Talmadge Willard Fair came to Miami-Dade 1963 as a fiery young man eager to tear down walls of segregation and make his mark in community service at the Urban League of Greater Miami. A half-century later, Fair is still at the helm of what is probably one of the most active Urban League units in the nation.
That prodding – and some of Fair’s alliances – have raised eyebrows more than a few times and placed him in the center of controversy with both powerbrokers and the people he was called to serve. He makes no apologies.
“I’ve never been apologetic and don’t plan to be. The work is too serious with the way black people are treated in this town,” Fair said in an interview for this story.
That level of commitment and longevity does not go unnoticed. The board of directors of the Urban League of Greater Miami will honor Fair on the golden anniversary of his leadership on Saturday, Oct. 12, with a festive gala at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach.
The celebration is expected to attract family, Urban League colleagues and well-wishers from throughout the United States – including Jeb Bush, the former Florida Republican governor who is among Fair’s trusted colleagues.
Fair is one of the few – if not the last – of a group of dynamic leaders who arose in Miami during the 1950s and 1960s to push for changes in social, economic and education systems.
His closest friends and brothers in the struggle – Joseph Caleb, Miller Dawkins, Bill Wynn and the Rev. Father Theodore Gibson – are now deceased. But Fair, 74, is still going strong and has no intention of quitting anytime soon, if ever.
“This is not a job, it’s a mission,” Fair said. “I plan to be here as long as there is breath in my body.”
Joining him in the celebration will be the widows of his fellow trailblazers – Nancy Dawkins, Yvonne Caleb, Evelyn Wynn and Thelma Gibson.
Gibson, 86, takes delight in Fair’s honor, which she believes he deserves for achieving such a rare milestone.
“I’ve watched him through these 50 years,” she said. “When he moved into his present office … I saw him build that from a small place into a big structure. I admire him for all the work he’s done to help people of all colors move up into different areas.”
Fair’s activism began as a student at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., but grew full throttle in the early 1960s while in graduate school at Atlanta University. The self-described “militant rabble rouser” gravitated toward the burgeoning student protests for equal rights.
He drove around the city with a trunk full of signs in search of demonstrations. “I’d ask, ‘What are y’all protesting?’ If I didn’t have a sign, I’d make one and get in line,” he said.
After grad school – and failed attempts to enter doctoral programs -a North Carolina mentor suggested that Fair look for a job in the Urban League movement. A position in Miami opened up and the mentor urged him to apply.
“He said things were getting ready to change” and the Urban League would be at the forefront, Fair said. In October 1963, he took a position as assistant director for educational youth incentives and job placement.
Blacks in Miami had not yet broken barriers in employment at the airlines, department stores and in certain skilled
positions at Florida Power & Light.
They were not on corporate boards. Fair started a leadership academy to train more than 400 people to get ready for such positions. The Urban League also successfully pushed an ordinance that removed an unwritten rule preventing blacks from working east of Biscayne Boulevard.
In the first 10 years, the Miami Urban League made notably strides and was hailed nationally and locally for its work. The staff grew from three to nearly 500. Fair noted the accomplishments in his “Decade of Progress” report but he concluded the unit was not on the right track.
“We were doing great but the people we served were not,” he says. So, he instituted staff cuts over the next few years. Today, the core staff numbers 25, along with consultants to handle accounting, marketing and other operational functions.
Fair’s alliance with Bush, regarded as father of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and One Florida, rankled sensibilities among activists and the heavily Democratic political base within the community. Some questioned his civil rights bona fides.
Fair maintains that he is an Independent, not affiliated with any political party. That independent streak spurred actions that fueled ire in Black Miami. At various times, Fair:
* Refused to participate in the 1992-1993 Miami tourism boycott led by attorney H.T. Smith to protest officials’ snubbing Nelson Mandela during his visit after he was released from prison.
* Handed out the “Nigger of the Year” award in his Miami Times column.
* Started a charter school with Bush Oliver Gross, a protégé and former Urban League employee, says Fair’s approach has been consistent the entire time.
“In all the years I’ve known him, he’s been pretty much the same person in his demeanor, his approach … and level of integrity,” Gross said. Another commonality, he adds, is Fair’s willingness to take risks, especially on issues that impact Black Miami.
Anger arose in the community after then Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre fired the city’s first black manager, Howard Gary in 1984 – a move that black leaders had warned against. “There was a hue-and-cry in the community about recalling Mayor Ferre but nobody was willing to take the leadership role. [Fair] stepped in and took ownership,” Gross recalls.
Years later, it’s impossible to find anyone who will openly criticize Fair. Activists Leroy Jones and Brian Dennis, who once were major detractors, say they’ve grown to respect the man.
“We didn’t start off cordial,” says Dennis, a founder of the grassroots activist organization Brothers of the Same Mind. During the mid-1990s, Dennis and others railed against a plan by the Urban League to erect barricades at a Liberty City housing site, similar to what was done in the Magnolia North or Triangle section of Opa-locka. “We had words about it.”
“I thought he was making a dangerous situation,” adds Jones, executive director of Neighbors and Neighbors Association, another grassrootrs activist group.
Dennis says years later the Brothers and Fair sat down and realized they had common interests and goals. “We both were looking for the same thing. We were just going about it differently,” he says. “It’s easy to look at someone and not realize their actions are beneficial. We’re trying to give the community opportunities.”
Urban League Board of Directors member Herman Dorsett, a retired university professor, notes that Fair easily straddles two worlds that black professionals often juggle. “Tal is a very bright, smart, intellectually honest person. He’s an activist who has capitalized on opportunities for self-growth as well as growth for the community,” Dorsett says.
“During several uprisings … he has been in the streets with the dudes, and in the boardrooms with the [movers and] shakers when these crises occurred. He keeps his feet in Overtown and Liberty City, as well as Brickell Avenue, Miami Beach, downtown Miami [and] the suburban areas as well.”
Jones, Dennis and Dorsett each laud Fair for his efforts in bringing affordable housing into urban core areas as a way of building the community.
On Friday, there will be a ribbon-cutting and grand opening of the Renaissance of Sugar Hill, a multi-family housing project in Liberty City. Plans also are in the works to put two housing complexes along Northwest Seventh Avenue for low-income and senior citizens.
Those apartments “will bring more people into the neighborhood. That will help the businesses,” says Jones, who advocates for small businesses in the area.
Much of Fair’s emphasis over the last 20 years has been on improving educational outcomes of Liberty City students, a process that has proved to be challenging. He hopes to use civil rights-era strategies to motivate the children and their parents so they will improve test scores and graduation rates.
He will tackle the issue with the same “vim and vitality” he used to confront racism and inequality in the 1960s, he says.
“You can make a real difference if the will to overcome the odds is greater than the will to quit,” he says.
Andrea Robinson may be reached at email@example.com