Interviewer: Madison Davis Lacy, Jr.
Production Team: A
Interview Date: June 20, 1989
Camera Rolls: 1200-1201
Sound Rolls: 150
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Jessie McCrary, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on June 20, 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.
Jessie, you had been telling me earlier about how government displaced people in Overtown. In fact you called it governmental cancer. Tell me about that. What happened with respect to Overtown? Talk to me.
Overtown was destroyed because of government. More so, government is the villain. There are some particular examples I can site for you. The trans- State Transportation Department decided that that's where Interstate I-95 should go. The county government put its Administration Building there. The federal government put a United States Post Office on the most popular social gathering place that Black people had in the history of this county. The new arena is in Overtown. The Mass Transit has a station in Overtown. You, you have to understand, Overtown is adjacent to downtown Miami. Downtown Miami cannot ex., expand southward. It can't expand westward. It can't expand eastward because they would be in the bay. And the only place it can expand is Overtown. Now, Black people were easy prey. They had no political power because they didn't have any people in office. So what government did, was they take, took a little at a time. First they cut the finger off and then they cut the hand off and then they cut the arm off and pretty soon Overtown's dead**. In addition to the fact that many things in Overtown were owned by Whites who put up massive apartment buildings and when government started moving in they immediately moved those tenants out because they saw chances to make huge profits from government's desire to move in.
OK, let's stop down
Well, some would said that government buildings in this town, that Overtown served as a magnet and was actually investing in the community, how, what was the deal?
They would have to understand, when government moved in, people had to move out. What you did was, you, government moved in on a social institution and displaced that social institution and what was cohesive at one time then became scattered. So that institution died called Overtown. And the people who lived Overtown, who were part of Overtown and other people who came from the outside, outlining areas, all gathered in Overtown for some reason, for church, for cultural events, for social events. And when government displaced those institutions, it displaced that society and broke it up.
Do you remember that displacement, that disruption? What was it like? What did it feel like?
I remember it distinctly. Well one, there was no gathering place. The Sir John Hotel, for example, the Carver Hotel, the Mary Elizabeth Hotel, those hotels were to Black folk what the Fountain Bleu and the Eden Roc were to people on the beach. Because that's where you saw the great entertainers, that's where you'd gather on a Friday afternoon if you wanted to be with the boys or any afternoon. You would see middle-class people there along with all other people socializing, making the business deals, having dinner at night, seeing a good show. It is no more.
Were there any opportunities for new Black institutions to take their place?
Yes. But that happens over a period of time.
Yes, there were opportunities for new institutions to take the place of those. But you have to understand, Overtown was not built overnight. Overtown had a history. It had the history of being our place together. We are here. We are brothers. We are business people. And what you are asking or what some would suggest is that we'll go get 40 acres somewhere and rebuild that. You can't rebuild history over night. It took a long time to develop the Mary Elizabeth Hotel. It was years before we had a major hotel like the Sir John that was previously called the Sir Cabot Hotel. You don't do that overnight. And the goodwill was some of the location. You know, you've got one hotel on this corner. You can walk down the street to the other one. You walk around the corner to the other one. You walk down the street a little further, there's the Magic Chef. And remember what Overtown was, was, was so attractive until there were people who came from distant places to Miami and the first place they were going to go was Overtown. It's like people who come to Miami and say I'm going to Miami Beach. This was the Mecca.
Good. That's good
Tell me one of your fond remembrances of being at the Sir John Hotel.
You know I remember being in the Sir John Hotel one night, just sitting around drinking with the boys. And there's a small trio there. And some guy gets up and starts singing. Well, I don't know the guy from the man in the moon but he looks familiar. Lo and behold, it's, ah, Little Willie John, singing "Fever". I mean it's that kind of thing. I also remember that I probably got my first job as a law clerk from being in the Sir John Hotel. I was in there and there was this very distinguished gentleman who was a lawyer, he, named Henry Arrington. And I was so awed by Henry Arrington because Henry Arrington had represented Joe Louis, Dinah Washington, you name him, represented Cassius Clay. I mean Muhammad when he was Cassius Clay. So I went up to him and I said, "Mr. Arrington, you know, I'm just so happy to meet you." Because he was an imposing fellow, you know, very distinguished looking, and ask him for a job. I didn't get one but, ah, he subsequently helped me get a job at some other place. But it was a place, all the time, that you could see a celebrity. And I guess that's why a lot of people went there because they knew at some time during the night or day somebody famous was going to walk through there.
