RICHMOND HEIGHTS — To mark the 65th anniversary of the founding of Richmond Heights, Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss launched a nationwide search for relatives of the 26 families who bought into the first planned neighborhood developed for black veterans of World War II.
Richmond Heights, one of South Florida’s most tight-knit enclaves in South Miami-Dade, emerged from the rocky terrain that used to be a timber company’s property, thanks significantly to the vision and efforts of a white pilot from Wyoming.
The dedication of the Richmond Heights Pioneers Monument will be on May 26, 10:30 a.m., at 14440 Lincoln Blvd. (across from the Bethel Church).
At a community meeting on Friday, Moss’ office said the response from original residents to his invitation to the dedication was low.
“I feel more people know about it then his office knows,” said Patricia Harper Garrett, a Richmond Heights resident who started the Facebook page, Richmond Heights Legacy: The Children of The Heights, as a way to reach out to former residents. “I will be attending and will help in anyway I can.”
HOME FOR BLACK GIS
Richmond Heights was the idea of Captain Frank Crawford Martin, a former U.S. Army Air Corps pilot, who saw firsthand unfair treatment of African-American soldiers who fought to defeat fascism overseas during World War II. Due to segregation black soldiers were not allowed to live on military bases.
Captain Martin’s motivation for the development of the community was simple: Redress for injustices inflicted on black servicemen and women during the war. According to his son, Frank Carroll Martin, the elder Martin saw Richmond Heights as a fulfillment of the promise of democracy that African-Americans fought for in Europe and the Pacific.
Before World War II, Martin, a pilot for Miami’s Pan American Airlines, bought the land that would later become Richmond Heights from the Richmond Timber Co. The younger Martin said that after the war, his father’s “main concern was black GIs that were coming back.”
“His main idea was to educate the youngsters and provide a great family life. He wanted to help people,” said Frank Carroll Martin. Richmond Heights, located just north of Southwest 152nd Street and East of the Turnpike, became a national model of neighborhood planning.
Some families from the early days were present at the community’s first founding day events back in December 2003 and shared their personal histories of Richmond Heights.
Samuel Armstrong was living in the James E. Scott housing projects in Liberty City when he came back from the war. Having seen much of the world during his tour of duty, he wanted a bigger slice of the American Dream.
“When we move out of here we’re going to move into our own home,” Armstrong recollected saying to his young wife.
Armstrong and his wife Queen moved into Richmond Heights on April 1, 1950 and what they found was that the work was just beginning.
“There were a whole lot of things that needed doing” to build up the fledgling community, said Armstrong. For example, he and other Richmond Heights trailblazers set out to get public telephones from Southern Bell installed as well as street lights from Florida Power & Light.
Queen Armstrong shared with the audience in the spacious auditorium of Richmond Middle School, which was also celebrating its 50th anniversary as part of the festivities, that “when we moved here there was no school.” That meant that children had to catch a bus to R. R. Moten Elementary School about 20 minutes away.
The families did not have to wait long for their children to have a school closer to home.
Martin donated 20 acres in the heart of Richmond Heights to a Dade County school board that was not interested at that time in building more schools for black students. Nonetheless, the school, Richmond Heights Elementary, opened on Sept. 4, 1952 – just a year after Martin died. The school was later renamed after Martin in 1956 and it still bears his name today.
During the days that Miami-Dade County’s schools were still segregated, Richmond Heights’ teenagers went to either Carver High in Coconut Grove or Mays High in Goulds. Kristal Bentley-Hickmon, the current principal and a former student at Richmond Middle School, pointed out that “education is still No. 1” in Richmond Heights.
There were also no stores nearby so every week a man drove by selling meats and vegetables out of his truck which was important in an era when virtually every family lived in a one-car household.
Swimming at Crandon Park on Key Biscayne to the north was off limits for Miami’s black community so a women’s group called the Richmond Civics Club used school busses to take children to learn how to swim at a small beach in Homestead named “Black Beach.”
Jackie Cambridge Porter remembered dusty roads and the local teenage club singing Christmas carols in front of Richmond Heights’ homes painted in pleasing pastel tones.
Doran Porter said that “growing up in the Heights was a wonderful thing.”
GROWING ‘THE HEIGHTS’
Captain Martin had originally planned to cultivate groves of mangos, avocados and other tropical fruit on the vast swatch he bought, said his son. He started with papaya but a devastating hurricane and what he saw during the Second World War changed that. He cultivated a neighborhood instead.
Local luminaries such as attorney H. T. Smith, the late state legislator Larcenia Bullard and Rev. John Ferguson are all part of the Richmond Heights story. State Sen. Dwight Bullard was born and raised in Richmond Heights and for him, “the story of the Heights is a story that needs to be told.”
The December event toasting “the Heights,” as its residents affectionately call their community, all sprung from the publication a book chronicling the history of Richmond Heights, co-authored by a mother-daughter team that both grew up in the area.
Images of America: Miami’s Richmond Heights was written by Garrett, the Richmond Heights Facebook founder and retired educator, and Jessica Garrett Modkins, a journalist and marketing communications executive.
Modkins created a non-profit organization that will continue the work of documenting and commemorating the history of Richmond Heights.
The book is the first phase of an initiative that will also put together a documentary film and work toward designating the Heights as a national historic district as well as creating a building to permanently house the treasures and archives of the community. Ultimately, the hope is that Richmond Heights will be an important destination for tours that want to experience a vibrant and living piece of Miami’s history, Modkins said.