Interview with Benny O'Berry, August 11, 1997

Material Information

Interview with Benny O'Berry, August 11, 1997
Ford, Electra ( Interviewer )
O'Berry, Benny ( Interviewee )
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Subjects / Keywords:
African Americans -- Florida
Overtown Oral History Collection ( local )
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This text has been transcribed from an audio or video oral history. Digitization was funded by a gift from Caleb J. and Michele B. Grimes.

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Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Department of History, University of Florida
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This interview is part of the 'Overtown Collection' collection of interviews held by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program of the Department of History at the University of Florida
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R0wo,29. of/

August, 11, 1987

(Mrs. Electra Ford:) Archives office, today is Monday

Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Seven. It is now approximately 4:15

p.m. I will be interviewing Mr. Benny O'Berry a former Overtown

resident. This interview is transpiring at the Black Archives

Office in the Joseph Caleb Center.

My name is Electra R. Ford, I am the interviewer. Side A of

the Tape. The first set of questions will be regarding family life

in Overtown.

Mr. Berry where were your parents born?

(Mr. Benny O'Berry): My parents were born in a little town in

George known as Iron City, Georgia. Very few people are aware of

where it's located between Bainbridge and Donaldsonville.

(Mrs. Ford): Did they ever live in Overtown?

(Mr. O'Berry): No, they never mother lived in

Overtown. My mother brought me here from Georgia, not my father.

My mother brought me here when I was five years old.

(Mrs. Ford): What years did they live in Overtown?

(Mr. O'Berry): She lived in Overtown from 1921...from 1921

when she arrived here until she passed in 1934.

(Mrs. Ford): What sought of jobs did she have?

(Mr. O'Berry): The only job she had...remember I said she

arrived here in 1921 from 1921 to 1934 the only type of job she had

was working as a domestic and also in a public laundry.

(Mrs. Ford): Where were your grandparents born?

(Mr. O'Berry): As far as I can recall, they were born in

Georgia but I don't know exactly where.

(Mrs. Ford): Did they live in Overtown?

(Mr. O'Berry): Never lived in Overtown. Only my mother lived

in Overtown.

(Mrs. Ford): Could you describe what it was like growing up

in your mother's home in Overtown?

(Mr. O'Berry): Yes. That would be somewhat easy because

during that time, most of the Black people that lived over there

and knew us at that time as "Colored People" we lived in a

segregated area between Northwest Sixth Street and Twenty-First

Street and Northwest First Avenue and Seventh Avenue and that's

where all of the Black people in Overtown lived and we lived at 550

Northwest Fourteenth Street and that was a set of shotgun houses

where all of the houses were like three-room houses.

(Mrs. Ford): Could you explain for the record what exactly is

a shotgun house?

(Mr. O'Berry): Yes I'll be happy to explain a shotgun house.

A shotgun house is where you have one, two, rooms. You can use the

first room, it depends on the size of the family...they use the

first room as a living room, the second room as a bedroom and the

third room was a kitchen, it was a kitchen and they had a back

porch that was screened in with no bath. They had an outside, the

toilets were outside...what they call communal where they had a set

of houses and the toilets were like three hooked onto to each


(Mrs. Ford): Can you tell me if these homes were constructed

of frame or they CBS block construction or brick?

(Mr. O'Berry): All of these homes were mounted on what they

build homes with now, regular two concrete blocks, they were frame


(Mrs. Ford): Mr. O'Berry, the next set of questions that I

will be asking you will be regarding employment for yourself from

1945 to 1970. Can you describe the jobs that you had?

(Mr. O'Berry): Yes, fortunately, when...from 1945 was the

year I was mustard out of the service, World War II and they had a

system where by when you return home you would get the same job

prior to entering the service and I happened to be a district

manager for the Miami Daily News when I entered the service and

like that they gave me the same job when I district

manager and district manager was distribution of newspaper to the

news carriers.

(Mrs. Ford): Was this job in the Overtown area?

