Interviewer: James A. DeVinney
Production Team: A
Interview Date: March 21, 1989
Camera Rolls: 1061-1062
Sound Rolls: 124-125
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Clyde Killens, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 21, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Clyde, take me back to a time when Overtown was in its heyday and this was pretty much all that Black people had during the time of segregation. They said it was exciting. What was it like?
Well, it was in- we s- we started in the fifties. We can start there when they started piling into Miami, but, ah, Black businessmen and the sport, athletes and things because of the hotel they built here. It was, ah, the Sir John, first it was the Lord Calvert and something happened between the owner and, and the politicians and they changed it to the Sir John because he got in a little trouble, and, ah, in fact he had, he was with the liquor, Sir, ah, Calvert's Liquor. And the doctor told him to, ah, rest up, get out of the business, Ben, you had enough, and all like that. So he got out but he went into a banking business which he wasn't a banker.
What was his banking style? Did the people like living here, lots of people?
Yeah, well, I'm getting to that now, where he built the hotel. And he went in the banking business, he got into a little problem and they had to change it from the Lord Calvert to the Sir John because the Sir John people bailed him out. That's why, that's why it didn't stay the Lord Calvert. It was, ah, Sir John. And they took off from there, and in the fifties, The acts, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis, George Kirk[SIC], all those guys when they come down, they, they worked here, in Miami Beach but their shows in the hotel, they off at 2 o'clock and they all would come over Sir John and all their White friends would follow them, you see. And they didn't have the crack cocaine and all of that going on then and they didn't have a problem. Nobody robbed anybody. You could come out and you could be as high as you wanted to do. Nobody would touch you because back there it was a little different it is now and, ah, they would follow up and they would, the musician would come out and they would go in the lounge and they would be seven, maybe ten, musicians there jamming**, they jammed there all night until 6 o'clock in the morning. And they have private parties, birthday parties around the pool. The PA system just went on all day long, call in different ones from the hotel, the hotel is full. Then they build the Carvel and the Carvel got full and the Mayor had made quite a bit of changes there. And then you had the Rocking Palace and you had Harlem Square, the Cafe Society. You had all of those places to go to plus they had a few good restaurants round there, and, ah, it was just nice to be around. It's kind of like in Atlantic City, the Club Harlem, if you just been around there, a lot of things happen there. A lot of people going in and out. And that's the way it was in Miami. And, ah, most of the businessmen could get away and the sportsmen they could get away. Then they had the, the North Side Golf Tournament here. It made it big, added a lot to it. And they give us the golf course, five days free because it was supposed to get people to come, come down and buy homes and whatnot, and they did a good job on that.
Of all the famous people you met, who made the most impression upon you?
I like Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson was interested in what going on in your city. He didn't care much talking about baseball. He wanted to know what goes on in your city. And he wanted to know, could he got to another, any other theatre he could go besides the one we had, which was the Rix Theatre. And I happen to know where he could go, one place, other than the Rix Theatre, but it was a drive-in and it was out on U.S. 1 and I took him down there where he'd know how to get there and every time he'd come into Miami, he'd stay at the Mary Elizabeth, he would go down to the drive-in, take his family, his two kids and his wife, Rachel, I know her, and they would go down there. And when I would see Jackie, he would come to the club, we'd sit down, we'd talk. He'd just sit and look and if I get time for him to go in and his conversation was very interesting. In fact he'd, he'd ask you some interesting questions because he wanted to know about the city and so I found him to be very attractive to me.
What happened to your town?
Well, they tore down the middle of it with the expressway, that was the beginning of it. Because the Classic used to be here and they used to parade down Second Avenue during the Classic, cutting off, cutting off they went to Liberty City. That hurt. It killed, in other words, the Classic started going down from that there time on when they moved to Liberty City and then there different places started dropping out because of the integration. They integrated and then they, ah, asked[SIC] and it was on the beach, it was coming to the Sir John and Elizabeth. They bought, they had him sign a contract, the contract with room and board, you see, so that slowed them down from coming over here. And the hotel, then wind up with the home people, and you know how that is. That lowers your rent. And you might get paid and you might not. And things started going down hill. But before that it was very attractive. I don't know what to say what was more attractive in Miami because they was opening up hotels like the Persian in Chicago, they open and the Gotham in Detroit and around, but all that's gone now. All them hotels are gone out of business. And, ah, Mimi was still up for quite a while.
How did you feel watching all this happen?
Well I felt good about it because I was way down here when you was hemmed in from 6th Street to 20th Street and you could go nowhere. So I leave here and go in New York, stay, five and six months. And get a better tour and I come back. Stay here six months there and go back, back and forth, 25 years.