Let's switch tracks just a second. Now, tell me something about the non-group. Tell me what it is and who's on it, and what it do.
The non-group, let me tell you about the, the non-group, the power structure in this town. The non-group is a group of 49 people. All of whom are rich, except for one of them, consist of the major executives in this town, Florida Power and Light, the Southern Bell, the Eastern Airlines, the Burger King, the real, real heavyweights. You won't see their names in the newspapers, very seldom. But they control this town because they be- they are the policy makers. And they are the people who can make things happen, government move. When there is a tax issue, for example, recently there was a tax issue. The non-group decided that it wanted to support that tax issue. The issues passes. And that issue was the Mass Transit issue. The governmental leaders in this town are not as strong as the non-group when it gets to the bottom line. They certainly have their sphere of power but it's the power behind the scenes, and I'm convinced that the non-group is that single entity that makes government move in a direction, not a selfish direction, not a selfish direction but in a direction that is going to be beneficial to people. It, ah, it's done some things for, for Blacks. As a result of the non-group, roughly about seven million dollars was pumped into an organization called Business Assistance Center which was designed to give some financial aid to small entrepreneurs in the Black community. And that's without government, that was purely a private gesture.
Has that worked?
Why hasn't it?
It hasn't worked because--
Start again by saying, the Business Assistance Center hasn't worked.
The Business Assistance, ah, Center has not worked as well as it could. And the reason is, in my opinion, that the funds were put there for the reason to make access to finance easier. And I'm not suggesting that they should give the money away but when the Business Assistance Center finds itself with the same kind of stringent requirements that you have at Southeast Bank, then the person might as well go to Southeast. And I'm not suggesting a give-away. But if you've got a man who has a mom and pop grocery store and you're going to require him to pledge his house, his home, require him to have very sophisticated financial statements, it's not going to work. One of the interesting things about finance in this community, there is a Cuban banker, a very respected one, the elder statesman of bankers in this community who is Cuban, who said, "You know I run a bank but I run it on a handshake and how a man looks me in the eye." Say, "I lose a few but most of it I get back." And I'm just saying that the Business Assistance Center needs to rethink its role and rethink its procedure. Obviously it is changing now with new direction and hopefully it's going to work.
Around '78, '79, '80, tell me can you describe what the relationship between the police and the Black community was like.
The relationship between the police and the Black community is bad, horrible, miserable, detestable. And it goes back further than '79. You have to understand that in this town there was a time where if you were a Black policeman, you could not arrest a White person. There was a time where they had a separate precinct. And you have to understand that when the City of Miami got its first Black policeman, they went on the street and they got six guys who were 6 feet 4, gave them a gun and a badge and said, "You're a policeman." It was not until the 1960s, late '60s that Blacks, who applied for the Police Department, were even able to go to the Police Academy. So, you had a mentality in the Police Department that still prevails in many instances that, "I am a policeman. I am White. You are a Black. You will do as I say." And then there is the question of brutality. And the brutality has continued in this town and did not start to stop and government did not start to take some action until this town started burning. That's unfortunate. And we've had our share of burnings. But every time there has been a disturbance in this town, it's been because of police brutality.
Do you as an attorney and dealing with the community, do you recall any stories that sort of exemplify what you're talking about?
