Interviewer: Madison Davis Lacy, Jr.
Production Team: C, A
Interview Date: June 20, 1989
Camera Rolls: 1113-1115
Sound Rolls: 150-152
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Otis Pitts, 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.
When you were a policeman walking the beat in Overtown, what was it like? How did you feel in the community in that day?
Well, being a policeman in 1970s was a very challenging I think for most Blacks because it was at a time when the country was still going through a tumult about, ah, you know, ah, the pigs, et cetera, et cetera. And for a Black officer it was real tough because you, you were considered in some cases to be a traitor, quote, unquote. So it's always, you felt very ambivalent about being a police officer. I mean, my father is a retired policeman so, you know, I had sort of tradition in the family and I, of course, held a, you know, police officers in sort of high regard. But it was a little difficult and I did feel rather mixed emotions myself about it because, ah, I really felt that the police department and law enforcement, probably in general, ah, the criminal justice system I guess in general, was, in my opinion, still the conservative. So, you found yourself carrying a lot of water, being a policeman because there were a lot of racist policemen still in the police department. There's a, there's a lot of racist practices as such. Ah, so you always have sort of an ambivalent feeling about it. You also recognized that some of the problems that you encountered on that beat were problems that were real outgrowths of poverty as such. And so you weren't always sure what you were, what you were fighting at some point. And I think offers a rather introspective and, you know, a fairly philosophical period, I guess in, in America I guess.
Now, you walked a beat in Overtown, a place where you grew up. Tell me what Overtown was like.
Well, at the time Overtown was a, was a bustling community. I mean, ah, it was somewhat on the decline but it was still, I mean it was still a lot, you know, of the economic viability that it had was still there, I mean we had, ah, a sort of night life infrastructure there where the city didn't close down. I mean it just stayed open all night long and other entertainers would come in etcetera. We had restaurants, ah, all kinds of shops. I mean it literally was a, a complete community a self contained community. Ah, a very exciting place to be, you know, ah, there was always something going on all the time. So, ah, I enjoyed the beat. I mean it was a familiar area for me, one. Lot of friends there, ah, and that was both, ah, you know helpful and sometimes harmful, I mean, to have that, you know, friends. But, I enjoyed it and it was a, it was a great community.
Tell me about how your father had a couple of stores in Overtown and had to move. I mean why?
Yeah, my father owned, ah, several small business in Overtown. And of course one of them, ah, the area where it, it was is now an expressway through that area. And then on 20th Street, I mean they literally came and bought out those businesses there. And they received small amount of compensation for the businesses. If a business was among one of the ones that were, you know, they were, they were bought out so we had to move because of urban renewal and, ah, a lot of, you know, construction and housing, etcetera that was placed in that area. So all the commercial, ah, ah, enterprises as such were just destroyed in that area. And, ah, of course he was displaced and removed his businesses to Liberty City.
Now, you talked about the economic isolation of Overtown in the Black community. Tell me what you meant by that and how did that happen?
Well, you know, of course being in the South, I mean, you know, ah, we actually in fact had both de jure and de facto segregation. So, a lot of the isolation, ah, just remained over time. And as the larger community grew, etcetera, in spite of integration. I mean it didn't include the Black community. Ah, it just grew around it in effect. And a lot of the, you know the viability and the growth of Miami, et cetera, never included the Black community. It continued to shrink pretty much and, ah, almost in some cases, I guess, I'll describe as dying on the vine. You know a lot of what was viable in the community, ah, really was sort of skimmed away into a larger community, a lot of the night life as such that often attracted Whites and others to our community, those entertainers that were, you know, the best as such were, were then working in White clubs, you know, so there was no need for the White community to come to our community anymore. I mean a lot of, ah, what we had in the way of food, etcetera, conch salad, which was something that people came to Overtown to get was now being sold in White restaurants. You know, so we found a lot of what we had was sort of gleaned away or skimmed off and taken to a larger community and, ah. So, it lost a lot of its viability. And, everything was built around there and even today, I mean, there's been no real effort to include the Black communities in the overall planning that occurs, ah, in this town. I mean there's planning around it. There's planning which displaces this community. Ah, there have plans that have included parts of the community but not to for the benefit of the indigenous population but rather to track others into the area and often those others just on the mere, on the mere basis of pricing of the housing, etcetera as a result of the allowed displacement of Blacks in this community.