But how did you feel when you noticed the community basically changing with integration, your town?
Well, I felt bad about it, because, ah, I knew what was hap--I knew what was coming up. I knew what was going. I knew that we had something and the youngsters didn't know how to handle it. We had, we had some good advantages there, we could use but we, we didn't use it. We had, they didn't want us to vote. And we got the power. They knew what they want. That's power and we got it and we didn't use it. We're not still are not using it. And they went, they didn't want to integrate the schools. That was another advantage we had. We blew that. We carried knives. We carried guns and you take his lunch money and we go on, I'm a cold brother and you got to do, do what I say. And the people took the children out of the schools. We laugh about how it wind up the school being all Black. They took them out one year by year, year by year. And, and you couldn't blame them in a way because if they'd went there, get what they're supposed to get out of the schools other than trying to guerilla somebody and be mean to their other races, they wouldn't have pulled them so fast. But that was, that was our problem. We didn't use the weapon we had to our advantage.
Are young people today more violent than you witnessed them to be?
Why? Why are young people more violent?
Well, I hate to say it, but it's because the treatment, the justice we have now. We don't have 100 percent justice, we have justice now. You cannot beat a negro over the head now and get away with it like you could years ago. They would have killed you years ago and wouldn't be no trial. And now, they ain't, incidents happen here and they wind up suing, getting 800 and a million dollars for a kid and you know and what not but before they kill you and there was no trial. It would hardly hit the papers. And especially if you had a gun anywhere near you, you see. And now you can say what you want to the police. He can't say nothing but talk back, he can't beat you up. But before, and I know, you took something and they said you took it and you say you didn't. They take you down to the station house, you would tell them you took something if you didn't or they would call up a foreman come in the room and beat you until you couldn't walk and when they came, when, and, and, and nothing would be done about it. You couldn't go nowhere. You couldn't go to newspaper. Newspaper wasn't get in it.
Taking you back to 1980. McDuffie has been killed. How did the community react to McDuffie's killing?
Well, they thought it was unjust the way they did and they, ah, they, ah, you know, you don't need to go over the things that they were doing but that's the young people's style, of, ah, breaking in, looting. They use that. They do it during the storm. When we have a storm here. They take a brick and throw in the window and they figure the, the storm did that and then they going in, you see, instead of them going in to try and save they life, they get out there where the storm is at. OK, out there with the wind blowing they'd be out there with the, in the streets, to go in places and do most of their kind of thing. So, it's nothing for them to act up because they use that. And the only way to prevent that you got to be prepared for that. Well it depends on what had happened. Now, this last incident happened here with, ah--
We're only in the period between 1980-1982.
Let's go back to 1980, May, when the riot took place over here in Overtown after the McDuffie acquittals, tell me why you think all of that happened the way it did.
Well, they, ah, some out-of-towners came in here during that time, some out-of-towners came in here. They were here. And this thing was going, going on during the trial, they came in here and I remember they're having a meeting in this 600 block, this 500 block, one morning they had a meeting there. And I really didn't know what they was up to but I remember the meeting and I remember, ah, so many people I saw in the meeting and this thing was kind of planned and it was planned in a way that wasn't going to a happy thing.
You mean the riot?
Yeah, the riot, when they burning places, it wasn't like you put gasoline on a certain place of fire. This was done army style. Like you leave a place in the army. It was done in army style. That the Fire Department would get there too late, the way they were doing it. And, ah, this thing went on and a lot of, ah, Whites got caught in the thing. They didn't know what was going on. Well, I know I seen one woman, she was bringing her maid home and she run right into it and I happen to be out there at the time. It was Liberty City, Sixty Second Street and Fifteenth Avenue, no, 14th Avenue, and, ah, a friend of mine named Hiram Johnson and myself, we stopped the car because she was supposed to, she going on through to take her maid home. And we told her, "Don't go down in that next block." And there was two, there was three of them in there. So I said, "Let her-" "We taking her home", I said, "Well, let her out." Then the guys come around the car and trying to get the pocketbooks and we wouldn't let them. And we turned them around and let the maid get out and through, and get away, get home the best way she could, just get them out. But, but we really didn't know at that time it was going to be as bad as it was but it just, it was, it was, it was happening down in the next block and then come up this way. So that's one of the things I remember during that riot and they, ah, they kept doing things. Where they had the national convention, the public convention on the beach and they had a Black writer by the name of C.T. Taylor, he could get out there and get all the information he wanted because he was a Black man and he could talk to them and he was right in the middle of it and he was sending the messages back and the people began to tell the station, we don't want to hear about no convention. We want to know what's going on in Liberty City, from C.T. Taylor made a name for himself and got a, he got a program for, with Channel 4 and he had it for years.
