Local Obituaries

Earl Wells, founder of Miami’s first black bookstore, dies at 91

Earl Wells was a Miami-Dade Schools counselor, assistant principal, principal and one of the first black area superintendents in a career that stretched from the 1950s to his first retirement in the late 1970s. He then opened Afro-In Books and Things in Liberty City with his wife and ran that for an additional 15 years.
Earl Wells was a Miami-Dade Schools counselor, assistant principal, principal and one of the first black area superintendents in a career that stretched from the 1950s to his first retirement in the late 1970s. He then opened Afro-In Books and Things in Liberty City with his wife and ran that for an additional 15 years. Courtesy Clarence Jones Jr.

Retirement means different things to people.

For Earl Wells, who died Dec. 24 at 91, retirement meant embarking on a mission that changed the cultural landscape of Miami.

In 1978, after a fruitful career as a Miami-Dade Schools educator and administrator, Wells, with his wife, the late Eursla Wells, a retired principal of Westview Junior High School, opened the first black-owned bookstore in South Florida.

Afro-In Books and Things was a dream project for the husband-and-wife local educators. Here was a bookstore that aimed to rectify the paucity of black books in local bookstores and libraries.

Afro-In, a pink pillbox of a building at 5575 NW Seventh Ave. in Liberty City, included fiction and nonfiction works of black novelists, poets and historians. The store carried children’s literature and reference books about black culture in America, Africa and Cuba. Tomes with titles like: “The Black Man’s Guide to Understanding Black Women,” “Army Life in a Black Regiment (Civil War)” and “100 Years of Lynchings.”

“When it comes to books about blacks in the Diaspora, where else can you go?” Wells asked in a 1990 Miami Herald feature.

“Everywhere you turn, there’s a book staring at you,” Wells said, speaking of the crowded shelves that stood amid paintings of black leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., rows of gospel albums, and racks of African clothing, medallions and Kwanzaa cards. “I designed it that way. You can’t get out of here without buying a book.”

Afro-In also hosted visiting black celebrities like poet Maya Angelou, actors Will Smith and Bernadette Stanis, a co-star of TV’s “Good Times.’’

As educators, we found that there was a need for books about minorities and there was limited access to them. So, when we retired, we decided to start the bookstore.

Earl Wells, about the store he opened with his wife, Afro-In Books and Things, to the Miami Herald in 2005

The shop changed hands to two different families after the couple retired for good in 1993. The store finally closed in 2009.

The store’s closing was mourned by many, including U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, who lamented that Afro-In filled a void for Afrocentric literature. The shop was recognized in Congress by Rep. Kendrick Meek, “for its years of synonymous quality and exceptional public service,” according to The Miami Times in 2009.

Wells was born in Miami on Nov. 9, 1925, to a family of Bahamian heritage. The Phillis Wheatley Elementary, Booker T. Washington High School graduate became the first in his family to enroll in college at Tennessee A&I State College in 1944. More than three-quarters of his family — nieces and nephews (the Wells had no children) — followed his lead and earned college degrees, his nephew Clarence Jones Jr. said.

Wells continued his own schooling during his career, where he went from counselor at Dorsey Senior High School in the 1950s to assistant principal at Miami Northwestern, to principal at Mays Senior in the 1960s and to area superintendent in the 1970s, one of the first African-Americans to hold that position. Wells earned his doctorate in education from Nova University in 1975.

“He was a giant among giants as far as I’m concerned,” Jones said. “His nieces and nephews became his children. So many of us were able to go to college because of him. He helped to prepare us and to teach us the value of education that would move us forward. He was a very kind and generous man.”

Wells is survived by numerous nieces and nephews. A viewing will be at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 3 , at The Faith Center, 4061 NW 16th St., Lauderhill. Services will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 4, at The Faith Center, 40161 NW 16th St., Lauderhill.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen

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