with considerable real estate holdings mainly in Florida, New York City and Chicago. In 1970, with a billion dollars in assets they set up one of the nation’s largest independent philanthropic foundations. Supporting creative people and effective institutions, it is committed to building “a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.”

In 2013 two native Miamians were selected MacArthur Fellows: Karen Russell and Tarell Alvin McCraney. An award winning fiction writer, Russell grew up in Coral Gables and much of her work is set in the Florida Everglades. In 2012 she won the National Magazine Award for fiction. Her first novel, Swamplandia!, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She is a writer-in-residence at Bard College.

Liberty City born playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney explores the rich diversity of the African-American experience in works that embrace the lives of ordinary people. Among his many plays, Antony & Cleopatra, is set in 1700s Haiti, and he used the violence in Liberty City to give context to his understanding of Hamlet. He has won national and international awards and travels extensively.

The 2009 MacArthur Fellow and Haitian born novelist Edwidge Danticat chronicles the lives of ordinary Haitians, featuring themes of family and community that resonate with a wide variety of audiences. Her awards include the National Book Critics Circle Award for Brothers, I’m Dying and the Story Prize for The Dew Breaker. She lives in Miami.

Poet Campbell McGrath, a 1999 MacArthur Fellow, was born in Chicago to Irish-Catholic parents and grew up in Washington D.C. The author of nine full-length collections of poetry he is a Philip and Patricia Frost Professor of Creative Writing at Florida International University, a Guggenheim Fellow, and one of three jurors selected to judge the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

In 1993 the two Miami winners were Pedro José Greer Jr. and Marion Williams.

Medical doctor and community health specialist, Greer is guided by the philosophy that doctors should serve the poor as part of their professional commitment to society. He founded the Camillus Health Concern, to provide for homeless people. Following Hurricane Andrew he brought together volunteers and resources needed for immediate and long-term assistance to families. He is professor and chair of the Department of Humanities, Health, and Society and Associate Dean for Community Engagement at the medical school at Florida International University.

Marion Williams (1927-1994), a gospel singer, was considered one of the most powerful voices in American music. She was born and grew up in Colored Town/Overtown during the Jim Crow era. She was taught music by her Bahamian father and interest in religion developed from her mother’s South Carolinian roots and the Pentecostal church. After her father’s death, and the amputation of both her mother’s legs as a result of diabetes, Marion dropped out of school to support the family. Working odd jobs she sang at church programs and on street corners. In the 1940s while visiting relatives in Philadelphia she was discovered and invited to join the famed gospel Clara Ward Singers. Later she starred in Langston Hughes’ gospel celebrated musical, Black Nativity, off Broadway and toured the United States and Europe. Later she formed her own group, Stars of Faith, and toured North America, Africa and the West Indies. She recorded songs for films Fried Green Tomatoes and Mississippi Masala. Her song style influenced popular singers such as Aretha Franklin, the Isley Brothers and Little Richard. In 1993 Marion Williams was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient.

Educator Robert McCabe was president of Miami Dade Community College from 1980 to 1995. He became a MacArthur Fellow in 1992. An internationally known author and leader in higher education he was recognized for spearheading educational reform in community colleges in the United States and Canada.

Liberty City resident and community development organizer Otis Pitts won the MacArthur Fellowship in 1990. He was recognized for helping develop and implement an economic agenda for Liberty City in the aftermath of the 1980 riots. He is a developer.

MacArthur Fellowships are given not as a reward for past achievement but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight and potential. You cannot apply. The Foundation does not accept unsolicited or outside nominations. Annually Fellows are selected through a rigorous s process involving experts and anonymous nominations, evaluations, and an independent selection committee.

Robert McCabe can attest to the MacArthur Foundation’s anonymous process. In a recent telephone interview, speaking of the surprise telephone call informing him that he had been selected, he said: “Arva and I were married Saturday and the call came on Tuesday. Wow, that was a great week.” He is married to historian Arva Parks.

Years after receiving the MacArthur Fellowship recipients continue to provide insight through their work. For example, novelist Danticat is writing and presenting book talks. This September she was a featured author at the second annual Haitian-Caribbean Book Fair at the Mapou Cultural Center Inc. in collaboration with Sosyete Koukouy of Miami Inc., Libreri Mapou and Little Haiti Cultural Center. It was sponsored by the Knight Foundation and the Miami-Dade Department of Cultural Affairs.

Jan Mapou, organizer of the book fair, greeted the locals and tourists came to hear and meet Danticat. Mapou says, “her presentation about family and community engages Haitians and Haitian-Americans by helping keep the culture and educating the public-at-large on Haitian and Caribbean literatures.” The good news is that she and other winners have the potential of inspiring future Miami MacArthur Fellows with the lofty goal of improving our lives and bettering our world.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, 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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