Be specific. Who was C. T. Taylor? He was on the radio, right?
Tell me about it. Who was C. T. Taylor?
No, he, he had a, he had a TV program too. And, ah, he went from radio to the TV program.
OK, well state it this way. C.T. Taylor was someone who.
He was with CBS, I mean Channel 4 here, local. And he got, he made his name in this riot by giving so much important news back during the convention, all that, peoples more and more hear more from him than they did the convention of course they had the convention on too.
In the mid '60s or so with integration, Black people started to leave Overtown and Liberty City one of them was Frank Legree. Tell me the story of Frank Legree.
State Frank Legree.
Frank Legree, this house was for sale and I--
Can I start one more time. Frank Legree was.
Frank Legree was the Black guy that bought the home in a White neighborhood. And they didn't want him there. But he insist on staying. And it then got harder and harder by him staying, they began to break the windows out of the house and so on. And, ah, he got a job as an MC dancer, on, on 79th Street Causeway. And they got to the owner, threatening him and he had to let him go. So he didn't have a job. So, he don't have a job, don't have nowhere stay, because they staying with the Carvel. He's not paying his rent. He not paying his mortgage. So the owner of the property got after the bank. It was financed through the bank. Bank was handling the money. So the bank give him a certain time, pay up or get out. So, he was in the radio station, which was WMBM, which Butterball was a fantastic disc jockey at the time. He was there telling him about it and I had an appointment with Butterball to play a record for me that was new, too new for my club and I wanted him to heat it up on, on the radio. Play it a while and let them get used to it then we'd come back. And I walked in, he spoke, "Mr. Clyde, you got the record?" I said, "Yes." He said, "You know Lou Legree don't you?" I said, "No, I don't know him. I read about him." He said, "Well this is Frank Adams[SIC], I don't know what else." I say, "What's the matter?" He say, "Man, he got to get out of the house." I say, "Why do he got to get out of the house?" He said, "'Cus he ain't paid no mortgage since God knows when." And he say, "He only have a couple days to get out of there." He said, "If he could stay there about ten more days, we could win this thing." I said, "How much is the mortgage?" He told me. I thought for two seconds and I, I said, "Tell you what, come by the club tomorrow at 10:30. I'm going to give him the mortgage money." And, ah, he said, "Sure enough?" I said, "Yes." He said, "When Clyde tell you that, you go by there." So he came by. But before he come by when I walked out of the station, I walked across the street and they had a little drug- store by the name of, of, of the name of Sparkley and I went to her and I told her about the story. And I said, I'm going to collect this money from the public, to get him to pay this and so she gave me five dollars. I went to Garve Reeve[SIC] whose the publisher of Miami Times. His daddy was in charge a block from there. He gave me five dollars. I went to the Commody[SIC] Drugstore, which is owned by Ward, he gave me ten. My next stop was a, a Jewish place, Jack's Clothing Store. I went to him and I was saying about it and he gave me a lot of lip. So, I said, "Jack, let me tell you something, I've been here." I say, "I saw when the Warner Plaza Hotel on Miami Beach when they're saying, no Jews and that meant you." And I said, "But y'all fought back and scratched and now y'all own the beach." I said, "This is what we're doing." "OK, then, if I give a hundred- I make a check for a hundred dollars?" I say, "Fine." So, I took his check and went to the other joints, I went to Dugas, I went to Rix Department Store, Ken the Taylor and I collect more money until I got the money that I invested in, Frank mortgage. And I got the name. When, I, I went out the next day and went to work too and so the next day I saw him and I had all the people I got donation from and so I told him, I said, "Frank, put on your clothes. Go to everyone of these places, introduce yourself and tell them who you are and thank them for the contribution they give you for this, for this house." He did that. Then he come back the next day. He says, "Some people wasn't there." I said, "Go back. I had to go back two or three times." So, then the people began to call me and thank me for, for asking them for donation since they didn't know him and he went to see them and thank them for the donation. And things started breaking down. Everything started changing now. It looked like things started breaking down. It changed. The White security to the Black security. There were White Citizen Council, they come into town and put them in jail. The newspapers started breaking down, shortly after that, you saw some signs going up for sale here and there and the people got interested and went there with whatever money they had, the would accept it and take the mortgage, you see. And they started moving north. And the Black people started moving in.