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My immediate family consisted of my mother, father, three brothers and two sisters. My father, Bishop Henry Curtis, came to Miami in 1910 from Port Howe, Cat Island, Bahamas. My father had been a farmer in the Bahamas. Since he had no land to farm in Miami, he used his knowledge of farming to become a gardener. He was fortunate to work for wealthy white people in Miami Beach. The pay was good. He was also a minister. My mother, Lenora Clark Curtis, was from Exuma, Bahamas. She was a maid.
My father’s employers only stayed in Miami during the winter. They required my father to live on their premises while they lived up north during the summer. I was born in Overtown in the house my parents owned at 1827 N.W. Fifth Court; my brother was born on Miami Beach at 4609 Pine Tree Dr., where my parents worked and lived in the servants’ quarters. The Bureau of Vital Statistics, however, refused to put Miami Beach on his birth certificate because he was black. Likewise, my brother and I were not allowed to live with our parents in Miami Beach. This meant that my grandmother, Melvina Clark, and her daughter, my aunt Beulah Clark, had to move to our home in Overtown so we could have adult supervision and attend Dunbar Elementary School.
My parents were proud of their Bahamian heritage and brought us up in Bahamian traditions and culture. They were not interested in becoming American citizens until they found out that they could get a tax exemption as citizens. They took citizenship classes and passed the test to become American citizens.
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My father studied the United States Constitution and was quick to share his knowledge. One night when we were driving home from church on State Road 9, the police stopped us for driving with bright lights. One of the policemen ordered my father out of the car and to take off his hat. My father asked the policeman what law he was violating by keeping his hat on. Incensed by the question, the officer slapped my father, knocking his hat off! My father stooped down, picked up his hat, put it back on his head, and told the policeman, “I’m the last black man you’re ever going to slap.”
Shocked by my father’s response, the officer turned to my poor mother and persuaded her to calm my father down, but she couldn’t. The policeman said he would have to arrest my father because of his lack of respect for an officer, and they took him away, leaving us on State Road 9 not knowing how we were going to get home. My father told the officers that he knew he had the right to make one telephone call and he wanted to call his boss. Rather than going through the trouble, they brought him back to where they left us, and my father drove us home.
Our lives centered on church, school, neighborhood and family. We attended the Church of God of Prophecy on a regular basis and participated in all activities in the church including Sunday school and youth group activities. At Booker T. Washington High School, I participated in plays and organizations. My brother, Isreal, played football and sang in the school chorus. I served as president of the student council during my senior year, which gave me the opportunity to meet and greet celebrities such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and boxer Joe Louis. I was even asked to participate in a Brotherhood Week radio broadcast with white students from other communities.
Afterward, I was mentioned in an article that came out in the Miami Herald about a cross burning in front of the house of one of the white students in Coral Gables who had invited me to speak.
My family and friends feared for my safety and said I should stop following Ms. Marie Roberts, my civics teacher, who frequently attended integrated meetings despite segregation and Jim Crow. My father refused to be intimidated and did not stop me from going with Ms. Roberts. His courage and fortitude for justice continues to live within me and motivates much of what I do today.
My parents had strong values and expectations for their children, but the sustaining elements in our home were always love and pride. We were told that we were special because we were a Curtis, and our name became a source of pride and belonging for my brother and me. Our name represented the best within us and we had to live up to it. This meant that we had to finish high school and further our education.
After high school, my brother went to the Air Force. He received an honorable discharge and began working for the Miami Herald, where he was the first black pressman. I went on to study social science at Talladega College in Alabama, earning a bachelor of arts degree. I returned to Miami and became a teacher at Dorsey Junior High and a counselor at Edison Senior High School. I earned a Master of Science degree in guidance and counseling from Barry University and became assistant principal at South Miami Junior High School, where I retired in 1991.
I served as a board member and the first African-American president of both Dade Heritage Trust and Natives of Dade and Pioneers of Miami. As a dedicated historic preservationist, I uncovered research showing that African Americans were buried at the City of Miami Cemetery, and I led efforts to preserve the Miami Circle, the Historic Hampton House Motel, the Lemon City Cemetery, and a unit of Liberty Square, one of the nation’s oldest public housing complexes. I have been awarded honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degrees from St. Thomas University and Talladega College.
Above all, I credit my achievements to my parents and the example they set with their strong values, commitment to family, and involvement in church and community activities. I am married to Frank Pinkney.
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About Miami Stories: This project is a partnership between HistoryMiami, Miami Herald Media Co., WLRN and Michael Weiser, chairman of the National Conference on Citizenship.