For Jessica Garrett Modkins, our old neighborhood has taken on a meaning greater than simply the place where the children on the block gathered to jump rope, play dodge ball, four square and hide-and-seek; where the Candy Lady displayed every sweet and jarred goody available on her dining room table or a table set-up in the garage; where children identified where they lived by two simple words: “The Old Section” or “The New Section.”
As if those wonderful memories were not enough to sustain all of us, she and her mother, Patricia Garrett, have worked tirelessly for two years to write a concise history of our southwest Miami neighborhood known as Richmond Heights. The end result is Images of America: Miami’s Richmond Heights, published at the end of 2013 and followed shortly after by the creation of The Historic Society of Richmond Heights.
What Garrett Modkins and her mother would discover during their research would change my friend’s life profoundly.
“I just feel as if my purpose right now – I don’t know what’s going to happen 10 years from now, I feel very strongly about honoring the people who created that community. I just feel it is very important for their story to be told, the first people who moved in,” she says, her voice choking with emotion. “I just think they are supposed to be honored, and so I am doing it.”
Garrett Modkins’ feelings about Richmond Heights go above and beyond the deep nostalgia I feel for my childhood neighborhood, where both of my aunts and an uncle still reside, where my grandmother, grandfather and father are buried, and where the church where I gave my life to Christ still sits today. It is home to my sixth-grade school and my junior high school. It is where I had my first major crush on a boy who lived only blocks from us in The New Section.
Even today the people from my neighborhood block have a special bond. When Garrett Modkins runs into people from her street, they yell out to each other, “Polk Street,” in a greeting filled with memories and love of their popular street in The Old Section of the neighborhood.
A bit of history for you here: Richmond Heights was founded after World War II, in 1949, by Captain Frank C. Martin, a white pilot for the now-defunct Pan American Airlines. He created the neighborhood for African American WWII veterans. Martin, a veteran himself, had great admiration for black soldiers’ fighting spirit and fortitude despite the racism they routinely faced. He thought they deserved better.
According to Wikipedia, “Richmond Heights became the standards for developers, nationwide, to provide quality homes for African-Americans without skimping on land, materials and labor.”
The community would become home to thousands of middle class black families and many residents who would lead the civil rights movement in Florida and who would go on to become lawyers, doctors, politicians and the like. The community today is home to descendants of the original community pioneers and they bear witness to the legacy of Martin.
This weekend – October 16 and 17, the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau and The Historic Society of Richmond Heights will host the third annual Historic Weekend in Celebration of Richmond Heights with a gala at the Rusty Pelican on Friday night and a symposium at Frank C. Martin International K-8 Center on Saturday.
According to the Historic Society, The Symposium: An Afternoon with the Richmond Height’s Community will feature a discussion of residents’ social lives during segregation, the struggle to open Richmond Heights Elementary School and the historic ledger with property sales information. Guests will also have the opportunity to learn more about the neighborhood’s historical legacy and political leaders’ vision for the community, how it translated to residents, and President Harry Truman’s involvement in 1940s social change.
Expected to attend the symposium is Captain Franck Carroll Martin, son of Richmond Heights’ founder.
“All of this rich history that I was a part of and I had no idea what happened before I went out to play kick ball and the lights would come on and my mom would call me to come into the house. I just thought it was a regular community like anywhere else,” said Garrett Modkins.
About this weekend’s events, she adds: “You never know what might spark your spirit from being there. Just knowing where you come from. There is something about that that you cannot deny.”
Alison Bethel McKenzie firstname.lastname@example.org is a veteran newspaper editor and former executive director of the International Press Institute in Vienna, Austria.