(Mr. O'Berry): Oh yes, all of the staff was in the Overtown

area. I acquire this the first place they had a White

district manager and they asked...I was a news carrier myself and

the news carriers to write a recommendation or submit a letter

stating what they thought could improve the circulation and I wrote

if they had a that time that was the favored way we

spoke of ourself. A Colored district manager, we would probably

have more circulation and the circulation manager of the Miami News

sent for me while I was still in high school; that was probably

1945...1936, the circulation manager sent for me and say, what's

your problem? You don't like Mr. Chirrup? Mr. Chirrup was a White


man and I needed my job bad, I was a senior in high school and he

said, ah...I say, sure, I like Mr. Chirrup but you said what could

we do to improve the circulation? If we had a Colored district

manager we could improve the circulation and he said to me, do you

want the job? and I say, oh sure I would love to have the job but

I'm finishing high school in June. He said, you can take care of

your city edition after you get out of school, are you out by 2:00

o'clock and I told him I would be out by 2:30 and he told me, he

gave me the job. At that time it was an outstanding job because

the average Black man was making...was earning $25 $30 a week at

the most at that time. He said I will pay you $25.00 a week I will

give you $7.50 car allowance. I understand you have a car

allowance and I thought that was great at that time. So when I

came out of the military service...I went in 19...must have been

1941 and when I was discharged in '45, they gave me the same job asked me about the job, that's the job I had in 1945 and

during that time I had other jobs because I addition to

the newspaper job I had, I also sold the insurance memberships,

insurance membership like auto, regular auto. Not the type of auto

insurance they have now like Triple "A" but it was another type.

The truth of it is I can't recall it now because...

(Mrs. Ford): Would you say it was emergency road service type


(Mr. O'Berry): Type of emergency road service insurance but

at that time, very few people could get in Triple "A"...very few

Black people could get in Triple "A". Only the professional like


the doctors and the school principals, those are the only people

who could get in Triple "A". The average person could not get in

Triple "A".

(Mrs. Ford): What were your work hours?

(Mr. O'Berry): The work hours at that time for me were quite

pleasant because for me, as an individual, quite pleasant because

my work hours usually consisted of checking in from the previous

day around 10:00 at the Miami News which was located at the

Boulevard and Sixth Street at that time and then I was in charge of

the news carriers until they finished delivering the newspapers in

the afternoon and they would check up with me at least once a week

at the end of the week on Friday and that sought of thing. So

actually my hours were not exactly eight hours...consistent eight

hours. It consists from about 10:00 in the morning until late in

the afternoon.

(Mrs. Ford): When and why did you leave these jobs?

(Mr. O'Berry): That's a good question. I didn't want to

leave the newspaper job but I thought of owning my own business and

I had...I had learned to be a pilot prior to the time that I had

entered the service and I dreamed of...they have an...they had an

airport where I learned to fly at Seventh Avenue where the Metro-

Ford place is now. I wanted to purchase a plane when I came out of

the service and have rides that they use to...have rides for $3.00,

$2.00 and $3.00 sometimes $5.00, depends on the amount of time. I

use to go up there and just fly because I had a student pilot's

license. After I had a student pilot's license I sold the pilot's


license, I ended up with a driving school instead of a pilot's

license because one of the...fortunately one of the...they had a

crash and I changed my mind. I said if I could buy a plane I would

have to house it at their airport and somebody might saw one of my

errands or something like that so, somehow, I changed my mind and

ended opening a driving school. So I opened a driving school while

I had the job with the news and the circulation manager learned

that I had started my own business and he called me in the office

and told me he would give me a choice, he would give me two weeks

to make a decision, whether I wanted to continue being the district

manager for the news or whether I wanted to operate O'Berry's

Driving School and in two weeks time, I called him up and told him

I resigned and I operated O'Berry's Driving School from then on.

(Mrs. Ford): In the old days, what the usual method that

people located work?

(Mr. O'Berry): That's an excellent question because they

didn't get the jobs the way they do now. A lot of times Black

people obtained the job through another Black friend while going to

find out where they were working, come go with me, they need some

more help. That's way a lot of them got jobs.

(Mrs. Ford): Where did the other members of your family work?

