The high school students quietly gathered to hear first-hand from the pioneer black policeman.
In Miami’s historic Overtown neighborhood, they listened intensely as retired lieutenant Archie McKay, Sr. began the tour at the Black Police Precinct & Courthouse Museum. The teenage students and the soon to be 90 year-old retired policeman have something in common. Collectively, they seek justice for injustices that occurred in Florida during the historical Civil Rights Era.
McKay’s search for justice began in 1954 when he joined the City of Miami police force and was assigned to the all black segregated department. At that time, black policemen were only allowed to work in black neighborhoods. They were only permitted to handle traffic violations and civil occurrences involving private disputes between individuals and groups. In criminal occurrences, evidence was often ignored and cases unsolved.
The students are Kimbrough scholars, visiting from Cambridge, MA and participating in a team investigating a racially motivated criminal case from 1942 that happened in Miami-Dade County. Allegedly, the victim died of wounds received from authorities because he would not close his business as they ordered. Over 70 years later, the students were looking for evidence that would lead to an investigation and ultimately a resolution of this criminal case. Unresolved for a long time, it is now referred to as a “cold case.”
The team, comprised of Cambridge-Rindge and Latin High School’s Kimbrough Scholars and law students, is a component of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University School of Law.
This law school project, CRRJ, was founded by Professor Margaret A. Burnham, a leading civil and human rights activist and lawyer. Earlier in her career, she was a staff attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, public defender and private lawyer. She has represented civil rights and political activists across the country. In 1977, she became the first black woman to serve in the Massachusetts judiciary, an associate Boston Municipal Court judge. In 1993, South African President Nelson Mandela appointed Burnham to serve on an international human rights commission to investigate alleged human rights violations within the African National Congress. The commission was a precursor to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Traditionally with law students, the CRRJ investigates and litigates civil rights cold cases, pursues legislative initiatives in the area of civil rights-era miscarriages of justice, provides expertise to civil rights restorative justice projects, and maintains a web-based clearinghouse on developments in the field. With a national docket of cases, students travel to investigate and consult with client communities.
In 2014, the CRRJ offered the first high school semester seminar. The Kimbrough Scholars Program was selected. This program honors Leslie Kimbrough, a longtime high school educator, activist, and mentor who was dedicated to social justice issues. Five students participated. They learned to access primary source information and piece together facts of a case. To increase their understanding of the time, place and culture, they traveled to Mississippi.
The 2015 program has six participants. This culturally diverse group visited Miami looking for evidence that would lead to the investigation of their assigned case. Their search was conducted under the supervision of several adults dedicated to the program. Their teacher, Kathleen FitzGerald, along with volunteer retires pediatrician Janet Moses, guidance counselor Priscilla Milner, history teacher Lawrence Aaronson, and CRRJ staff Chelesa Schmitz were active participants.
In Miami, the students interviewed persons with knowledge of the era in which the incident occurred and visited several historic sites, including the Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum.
Lt. McKay spoke passionately about the site where he reported to work for nearly a decade. Built in 1950 and operated until 1963, it was the headquarters for black policemen. It also contains a municipal court where black defendants were tried before a black judge for traffic violations and civil cases. When he retired in 1974, the black and white police departments had merged.
Now with pride, McKay and the other tour guides, also retired policemen, promote awareness of the history of the Civil Rights Era by telling their stories and presenting exhibitions to educate the public and inspire youth. The Kimbrough Scholars did not find evidence leading to an investigation of the 1942 case. However, by the end of the tour, they learned more about that historical era and explored the meaning of restorative justice.
Leaving the museum, the students talked about participation in CRRJ through the Kimbrough Scholars Program as a way to engage with history and learn life lessons. Trying to solve a problem and connecting the past with the future was exciting. They encourage succeeding generations to join efforts that continue to seek justice. For more information about CRRJ visit: www.northeastern.edu/civilrights. For more information about the Black Police Precinct & Courthouse Museum visit: www.historicalblackprecinct.org.
Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.