MIAMI – The strife is o’er, the battle done; The victory of life is won; The song of triumph has begun: Alleluia!
With those words from the hymn, retired educator Maud Newbold highlighted a recent celebration of four pioneer women who are buried in the city of Miami Cemetery.
Almost 100 people gathered at the city’s Legion Memorial Hall on March 14 for the 13th annual Women’s History Luncheon sponsored by the African American Committee of the Dade Heritage Trust, in partnership with the city of Miami.
They honored the lives and service of Victoria Empress Flowers Humes, Wilhelmina Rosalee Franks Jennings, Marie Louise Payne Rolle and Hildred Caroline Burnside Roberts.
After a welcome, prayer and blessing of the food, the committee presented a dramatic showcase similar to the TV talk show The View, with four women in the roles of Humes, Jennings, Rolle and Roberts, giving summaries of their lives in Voices from the Graves of the Miami City Cemetery 2011.
“I was a talented seamstress and eventually mastered knitting and crochet. I was also the first black woman to be an elevator operator,” said Humes through the voice of Vera Lee.
Jennings, Rolle and Roberts – played by Shirley Funches, Charesse Chester and Dr. Gay Outler, respectively – recounted aspects of their lives in similar fashion.
Family members of the pioneers were asked to stand and be recognized and they were given an opportunity to speak.
“My mother would have loved this because she loved genealogy and history,” said Patricia Braynon, 57, Jennings’ eldest daughter.
Braynon and her relatives brought the gown her mother had been christened in as an infant in 1896, along with a ship manifest from the S.S. Norman that had belonged to her grandfather from 1919.
She was pleased with the program.
“I think this is a great way to give the oral history of our community and keep the hopes and dreams of the deceased pioneers alive,” Braynon told South Florida Times.
Roberts’ granddaughter Gwen Johnson couldn’t hold back her emotions.
“I’m sorry. This is just so touching,” she said.
The script for the drama was written by Leome Culmer, also a pioneer who knew and worshipped with some of the honorees. After conducting intensive research, reading obituaries and interviewing family members, she turned her research into the skit.
“I knew a lot of the history from memory but wanted to be sure about some things,” Culmer said. “I put a lot of time into this because quite a bit of our history has been taken out of context and it’s important that it is correctly documented.”
Other highlights of the program included an a cappella medley of Negro spirituals and a brief history narrated by journalist Bea Hines.
City of Miami District 5 Commissioner Richard P. Dunn II presented proclamations to each pioneer’s family.
“I thank the organizers for their due diligence for this noble cause because we cannot ever forget the contributions made by those who came before us,” Dunn said.
Historian Enid Pinkney, who chairs the committee, said the program was another way to salute the legacy of blacks in Miami.
“We chose to do this because we felt African-American history wasn’t being recognized and respected. In fact, some people thought we had no history,” Pinkney said. “We want to make sure to educate ourselves and the community that not only do we have history, but it is a history worthy of celebration.”