(Mr. O'Berry): I had...growing up I had a limited number of

family from a number of people that I grew up with. The only

person working in my family was my mother until, you say from 1945

until '70, yes, okay because I did have mother married a man

here...about two years before she died. She was thirty-four when


she died so, therefore, I had a stepsister and we had a beautiful

life together, like real sister and brother should have. So my

sister worked at...she was my stepfather's daughter so she was, to

me, like a real sister. She worked at Jackson Memorial Hospital

for twenty-nine years and retired. My stepfather was an iceman.

At that time people delivered ice to the homes, so many people

didn't have refrigerator. They delivered ice to the home so that's

the total number of people in my family working. It was

stepfather, my mother and my sister.

(Mrs. Ford): Beginning in the late 1950's many immigrants

moved to Miami from the Caribbean including Cuba, Haiti and other

countries, did those immigrants compete with Overtown residents for


(Mr. O'Berry): Did you say 1950 or was it a little bit later?

(Mrs. Ford): It said beginning in the late 1950's.

(Mr. O'Berry): Yeah, I understand around '58 or '59. They,

they...when you say Cubans, they really took the jobs over when

they began to arrive because the owners of the various enterprises

gave the jobs to the Cubans and the Haitians as far as I can

remember, they didn't...they didn't start coming as rapidly as the

late 50's they started more in the late 60's in the large numbers

and they began to get the jobs from the different organizations or

institutions even in the city and county officers. The advantage

they have because they taught them, when they were in Haiti to

speak spanish and because the jobs even now when you apply for a

job, they want to know if you're fluent in Spanish and most of the


Haitians come here fluent in Spanish so they get the jobs ahead of

the American born people.

Do yo(Mrs. Ford): Do you recall people moving into the area from

out of town?

(Mr. O'Berry): Oh yes, I recall people

moving...that's...that's the way they...when I think in terms of

the Black community and the other community, that's where the town

expanded because immediately after...immediately after World War

II, around 1945, if you checked the population, the population of

Dade County was not even 200,000 people now it's over 2,000,000.

I recall you had an influx of people coming from everywhere, that's

why the town grew so fast.

(Mrs. Ford): Where were they from?

(Mr. O'Berry): They were from most, most of the various

states because the State of Florida was popular because of climate

but as you think of Black people, most of them came from the

various Caribbean islands, most of the people migrated from the

Caribbean and from Cuba, that's what made the town grow so fast.

We are outnumbered by the Cuban people. Blacks are outnumbered by

the Cuban people by 7 to 1.

(Mrs. Ford): Where did they live in Overtown?

(Mr. O'Berry): The people that immigrated here, if they were

Black, they lived in Overtown, they lived in Overtown, they lived

in the same place that we lived but...but ah what I'm thinking

about is the town expanding so, like, like you call an explosion of

people. I'm thinking about the 50's right after integration in


1954, we began to move about and expand, live everywhere from

Overtown. See, so they weren't confined to Overtown like they were

prior to the 50's

(Mrs. Ford): What sought of jobs did theses people have?

(Mr. O'Berry): Some of them that came here had been

professionals but they took whatever type of jobs were available

and some of them are doing it like, you'd be surprised some people

from Cuba now were professionals in Cuba, they taking the jobs that

you would think some Black people should have like they're taking

jobs with the city like they take care of the parks, the lawns, the

streets, they do the sanitation department, all the various jobs a

lot of us use to have, a lot of those people arrived, took those

jobs and some of them worked there from the capacity of just the

laymen job to supervisory job. If you notice a lot of them still

have...some of those people from Haiti and Cuba have supervisory

jobs in those different departments now.

(Mrs. Ford): Mr. O'Berry, the next set of questions will be

regarding if you owned a business, what kind of business did you


(Mr. O'Berry): I owned a driving school in Dade County for 41


(Mrs. Ford): Where was your business located?

(Mr. O'Berry): I started in Overtown, 1453 Northwest Sixth

Avenue and I was there for nine years and then moved to Liberty

City which...6262 Northwest Fifteenth Avenue and I was there for

exactly 30 years, about 30 years, exactly 30 years.


