Miami Stories

Legacy of Education

Dorothy Jenkins Fields (green dress on left), with multiply of generations of the Fields family. Judge John D Johnson, seated in the middle, with Morgan Kennedy Johnson 3, sitting on his lap.
Dorothy Jenkins Fields (green dress on left), with multiply of generations of the Fields family. Judge John D Johnson, seated in the middle, with Morgan Kennedy Johnson 3, sitting on his lap. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

My maternal grandparents, Sam D. and Ida Ellen Roberts Johnson, were born in Harbour Island, Bahamas. It is believed that their ancestors were among the millions of black slaves forced from West Africa and sold in the West Indies.

Papa was Samuel David. He was born in 1872. His parents were John David and Matilda Johnson, whose family came from Haiti and Barbados. Papa had four siblings. His father was a wealthy planter.

By comparison Mama's family was poor. She was born Ida Ellen Roberts to Horatio and Letitia Roberts in Harbour Island. She had four siblings.

When their parents divorced, Mama and sister Dora were raised by an aunt who was the cook for the island's medical doctor, a white man trained in England. He encouraged them to read and write.

About 1897 Sam D. and Ida Ellen were married on Harbour Island in the St. John Wesleyan Methodist Church. Seeking better economic opportunities, Papa moved to Key West, became a sponger and sent for his bride. Two children were born in Key West, Samuel Hensdale and Elaine.

Papa relocated to Miami's Colored Town (Overtown) where his sister Alice and her husband, Thomas Bullard, had already settled.

In December 1903, Samuel and Elaine left Key West with Mama for Miami aboard the steamboat Shinicok and landed at the P and O dock, now 12th Street and Biscayne Boulevard.

They lived in Colored Town adjacent to the developing white downtown.

Other relatives had already relocated to Coconut Grove. Mama, however, preferred to live in the city. One of the neighbors originally from the Bahamas, Shaddy Ward, encouraged Papa to buy land and build a house. Eventually he built and owned three houses north of the Lyric Theater: 159 NW 10th St., 153 NW 10th St. and 1004 NW First Ct.

Before 1910, Miami's Colored Town was a bustling community with family grocery stores, barber shops, beauty shops, schools, churches, a milliner and drug store. Family and friends from Lemon City (Little Haiti), Coconut Grove and neighborhoods traveled to shop and dine there.

Five other children were born: Roberta, Frederick, Dorothy, James and John. Papa called the seven children his ``bunch.''

By 1909 Papa was an officer at Mount Zion Baptist Church. He was a laborer at several construction sites, a gardener at the James Deering Estate (Vizcaya) and caretaker for prominent families, including the Chafee cousins of John D. Rockefeller and William Jennings Bryan, a three-time U.S. presidential candidate.

Papa and his sons worked on the Bryan estate, Villa Serena, near Brickell. The Bryans encouraged Papa and Mama's desire to educate their children. Once, Mrs. Bryan gave Papa an old suit for Samuel as he went away to school. Another time she gave Papa a copy of Horatio Alger's book, Store Boy.

Educating all seven children was Mama's goal. In the early 1900s in Miami, black children were only allowed to finish eighth grade in public school. They had to work or leave Miami in order to finish high school. Mama and Papa sent Samuel to high school in Jacksonville at the Florida Baptist Academy, now Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens.

The seven children all graduated from college. The Johnson family was Miami-Dade County's first black family to put seven children through college before 1945.

The accomplishments of Samuel D. and Ida Ellen Johnson and their children mirror the history and development of Miami. Their efforts inspired the grandchildren: dentist, Dr. J.K. Johnson Jr.; retired attorney, Judge A. Leo Adderly; retired educators Jewyll Wilson, Betty Jones, and Joyce Silver; and archivist and historian, Dorothy Ellen Jenkins Fields. The goal set forth by the grandparents continues to their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and cousins through the Harbour Island Family Reunion, which gives annual scholarships to family.