So, it feels like Overtown, the Black community is like a hole in the donut. Would you describe it as such.
I think that's, a, that's an accurate description that, ah, it really is the hole in the donut.
Let's stop now.
Is it fair and can you differentiate between Overtown and Liberty City for me?
Yes, I think you can in the sense that Overtown, ah, from a historical perspective was where Blacks were in the main, ah, in the 30s and '40s and such, ah, and in the early '50s and then, after so-called urban renewal and, ah, the expressway was built through that community. It sort of bifurcated the community and really displaced, literally tens of thousands of Blacks who then moved to Liberty City. So, I think from a historical perspective, yes there's a difference in that regard. But many of the people who live there, you know, relocated in the Liberty City area. And, ah, created, you know, sort of a move north, as such.
You were telling me about the parade that used to happen in Overtown. Tell me about the parade.
Yeah, we used to have a parade, ah, FAM-U. At the time it was FAM-C. And, ah, they would come down, just before they're big game. You'd have the big, ah, Orange Blossom Classic as such. I mean and it was literally, ah, a weekend of excitement. Everyone would get up for it. I mean, ah, all the students came back and we usually had Blacks coming from all the country to come to this game.
Let me stop you right there. Our audience will not know what FAM-U is. So, when you say FAM-U, say Florida, A&M University. Start again.
Yes, we used to have a parade, ah, for Florida AM, University.--
We used to have a parade, ah, just before Florida A&M University's big game each year called the Orange Blossom Classic. And it was really a major event in this community. I mean, ah, Blacks came from all over the country to see this game. Ah, it was just a, business was just alive, ah, all the businesses made a lot of money because they had, the restaurants were all active and hotels were, were filled with guests and, ah, I mean it was a very exciting time in the community. And it was a tradition each year, ah, it was during the time that Miami was segregated and the main was occurred. So we had the Orange Bowl Stadium would be, ah, really at two sides. I mean one side would be Whites and the other sides would Blacks. I mean, but, it had a larger, quite a White audience during the segregation than it does now. I mean it was just a major event in this city.
Now you told me that your family moved out for some key reasons. Do you remember what you said? Tell me, tell me why your family moved out?
Well, my, my family, ah, my family was, two reasons. First my father moved out of Overtown with us when we were quite small. Ah, the family was young too. He was a GI and had a chance to take advantage of the GI Bill and he moved to a, an area where they had built several little developments and such. A lot of GIs moved out to move in that area. Ah, then subsequently when I, of course, was trying to start my family and to find a place to live, I moved out as well. And it's really to find decent housing because, ah, most of the housing was, ah, in fairly poor shape especially in Liberty City and to a great degree that still remains. Ah, but there have been some improvements made.
OK, let's stop there.
In, in response to the question. You're saying that I noticed. I mean I was trying. What, what do you want me to sort of talk about?
I want you to talk about how the attitude was reinforced by the award system.
Tell me about the attitude of the police to the Black community around 1979 or so.
I think generally, the Police Department, ah, historically had viewed the Black community as, you know, kind of a combat zone and, ah, you know, it wasn't the matter of fighting crime. They often said they were fighting the people in that community. You know, ah, beyond that, I mean that was sort of reinforced within the Police Department itself. Ah, you would find for an example, when Chief Garmire came in and talked about not shooting people, ah, fleeing felons unless they were, you know, posing some imminent danger to someone or whatever else. There was a lot of, ah, you know resistance to that in the Police Department because prior to that, the old Chief Headley, you know, had an order out during the 1967 riot to shoot to kill kind of thing. So there was a lot of built in resistance to that. And so when we'd get a memo from the chief that would be read in the roll-call room, I mean the, it would be preceded by the sergeant saying, "All right fellows, we got to listen up". And you could hear in the voice of the sergeant that there was no enthusiasm for supporting what had come down from the chief as such. He was talking about integrating the Police Department. He was talking about a community relations section which he started. And those were all like little, little sissy sections. You didn't want to be involved in that. Beyond that, I mean, you wanted to get the coveted award which the Officer of the Month Award. You know, that was the cowboy award. That was the one that, that you bring some cat in bleeding in the handcuff and dragged him in the station, kind of thing. That was the award that you really went after and the one that led to you becoming Officer of the Year really. But the Courteous Officer of the Month Award which is one you got for helping somebody, for assisting somebody in trouble, for, that kind of thing, I mean that was an award that was really, the one that really coveted it. You got that one, ah, if nice old ladies wrote in and said something about you, whatever. So, you found the behavior in the Police Department being skewed toward the tough guy, macho kind of whatever else, as opposed to, someone out there helping, you know. And you found that when, ah, where helping occurred in effect, it occurred in, ah, the White community. Ah, and there was less that attitude in the Black community. I mean the Black community was, you know, let's go in and, ah, whip some heads and take some people to jail kind of thing.