(Mrs. Ford): Who were your employees?

(Mr. O'Berry): I had all Black employees. I had some male

and some female. At one time I was operating a larger driver

school than when I closed because of the insurance. One time I was

operating four cars in Dade and two in Broward and two in Fort

Lauderdale, this was prior to 1-95.

(Mrs. Ford): How did you find your employees?

(Mr. O'Berry): I found them to be consistently good workers

and I had a...I think I don't I ever had but maybe one bad and that

one happened to be on drugs when drugs first became popular.

(Mrs. Ford): Did you get them from church referrals or from

personal referrals or were they people that you knew in the


(Mr. O'Berry): I got them from work referrals, other words

people that were already working with me in most cases.

(Mrs. Ford): Who were your customers?

(Mr. O'Berry): The general public. I most of them from the

school system and from the various churches, people that wanted

me...I taught some poor families to drive, see. In fact, I was

teaching driving so long in Dade County until I taught Mrs. Range

to drive when she first...when her husband first opened Range

Funeral Home.

(Mrs. Ford): Whom did you consider your main competition?

(Mr. O'Berry): Frankly, I didn't have any when I opened the

driving school. I only received competition in later years. The

competition that I received in later years was from when the


Haitian driving schools opened up...a number of Haitian driving

schools opened up and that was shortly before I sold the driving

school, around the middle 80's that's the first time I began to get

any competition.

(Mrs. Ford): When and why did you move or close your


(Mr. O'Berry): I closed the business because of the rapid

encroachment of drug sales on Northwest Fifteenth Avenue. Like

they around Seventy-First Street and started working towards Sixty-

Second Street and I was located on Sixty-Third Street and they

became so bad with selling drugs until they cut holes in the screen

of building, I owned the building, they cut holes in the bathroom

screen and was selling there drugs out of there and if I tell the

police on them, they gone shot in my house or shot my family and

they put the drugs all in my water meter. To tell the police about

it didn't make any difference because when they come to check, they

knew to move them in time and then there was shooting around the

place so much until I figured luck was going to run out


(Mrs. Ford): Why did you move your business from the Overtown


(Mr. O'Berry): Oh from the Overtown area? Oh, I moved the

business from the Overtown area in 1959, I moved as an improvement

considering that I was growing and expanding because I had started

on a porch in Overtown and just enclosed the porch and was using

that as an office so I built a nice little office on...on, over in


Liberty City, 6262 Fifteenth Avenue, rented a piano, had invited

the public to come in, had a big program...opening program on

Sunday, people gave me flowers, first flowers I ever received in my

life when I opened up and I thought it was just beautiful. People

parked their cars everywhere, nobody bothered their cars or

anything so that's why I moved, I called myself expanding, that's

why I moved.

