Miami Stories

Photographer: Haitian advocate Viter 'Father' Juste pillar of Little Haiti

Viter Juste and his wife, Maria, were married for more than 60 years. She died in 2008.
Viter Juste and his wife, Maria, were married for more than 60 years. She died in 2008. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

`Who is Viter Juste?''

If you ask anyone outside my family, you would get one reply: Pere Juste, or Father Juste.

He earned the title by playing pivotal roles for many Haitians in New York and Miami.

Father was born Dec. 15, 1924, in La Gonaives in Haiti. When my father was a young man, his father insisted he go into business and forgo any ambitions of becoming an attorney, my father's dream. My grandfather felt that being a lawyer would involve politics, which he did not care for, especially the Haitian variety. He relented after father agreed to remain in the family business while studying law.

In 1946, armed with a degree in accounting and business management, father opened a general store in Port-au-Prince. Father was the voice of the young men. My mother ruled the female social circle. In 1947, they married and had their first child in 1948.

In the same year, father closed his store to work for a U.N. program to eradicate pian, a syphilis-type disease. In 1949, however, my father's life would take a drastic turn.

Father sent a field worker to Cap-Haitian who was to survey the community's medical needs and return to Port-au-Prince. While working in Cap-Haitian, the worker had an affair with a Haitian Army lieutenant's wife. One day, the lieutenant returned home from a business trip earlier than expected and caught the field worker with his wife. He killed him.

When my father heard his worker was missing, he left Port-au-Prince to search for him. Upon his arrival in Cap-Haitian, he was arrested by the lieutenant. Father was falsely accused of murder and spent three months in jail until he could appear before a judge. The judge ruled that it was impossible for father to kill the field worker and be in Port-au-Prince at the same time. All charges were dropped. Father was offered his job back but he declined.

Father began plotting to leave Haiti. He first went to Texas, but quickly relocated to New York City, where he had childhood friends and where he secured a $2.50-per-hour job in the shipyard.

With the Vietnam War heating up, shipyard work was steady. The six of us were united in 1965 in Brooklyn. During a trip in the early '70s to Puerto Rico to sell cars, father had a layover in Miami. He loved the weather and the city, which he referred to as ``Haiti without the poverty.''

In 1972, he purchased a house in Buena Vista, which he rented out for about a year. In 1973, we moved to Miami via car and U-Haul.

Father had heard that Haitians were traveling to Nassau to get records, books and other items from Haiti. In 1974, he opened his first record store. The next year, he opened Les Cousins, a record and book store, in downtown Miami.

In the early '80s, father and other community members objected to the Dade School Board's policy of prohibiting children of undocumented Haitians from attending school. He wrote letters, rallied others and declared he would find a large tree, place chairs beneath it and teach the children himself.

The School Board changed its policy, and father and others founded the Haitian American Community Association of Dade (HACAD), which fought discrimination against Haitians.

Father dreamed of a corridor along Northeast Second Avenue with Haitian businesses, churches and cultural organizations. He moved Les Cousins to the 7800 block of Northeast Second Avenue, where it thrived for nearly 25 years.

Father believed the name ''Little Port-au-Prince'' was too long, so he called the area ''Little Haiti.'' It stuck.

As I watch my father retrace his past, struggling to find details, I'm amazed about how much he did and how little I knew. My parents' most precious gift was a sense of balance, sense of justice and sense of dignity. When and why they came to South Florida is not as important as the way they did it -- with leadership and with honor.