So you were talking about what the police would get in the White communities versus Black communities. T- tell me that again.
Yeah, I mean you found the police officers getting their Courteous Officer of the Month Award for work they often did in the White community. But, ah, you know you got the, you make the Officer of the Month in the Black community, you got people out there that busts some heads and make the arrests, etcetera. It often resulted in is police officers upgrading arrests. Where they may have a B&E of a, of an auto, ah, entering auto, you know, it's a moderate thing. They'll beef it up to a B&E of an auto because they got a bigger charge out of it. You couldn't make Officer of the Month for the nice things you did. You made it for the hard crimes, the Part 1 crimes you got. So, ah, and you did that in the Black community in the main.
Were you surprised when Arthur McDuffie was, ah, when you heard about Arthur McDuffie's beating at the hands of those cops in 1979?
Well, I, in one sense, I mean, you always are surprised by things like that because you want to hope for the best but, ah, having been there, having seen the kind of frenzy that almost occurs whenever there's a chase. You know, I've seen guys at the end of those chases in the past, get, pushed around real good. That was a extent that resulted in a death. So I guess that was a logical extension of what was going on because these things always ended with officers roughing up the suspect. I mean that has, that has happened historically in the Police Department. End of a chase, everybody's excited. When they seize the suspect, usually they go into some kind of, you see somebody's going to, is overreact minimally. So, it was not something not to be expected.
Were you surprised at the response from the community?
Ah, I was not surprised by what was happening on the part of the community. I mean I think that all meaningful, I mean, or responsible people of this community felt the outrage at this officers being found not guilty. Ah, and for the Black community to over, I mean to act the way it did. It waited un- for the courts to have at it. I mean it gave the justice system a chance to, to do its thing, ah, in spite of the fact that it changed the venue and everything else. So, this community gave this community, I mean gave the criminal justice system a chance to work. And when it didn't, in a case where it was very obvious, these officers were guilty. Other officers testified against other officers, which is a code you seldom break in the Police Department. When you find that kind of thing happening you got a crime on your hand. Ah, and, ah, this community just, just refused to accept that kind of disregard for, for Black life, I mean of a man who clearly was not involved in any serious crime and at best was, a- committed a traffic violation.
Afterwards, after the riots. In comes Jimmy Carter with a lot of promises. Were you at that meeting with Jimmy Carter by the way?
I wasn't in the building. I happened to be outside at the time. I mean it was like, ah, sort of a closed meeting. Ah, but I was there when he came out. And, ah, the community did not appreciate his visit to Miami.
All right, what spurred you- what about this- wait a minute. Stop down.
You were telling me that after the riots you saw some needs in the community and sought to take action on it. What was it and what did you do? How did you go about it?
Well, there were of course, ah, a lot of, ah, issues that were being addressed at that time. Some were social and others were economic. Ah, of course we were more interested in focusing on the economic issues. We were, at the time, I say we, I was at the Belafonte Tacolcy Center, which is a center that Harry Belafonte helped to establish back in the '60s. Ah, and we were trying to focus on some other issues. And there were several groups that had come to Miami. The federal government was here making all kinds of promises. There were foundations here talking about helping out, etcetera. And, ah, we got involved with both the Ford Foundation in a more limited way and a local Institute of Support Corporation which is a Ford Foundation spin-off, ah. Got us interested in looking at economic development issues as such. And of course one of the things we focused on was the project we're sitting in right now. Ah, the, it was an abandoned super market after the riots of 1980. They had been looted and, ah, vandalized. There were several groups attempting to do something about it. There was one group called the Godfathers, as such, that was formed by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. And I, it had an attitude, I think, about Black businesses in the Black community, which I, personally had problems with. Ah, but I was, ah, I'm happy to say that, ah. Also, they were unsuccessful in doing anything about this project. After many efforts, you know, trying to do something about it in different configurations, they had some sense that, to make this project viable, you should bring the Black churches in, you know, and convince them that the issue, ah, you know, shop at a shopping center, etcetera, the kind of, ah, naive view that often is held by the larger community. Ah, we of course, approached it in a totally different way. We felt that a real market existed for a shopping center here and we set about proving that that market existed and to approach it as a purely business proposition. And based upon that, we then approached an anchor tenant about the, ah, about the shopping center, several super market chains, but of course ended up discussing, one serious discussion with Winn-Dixie about it and purely on a business basis. Ah, we didn't talk about our community needing a super market. We didn't, ah, sort of, target it at Winn-Dixie's emotions. We came in here and said that there was a market available here, ah, that, ah, there was some money to be made, ah, that we one, were capable of producing, ah, ah, a shopping center, if you will, developing one for them. Ah, we could retrofit the space to meet, ah, their needs, etcetera. And we convinced them in that, that, that was, that we were capable of doing that.