(Mrs. Ford): Was the address you used in Overtown and the one

on Fifteenth Avenue, the only two addresses that your business


(Mr. O'Berry): In 41 years that's the only two places I had

a business. Overtown I started on a porch, the people thought I

owned the building but I didn't really. The lady's son and I were

about the same age and she was a friend of my mother's and when I

told her was going to open a business, she allowed me to use her

telephone, coming out of the window on her front porch and I

started getting so much business, she say, you need a secretary,

I'll answer for you and she would charge me anything. She started

answering the her husband let me close in the porch and I had an

office there for 9 years. People use to think I did so much

business, people thought I owned the business because at time I

started selling the drivers license. I sold the drivers license in

Dade County for 16 years, see. That's when they didn't have

picture on the drivers license, the license was a dollar and

quarter. When the license was a dollar and a quarter, I'd get them

from the county judge's office and I'd charge a dollar and a half


for them and earn a quarter and all license expired...everybody

license expired in September. In September, everybody had to renew

their license in September, you didn't renew it on your date of

birth, that changed later on. So I sold the license in Dade County

from 1956 to 1970 and that's when the state took them from all the

agents. That was quite an experience I had and I talk to young

people about that when I go to schools sometimes, that you just

don't give up trying. I tried to sale...first time I went to try

to sell...become an agent for drivers license, if you want to hear

this because I think it's inspirational for young people. When I

went had to get them from the county judge's office. I

went down there, the man in charge was named Mr. Johnson and they

didn't invite you to come in and have a seat, you just had to walk

in and stand up and they say, "what you want boy"? So that's the

way they greeted me and I told them, you know, "I have a driving

school and I want to sell drivers license." He say, "you could get

your license from Baumgarten on Thirty-Six Street, they sell

drivers license there. You say you have a driving school"? Yes I

have a driving school. He say, "well Woody Gordon has a driving

school cross the street from Flagler from the drivers license

agency, I you can get your license from Woody Gordon

where they give the test to highway patrol." They had regular

highway patrolmen giving the test at that time. So I said, no I

want to I went there he turned me down. I went there 12

times, he just...I just wouldn't give up, I just kept going back,

asking him to let me sell the license so finally I...maybe I was


about to give us so finally, I stepped in the elevator one day to

...because you go don't go there now, you go 140

Flagler Street now but this was in the courthouse. You go on the

second floor to see about your taxes, so I was going on the second

floor, Mr. Johnson's office was on the Third Floor and I stepped in

the elevator and I was the only Black person in the elevator and he

happened to step in the elevator at the same time and he looked at

me and he said, "Boy you just won't give up, will you? Come on in

my office, I'm gonna let you sell these license and if you depose

one of them illegally, you know what I'm going do for ya, I'm gonna

put your XYZ in jail." So when I returned to my office, I had a

arm full of all the license, restricted, restricted operator and

chauffeur license. My wife was working with me at time, she was

shocked. In fact, I was shocked holding them and I started selling

licenses and I sold them from 1956 to 1970, they didn't have a

picture, that's how it happened.

(Mrs. Ford): In the early days of your business when you

operated from your neighbor's porch were you required to pay rent?

(Mr. O'Berry): No not really, I just, just gave...she wasn't

really but I called her my godmother, she was my mother's friend.

All I did was pay the telephone bill and that was easy at that time

because she pushed the phone through the window and I had a desk on

the porch, (laughter) it was her personal phone, it wasn't a

business phone but I used it that way for nine years, see and that

gave me a good running start and that's how I was able to build me

a place and everything and start buying a little bit of property in


Liberty City.

(Mrs. Ford): When you relocated your business from Overtown

to Liberty City how successful was the relocation?

(Mr. O'Berry): It was quite successful because at that time

all of the business places on Fifteenth were owned by Black people,

operated by Black people and we didn't have the criminal element

that we have now, the robberies and everything. I had another

business on Fifteen in a partnership with my niece and my brother-

in-law, we had a barbecue place...we built another building...a

barbecue place next door, next door to the driving school and they

robbed us out of business there.

(Mrs. Ford): Mr. O'Berry, the next set of questions

neighborhood life between 1945 and 1970. Could you describe your

place where you lived Overtown?