Absolutely, let me, let me give you a horror story. I represented a Black policeman, who was an undercover officer, who was making a phone call one night at a hotel, right on Biscayne Boulevard in plain clothes. Two cops walked up to him and said, "Boy, what are you doing?" He said, "Listen, I'm about to make a drug buy. I'm an undercover officer with the City of Miami Police Department. If you don't believe me, go look in my car. Look up under the seat and there's my badge or you can call Major Bronner, he'll verify." They said, "We'll verify something." They put him in it, in their car. This is a fellow policeman. Put him in the car. Took him to a warehouse area, beat him half to death and then one of the, then they called their sergeant. Then they discovered the guy really is a fellow policeman. They then said to themselves, "What do we do with him now?" Took him to the hospital. Didn't let his family see him for two days. Wife doesn't know where here husband is. Big cover up. That's against a fellow policeman. There are untold stories of people I've represented and other lawyers have represented, where one policeman, a young kid was running away, the policemen caught him, grabbed him down from a fence, kicked him, eye gone. There are thousands and thousands of stories like that.
Is Miami and its relationship to the police and police and the treatment of Blacks in Miami, is there anything unique or special there, I mean, is it different than anyplace else in America? I mean, what makes this like that?
I think that it's like that because of what the structure of the Miami Police Department has been over the years. And remember in Police Departments as in other sections of government, the middle management does not move very often. It stays the same and those same hard, cold kinds of attitudes prevail at the middle management level and then trickles down to the guy on the beat because he knows he can whoop up against the brother's head anytime, nothing's going to happen but a reprimand. And until we change that middle part it's not going to change. There are some efforts to do that now. Obviously, there's a Black police chief. But even that doesn't change the middle management where the real day to day decisions are made. I'm not talking about policy. I'm talking about day to day decisions.
OK, let's stop down.
Do you think the Black middle class has abandoned Overtown?
The Black middle class has abandoned Overtown in fact and in spirit. Anybody who even has, faintly, come up with the idea that Overtown is coming back alive, sadly mistaken. It's dead. Gone. Forever.
You said in so many words that Overtown is dead and is not going to come back. Tell me that and tell me why.
Overtown is dead because, two or three reasons. One, people, the class of people who once made Overtown thrive, moved to suburbia. They come in in the morning and they go out in the afternoon. There is nothing to draw people to Overtown now. What exists in Overtown now is government and that's not the kind of thing that made Overtown grow. It will be prosperous but not prosperous in the sense that it will be a mecca, a social setting for Black Miami.
When, after the riots Jimmy Carter came to town, were you in that meeting that's reported that Carter made a lot of promises about helping the Liberty City, helping the Overtown area?
I wasn't in the meeting, no I was not.
How did Black people respond to the charge that a lot of people in three-piece suits sold them out after the riots, that nothing really has changed or is going to change?
I think that out there in the streets and in little houses across Miami, people were distrustful of a good number of people who call themselves leaders. For example, the White structure, power structure, after one disturbance brought in Andy Young. People said, "Why are you bringing Andy Young in here to solve a problem that we can tell you about?" And that's happened over and over and over again, that much of the power structure, has absolutely been insensitive to the concerns here. Now, the other part of it is, We have not been as militant as we should have been. There is no way we should have let Overtown disappear. But we got snookered. And we got snookered because we were not minding our knitting. We should have been there, the governmental board meetings, at the meetings that talk about development. We were not there. And we trusted people that it was going to be OK**.
So, politics is part of the answer somehow or another or was part of the answer for Overtown.
Was part of the answer, is part of the answer. It is all politics.
Put politics in the subject again, politics will part of it.
Politics, the whole destruction of Overtown can be related to politics. Because it was the politicians who we did not, quote control, where we had no representative there to look out for our interests and the interest that, that the politicians looked out for were the interests of the landlords who lived on Miami Beach but who owned the property over here, for the bond issues that were going to be passed to build this that helps their friends. Black people were not even thought about, no more than, here's the area. We can move them out. I mean you had entrepreneurs going around offering people money for their property when they knew what the master plan was. And here was Black Miami, not even knowing. And one of the things we were not part of the process. We were locked out the process. So, if we didn't know what went on at the meeting, before the meeting, there's no way for you to get the full impact of what the meeting is about.
Does the at-large voting system here in Dade County, Miami, you know, at-large representation. Does that, is that a strong factor?
The at-large voting system is bad for Black Miami. It is most difficult to get elected in this county of two million, almost two million people, with at-large voting. We have never had a single person elected in this county who is Black, full time, except where the person was first appointed and then built some coalitions. But the voting has gone, when people run along racial lines.