There must have been an image problem with trying to retrofit a shopping center, super market in this area. How did you attack it? How did you deal with that?
Well there were several problems. One is, of course, it was on the heel of the riots and of course the super market had already been here. So, I mean, Winn-Dixie wasn't necessarily, I mean that enthusiastic about coming here. Ah, but we did convince them that, ah, one, we could do it because we assembled a team of people, one, who had the expertise to do it. We brought in, ah, several Black businessmen who, one, one gentleman ran a super market chain in Baltimore. Ah, ah, some eight, had some eight stores, doing about $25,000,000 a year. And those stores were in former A&P stores. So he had shown that he could go into a market where, it had been abandoned, you know, by, a, you know, a large chain and had made stores work. So we had a man who had experience in inner city super markets who was there as a part of our team. The second guy we had involved, ah, had extensive experience in business packaging and the third person was a, a, a, a developer, a city developer who owned his own firm, he and his partner, in fact. And so we had the team that, with all the requisite expertise, were developing a shopping center, who, ah, was able to talk to any professionals about, about this deal. I mean to talk to engineers, to talk to banks, to talk to Winn-Dixie, etcetera, ah, about its business and show a lot of knowledge about that business. Ah, the one guy, Henry Edwards, who ran an inner city super market chain had worked with Jewel Foods, ah, was, was Harvard educated. I mean, ah, he knew a lot about the business so he, he didn't go in talking on the basis of any foolishness. He talked about the business of running super markets.
How did the super market chains, chain you ultimately attracted respond to this kind of approach which was like straight up mainstream?
Well, what we found was, was that they really responded in a very businesslike way once we approached them on a businesslike basis. I mean, they, they really start posturing about, ah, you know trying to get the, get the right rents, etcetera. I mean once they recognize it was there. But I have to give one guy a lot of credit. It was their architect for Winn-Dixie. I mean, it was, was tough to come in and retrofit a, a, a super market into an existing building, ah, ah, building because of all of the mechanicals, etcetera, associated with that and pretty interesting to understand what that involves. But he thought it was a challenge that he wanted to undertake but beyond that he felt that it was do-able, you know. So there was some reluctance to, to try to see if they couldn't fit it in here. Once we convince them the market, etcetera was here. With the convention tha- we had convinced them also that we had a building that we could convert to meet its needs because, it has a definite layout in the super market business to get some, ah, certain economies and certain efficiencies, etcetera. But we convinced them that we were capable of putting together, so. It was a very positive response once, ah, Winn-Dixie was assured that we could, in fact, deliver what we were talking about.
As the process is going on now, do you recall any story of any incident that illustrates what you had to do to get over.
Yeah, we had one guy who represented Winn-Dixie and, ah, and Winn-Dixie is a, is a, is a southern operation as such. I mean, ah, you could, you could describe some of the leaders as "good ol' boys". But they're very smart and bright people. They know their business and, ah, you can, ah, be disarmed by their friendly southern way. Ah, but he's a very tough negotiator and he came in to start setting the stage for negotiating a lower rent, start talking about, we know this is a, this is a dangerous community and all the other stuff but we had people who were experienced, understood what was going on. So, I mean we stayed, you know, we took a tough line about what we wanted out of it and eventually we arrived at number that we could agree on that worked for them and it worked for us, you know. So, there were some posturing, you know, ah, ah, posturing, if you will, on their part to try to negotiate the best deal. Ah, but it was that kind of thing more than anything else. But once they were comfortable with the team that we had people in place who could develop the project, etcetera. It was a deal, I mean, it wasn't, wasn't tough but it was convincing them that we were there about business and weren't going to talk about social issues.
