Johnson and his friends saw a need for cabs to service black communities.
“Times were tough. Blacks couldn’t ride in white cabs and whites couldn’t ride in black cabs. That was the law,” Johnson says. “Not only that, there were no cabs in black areas. They just didn’t exist, so something needed to be done.”
By 1960, Johnson had become president of the successful company, a position passed to his son Eldrick when he retired at age 82 in 2006.
For decades, Society Cab’s easily recognizable black-and-mint cars emblazoned with the image of a top hat, gloves and a cane, ferried thousands of loyal customers through Overtown, Brownsville and Liberty City.
Society Cab is often the only company that will pick up fares, especially at night, in the Liberty City area.
But owning a business in these neighborhoods comes with risks and Eldrick Johnson says the company has seen its share of violence through the years, operating in the midst of riots and gang warfare.
“It depends on what part of the neighborhood we’re in, we may not pick someone up because we know what they’re up to,” he says. Society has also been known to, on occasion, pick up fares from regular Miami cabs whose drivers call the company to take passengers into black neighborhoods they’re reluctant to enter.
“It used to be a regular thing but it’s slowed down,” says Eldrick Johnson. “About five years ago it was really bad; it’s been much better now. The crooks are either dead or in jail.”
On the other hand, Johnson says someone recently stole a cab from the company’s lot. It took two weeks before someone called saying they’d seen the vehicle and he got it back.
The thief was never caught.
“The neighborhood has changed a lot, there are not too many good people left around. The young people run it and they’ve got different ideals,” says the elder Johnson, Ernest. “A long time ago when I started, people didn’t mind working but now they do.”
The decision to merge Society with Yellow Cab came when the declining economy collided with a Miami-Dade requirement that taxis be less than five years old.
Many of Society’s cars were older than that and the company’s customers likely could not afford the higher fares it would have to charge to comply with the regulation.
Eldrick Johnson takes issue with rule.
“I don’t think it depends on the year of the car, it depends only on how well the person takes care of the cab,” he says. “It’s about the maintenance. I could buy a brand-new Mercedes-Benz tomorrow and have it roughed up and not able to drive the next day.”
The county eventually agreed to exempt Society, but the company’s struggles grew. Rising insurance costs and gas prices, unpaid fares and low-ball tips from customers left Society Cab barely surviving.
A merger became the only option. “There weren’t enough cabs to pay the expenses so we went to Yellow Cab Co.,” says Ernest Johnson.
The company made a business decision to abandon the traditional black-and-mint color scheme and painted its cars yellow, but retained the iconic top hat, cane and gloves logo.
“Economically it was better to go yellow because with black and mint, we were associated with the inner city and people from outside the black communities didn’t want to get in the cab with us,” says Ernest Johnson.
The company now services all of Miami-Dade County but tries to remain close to the black communities where it got its start.
“We work really hard and we’ve seen it all. They need us so we work hard for them,” he says.
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