MIAMI — Black History Month Tour Operator A.J. Scott has mixed feelings about the excursion he leads each year.
He is moved that the tour is offered for free by Miami-Dade County Transit to anyone who shows up on the designated days.
But he is worried that it is a shadow of what it used to be when it began in 1994.
Scott is old enough to remember going to luxurious Hampton House Motel in Brownsville to meet family members. He remembers the emotion his father shared when his wages increased because he was a member of a union that Joseph Caleb led. He remembers seeing Muhammad Ali running in Allapattah Park, and he remembers fraternizing Champ Burger, Ali’s restaurant.
These are just a few of the places where buses will roll on Saturday as riders listen to a narration of black Miami’s history.
“These tours are essential. They are important,” Scott said. “Each city has its own black history, and the tour highlights that.”
The tours were scheduled for only two days this February, a far cry from the daily tours that marked the program when it began. As of last year, the tours were still every Saturday in February.
This Saturday, Feb. 27 will be the last chance to experience the tour this year. It takes you throughout the county to historic landmarks to envision what life was like during segregation, including the heydays and shows which highlighted that era.
Riders can expect to see and hear about how black people who came to Coconut Grove from the Bahamas and other Southern states. They will visit neighborhoods where black businesses thrived, where black celebrities like Lena Horne, Nat King Cole and Martin Luther King Jr. entertained and were entertained. They will pass the remnants of a wall that used to separate white and black residents in Liberty City.
Some people, like Shirley Clarke, will pass the very place of their birth. Clarke, a member of the Eta Phi Beta sorority, was among a group of 17 children and parents on a field trip that took the tour last Saturday, Feb. 20.
When the bus tour reached some mid-rise apartment buildings at Northwest 14th Avenue and 64th Street, Clarke rose from her seat, pointed, and spoke, her voice filled with excitement and emotion: “I was born right there.”
In Clarke’s group was Joseph Caleb’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Camacho. The tour buses go by the center named after the man who championed labor issues for blacks in the 1960s and 1970s. He was murdered in 1972 as the leader of the Laborers International of North America, Local 478 (AFL-CIO), whose members were mostly black.
Scott, the tour operator, recalled how elated his father was after the union was able to raise wages from $1.15 to $5.30 per hour.
“He was so excited he went out and bought a new car,” Scott said.
Some of the riders on bus 6150 on Feb. 20 had gone before. Nancy Berry hasn’t missed one of the tour’s 17 years, and she has the accoutrements to prove it: Buttons, bags, notes.
She was hoping for something by which to mark this year’s tour. The comment cards have a removable bookmark on which Berry quickly noted the year, and she tucked it into her belongings.
It is the dedication of Berry and others like her which gives Scott hope that the tour is not in jeopardy.
“I would melt inside” if the tour ended, Scott said. “I have become fond of the tour. It is a great asset to the city.”
Sylvia Person, who has coordinated the Black History Tours for the last 14 years, said there is no talk of that – at least not yet.
Person said the tour was designed to familiarize people with historical sites around Miami-Dade County so that residents can, on their own time, return for more thorough inspections and further research.
That the buses do not go to community centers and schools for pick-up any more, and isn’t operated as frequently, is about finances.
“We don’t have the money to do it,” Person said. “We are a transportation entity.”
But for former Overtown resident Gloria Elvine, the tour was a way for her to expose her grandchildren to their storied heritage. She did not want to leave it up to schools.
“They only know what’s now,” she said of most of the younger generation. “To know where you are going, you have to know where you are coming from. These were hardworking people, and you still have to work hard for what you want. All they see is hip hop and making fast millions.”
Photo by Khary Bruyning. A.J. Scott
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Final leg of Miami-Dade County Transit’s 2010 Black History Month tours.
WHEN and WHERE: The bus departs at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 27 from the Stephen P. Clark Center at 111 NW First St. in downtown Miami. Expect to be on the tour for a minimum of four hours.
COST: The tour is free, but bring cash to buy lunch, books and other items from vendors along the route. You may bring snacks and beverages, although the buses make food stops. Entry to the buses is on a first-come, first-served basis.