All right, let's cut here.
You were working with youngsters at the Tacolcy Center in '79, '80. What was it like for the youngster facing the summer?
Well, you know, one of the frustrating things for, I think in this community obviously and I think across the country in dealing with young people is that each year at the end of school, I mean, you had all these youngsters who would come in looking for these summer jobs as such that were sponsored through the CETA program. You had thousands of youngsters that would come in and to apply for hundreds of jobs. And so, you'd start the summer off by sending away nine tenths of the youngsters who came there, you know, frustrated because they couldn't find employment, couldn't, because it just wasn't available. There was never adequate funds to, to fund these, ah, you know, jobs for these young people. So, every year we experienced that. And that was our big frustration, just handling that hoard of youngsters that came in that we knew that we could not provide jobs for. So, they'd leave there with heightened expectations, heightened frustrations, the whole nine yards. There was no way of us, for us to really help them as such. And there were no opportunities, employment opportunities in the larger community for them either.
Do you think that played a role in that riot?
I think, I think it does. I mean I think you find youngsters very frustrated by not feeling a part of the system as such, not being able to realize their aspirations. I mean these youngsters need that money, I mean just to buy school clothes, go back to school next year. So, it's not just some little extra job they're doing just to occupy themselves in the summer. That money often-times helped to, to sustain the family. I mean it would actually put meat on the table as such. So, it had a very real role I mean in, in, in the sustenance of those families.
This is your opportunity to tell me some stuff now. Tell me your approach towards self-determination for yourself as an entrepreneur, for your company and people working with you and as it relates to this community and its hopes for the future, talk to me about that.
Well, I, I think ultimately, I mean, you know we have to recognize that even, no matter how well intentioned people are, that we'll have to solve our own problems ultimately. I mean at best we can receive some assistance in doing that but the solution has to be ours and ultimately we have implement the solution**. So, it's about us doing it for ourselves in the final analysis, maybe with the assistance of others but clearly our own effort. And so therefore, we got to look at the opportunities in our, in our communities. I mean to become more economically viable and to create a wherewithal out of it. I think the stuff, if you will, for doing that is already in place. I mean it's clearly been the fortunes of others. We got to now make it a fortune for ourselves. I mean we spend an enormous amount of money for all kinds of goods and services but they've been spent outside this community. So therefore, you know, jobs, wealth, etcetera is created upon a transaction. You know if everything is being bought outside your community, etcetera, being made outside your community, that's where the economic centers are being developed. We've got to now begin to look at creating those things in our own community with our own resources currently, not to find new money, just existing money which we currently expend in this country is sufficient to start an economic, I mean, just a, you know, ah, via- I mean an economic plan to revitalize our communities.
Tell me the story about the man across the street with the shoe store and what's happening with him as for- as related to this shopping center.
Well, you know, when this shopping center started, I mean, ah, we, to some degree feel we catalyzed in development in this area. First of all, it gave the community itself a sense that something was occurring, you know, that there was some investment being made in the community. But it also encouraged the merchants around this area to start to sort of gearing up because they knew this community, the shopping center would bring literally thousands of people in. We thought it would bring about six thousand. It's bringing closer to seventeen thousand people a week into this community. So, that's something that other merchants can benefit and feed off of. So, one of the guys next door, here, built a small strip shopping center of his own and started a little shoe store in there. I mean he started with a very small operation. He just thought he'd make some, a little extra money. The thing has outgrown even what he thought it would, would, would be. I mean just today he's talking about expanding further and, and fixing mannequins in the window and he's providing employment for people, the whole nine yards. So, there's a kind of economic, ah, revitalization occurring not only in this community but across this country. I mean in Black communities there's an entrepreneurial class that's now emerging, ah, and it's being nurtured I guess in some communities by community development corporations and in some cases even local governments and the federal government, more procurement opportunities, etcetera. So, specific in this area, I mean our approach about this is that with the process on a purely business basis, it, it's not an emotional issue, ah, and revitalizing communities is nothing unique or different for any community. I mean the development process works in Black communities, White communities, etcetera. I mean, ah, again a case in point would be, what happened in Baltimore. I mean, ah, with, with the Rouse project. I mean those kind of catalytic projects, no matter where you initiate them, I mean catalyze an investment momentum and the same is true in the Black community.
OK, we can cut here.