Robert McKinney was more than three decades removed from his 1960 graduation at Booker T. Washington High in Overtown.
A successful attorney who practiced criminal defense law in the Civic Center area, McKinney, who died at 73 on March 18, was an 18-year board chairman of the Miami-Dade County Historic Preservation Board, a board member of the Jefferson Reaves Sr. Health Center and and president of the Overtown Advisory Board. He also served on the Miami-Dade Public School’s Attendance Boundary Committees.
After earning his undergraduate degree in political science and history from Florida A&M University in 1964 and before he earned his law degree at the University of Miami in 1977, the Overtown-born McKinney served as chairman of the Lee Park Task Force, an advocacy group that delivered hot meals to the infirm and homeless in the South Miami area in 1972.
But the plight of Booker T., the first school in South Florida to offer a 12th grade for black students, gnawed at him as he built his legal carer.
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Seven years after McKinney’s graduation from Booker T. Washington High, the Miami-Dade County school system turned the all-black high school into a junior high. The move was common during the desegregation movement of the 1960s and ’70s but the switch never sat right with a group of former students who banded together to convince the Miami-Dade School Board to revive Booker T. as a high school in 1998.
“When they changed from senior high to middle school, they destroyed the engine of the community. It destroyed our culture and our legacy,” McKinney said in a 1999 Miami Herald profile on the alumni who, like him, agreed to volunteer as hall and security monitors and to help revive booster clubs for athletic and band activities.
Back in the day, Booker T. was, like its local churches, a part of Overtown’s social hub. Celebrated jazz entertainers like Lena Horne and Cab Calloway entertained the community from within the school’s original building at Northwest 12th Street and Sixth Avenue, which was opened in 1927 and torn down in 1989.
“It was a thriving, internationally known community,” McKinney said as the rebuilt Booker T. building once again boasted high school students.
“That was very meaningful to him to help push that forward and return the school to high school status,” said his daughter, Erica McKinney, an attorney and director of communications for Florida Memorial University. “He attributed much of his success in life to the education he picked up at Booker T.”
Indeed, in a 2003 Miami Herald profile, McKinney said: “I’m very, very fond of this community. I think this community has great potential. We can make it the kind of community we all would love it to be if we all did something.”
He was a lifelong member at Historic St. Agnes Episcopal Church on Northwest Third Avenue in Overtown and worked as a vice chancellor of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida.
From helping lead his church — “that’s where the culture was” — to his other endeavors, McKinney worked the front lines. That was home. He loved South Florida and its history.
“No matter what level he reached in life he always kept grounded,” his daughter said. “He was always interested in meeting people. It was amazing to travel with him because he would never go to the touristy places. His favorite people were the hotel staff and cleaning and repair staff. He’d ask them, ‘What did you have for lunch today? Where did you eat last night?’ and that’s where we would end up.
“Dad could talk to a hole in the ground and come back and say, ‘Did you know where that hole has been?’ He could drive around and tell you the significance of an archway or a community and tell you of its history,” she said.
One other thing, his daughter adds: “My dad was a foodie! He loved food and in South Florida that was a wonderful thing. His special brother, Father Kenneth Major, a retired Episcopal priest, and he would pick up the phone to the week he passed. The first question they would ask each other was, ‘What did you eat today?’ They both saw Miami Spice as their own personal holiday. And he loved to cook.”
McKinney was also “an amazing plant guy. He could bring any plant back to life. My job was to kill them and his was to bring them back,” his daughter said with a chuckle. “He found that quite therapeutic, finding different plants and finding out about them.”
In addition to his daughter, McKinney is survived by his sister Barbara McKinney, eight nieces and eight nephews. Services were held.
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