Community Voices

Friends, relatives to celebrate 102nd birthday of Richmond Heights’ last living founder

Bessie Holloway, one of the original 26 Richmond Heights founding settlers, will soon celebrate her 102nd birthday in the neighborhood where she spent most of her life.
Bessie Holloway, one of the original 26 Richmond Heights founding settlers, will soon celebrate her 102nd birthday in the neighborhood where she spent most of her life. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

Living in one area for 67 years maybe unthinkable for people who move frequently. But for Bessie Holloway, soon to be 102 years old, it is a comfortable and familiar life. This Oct. 23, a quiet celebration with family is planned in the home where she lives with her daughter, Margaret Holloway-Corley and son-in-law, Charles.

The Corleys live in Palmetto Estates, a community near the home her parents bought in Richmond Heights decades ago.

Corley’s parents, Grady and Bessie Holloway, were among the first 26 founding settlers in Richmond Heights to call “The Heights,” their home.

Her mother is the last living original settler.

In 1949, the Luther and Mary Wallace family was first to purchase a home there. The second family, headed by George and Inez Swain, were the first to completely move into the new neighborhood.

On July 20, 2016, the Miami-Dade Historic Preservation Board passed Resolution No. 2016-08 approving the designation of the Richmond Heights Historic District, a portion of Richmond Heights and Monroe Street. Constructed between 1949-50, this subdivision is the first private development in Miami-Dade County established exclusively for black African-American World War II veterans. It is among the first planned black African-American communities in the nation.

Located approximately 15 miles southwest of downtown Miami, the original Richmond Heights development was created at the end of World War II for returning black veterans by Capt. Frank C. Martin, a white Pan American pilot. Housing for black people was substandard and unaffordable during this time because of racial segregation in the United States.

It is said that Martin served with black soldiers during World War II, observing the many obstacles created for them by war and racial prejudice. After leaving the service, he formed Richmond Development and consulted with a local advisory committee of black leaders about his dream of a housing development.

During that time, one of the black servicemen seeking housing for his family was Luther Wallace. A native of Crawfordville, Georgia, he attended Morehouse College in Atlanta before joining the Coast Guard, and years later retired as a chief petty officer.

In the 2009 book “African American World War II Casualties and Decorations in the Navy, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine: A Comprehensive Record,” military historian/author Glenn A. Knoblock summarizes Wallace’s service: “He was one of the most highly respected of the surviving Black Coast Guardsmen of WW II.”

Wallace eventually relocated to Miami where his family rented a home in the segregated section of Coconut Grove, a place only black people were allowed to live. Looking forward to owning a home, they purchased a house in Richmond Heights on Monroe Street. The streets in the original development were named for presidents. James Monroe was the fifth president of the United States.

The original families were mostly working-class people whose skills and community spirit sustained “the Heights.” They provided the goods and services including barber shops, beauty shops, drug store/pharmacist, grocery store and a flower shop.

Luther and Mary Wallace lived with their five children: Luther Jr., Grace, Alma, Ana, and Lynette.

In January 2015, Lynette Wallace assumed responsibility for seeking historic designation for their parents’ home and several other original houses. She began the process by contacting the Miami-Dade Historic Preservation Office. Historic Preservation Planner Sarah Cody discussed the request with Kathleen Slesnick Kauffman, the county preservation chief, to determine the approach.

In previous years, designation for the entire Richmond Heights community was sought several times. On Sept. 11, 1983, the county Historic Preservation Board in collaboration with the Black Archives Foundation of South Florida, recognized the community’s historic significance with a bronze plaque that remains mounted in Richmond Park at the entrance to the pool.

The 65th anniversary of Richmond Heights was acknowledged when Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis C. Moss and other county officials honored founder Frank C. Martin and the 26 original settlers. Dedicated on Memorial Day 2014, the Richmond Heights Pioneer Monument is located at the intersection of Olivia Edwards Boulevard/Lincoln Boulevard and Madison Street. The recognition was the initiative of the Richmond Heights Crime Watch organization.

After Wallace’s 2015 request, material from the families was reviewed, staff compiled research, a general survey of the neighborhood made, and properties were evaluated against established criteria. It was then determined that a district would be more appropriate than designating individual properties. The staff report was prepared and submitted to the board for consideration and later approval.

Following the designation as a historical site, Wallace and some of the other children of the original 26 Richmond Heights pioneers gathered at the Monroe Street sign to reflect on the struggles and successes of their parents and to forecast their neighborhood’s future.

Debbie Pearson Harden, daughter of Willie and Emma Pearson and the niece of John Byrd, has fond childhood memories of Monroe Street, especially the friendships formed during that time. She believes the historic designation is a lasting tribute to the pioneer fathers, her uncle and Martin.

Ruth A. Taylor, a child of Gladston and Ruth Taylor of Monroe Street, recalled their parents’ pride in “the Heights” and that spirit that has filtered down through the generations. The community designation keeps the spirit of their parents alive.

As Margaret Holloway-Corley plans a quiet family gathering for her mother’s upcoming birthday, she would like South Florida residents and visitors to know that Richmond Heights is a one-of-kind community, a hidden gem in the far south area of Miami-Dade County. This is the legacy she will pass on to her children.

For her 100th birthday, Bessie Holloway received a congratulatory message from Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States. For her 102nd birthday, she lived to see the historic designation of the community she helped establish.

Happy Birthday Miss Bessie!

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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