(Mr. O'Berry): Overtown, I lived...well see from 1934, you

know I didn't live like in anybody's home from 1934 because I was

living in the shotgun house with my stepfather and stepsister and

my mother so when my mother died I was 16 years old and I always

give my stepfather credit tell you where I was

give my stepfather credit for making a man out of me. I told him

I had dropped out of school so I could get a suit for Christmas and

so...cause mother couldn't buy it and he wasn't suppose to buy it

so he didn't. So she cried and let me drop out of school. I was

in ninth grade and about nearly 15 years ah and they'd

hire you anywhere. I worked in the grocery store. Incidently

Cubans had markets over here when I was a boy. I worked at the


Cuban Market on Seventeenth Street, Louis Cuban Market on

Seventeenth Street. The Cubans use to owned the market, the local

markets before they had supermarkets here and before that and

after they owned it then the Chinamens owned them but the Cubans

owned them first. She let me work there and then my stepfather, my

mother died, my stepfather, I told him, I said when September come

I want to go back to school. He said you're getting to be quite a

young man, you're 16 years old, you're going back to school? If

you want to go back to school, how are you going to eat and that's

a good question. Always know how you're going to eat, see. I

didn't learn that...I didn't learn that at DePaul University, I

didn't learn that at the University of Miami, I learned more from

his one statement than I learned in all the schools I went to

(laughter) see. When he told me that I said to myself, he's not

responsible for me so I got to at Pet...there were 12 cans come in

Pet milk, I got one of those boxes and put that one suit that I had

for the funeral. I brought it for Christmas but it turned out to

be for the funeral. I put that and everything that I owned in that

one 12 can box and I didn't have to put a string around it cause I

didn't fill it up and he caught me coming down the step and he say,

son you don't have to leave here. This is your home, course if

you're a man go right ahead. He gave me a little push and that's

how I say he made a man out of me and I walked the streets until I

found a room. So to tell you where I lived, I lived on what is now

Booker T. Washington campus. I lived 1315 Northwest Sixth Avenue

from the time my mother died until after I finished high school...


until after I finished high school, 1315 Sixth Avenue was a guy

named Morris Keaton. Morris Keaton, he started the Liberty City

Jitney and I still have clippings where he the

Pittsburgh Courier, where he started the Liberty City Jitney.

That's where I lived, 1315 Northwest Sixth Avenue, its now part of

Booker T., the new Booker T. campus.

(Mrs. Ford): Was this an apartment or was it a room?

(Mr. O'Berry): It was a private home, it was a private home.

It was his home and he found me walking the street with that box

and he say, Ben, I hear you looking for a room, he say, I tell you

what, I don't have a room but I have a back porch that's screened

in. He said, can you buy a bed, I say, Yes sir. He say, if you

can buy a bed, put a bed back there, he say, it doesn't get cold

too much because the wood was up high and they had little screen

around the top. He say, you can hang a curtain around there put

your bed back there, get cold pile your clothes up on top of you,

don't have enough clothes put some newspaper on top of you and say,

you can stay back there. Say, oh that's good, I appreciate that,

I can get a bed. So he say, well I tell you what...he say, he

say...just move your thing on back there. I say, I don't have

anything but this box. So he say, well you can back there now, so

he put a blanket back there and I slept on it the first night and

then I got a bed and I stayed there with him from the time...from

then until...until about a year after I finished high school but

the beautiful about it was, I often tell people that it's kind of

amusing to me too. I got a college degree but I never did finish


ninth grade. I dropped out of school in ninth grade, when I went

back...after my stepfather told me...asked me how I was going to

eat, I made sure I was going to eat. I stayed out of school about

two more years, worked and clothes were a status symbol at the

time. I bought myself a lot of clothes and when I went back to

Booker T. I had a little car and I was about, I believe I was about

the only person there with a car. At that time I was quite popular

with this car and everything. They thought I had wealthy people,

I had no people, I had none period but I did alright back during

that time, yeah. I told you all that to tell you where I lived,

1315 Sixth Avenue.

(Mrs. Ford): Who were your neighbors when you lived Overtown?

(Mr. O'Berry): When I lived Overtown, I had good

neighbors...we, I remember we had the Harleys, a lot of people...we

had Strongs. We lived right behind the Strong family, the Strong

family had a beautiful home, fruit trees and everything and they

had...I'm trying to think of...there's another important family

that lived in a fenced in yard behind Morris' place, lovely

neighbors there...Mr. Strather, Mr. Strather, he had a lot of, he

a lot of property in Dade County. Mr. Strather and Mr. Strong,

Stanley Strong's father, Stanley Strong they have him enshrined in

Florida A&M now, one of the best football players they ever had.

Stanley Strong. The Strong family were my neighbors and the...Mr.


(Mrs. Ford): Where did you neighbors work.

(Mr. O'Berry): Now that's a good question.


(Mrs. Ford): Did they work in the Overtown area?

(Mr. O'Berry): Mr. Strather was a real estate man and he

owned a lot of property, it looked like a real estate man but he

owned a lot of property, was my neighbor and lived right behind him

because Morris Keaton lived in...incidently Morris Keaton was such

a nice man. He had this nice house he was living in but the house

didn't belong to him. It belonged to a man named Mr. Fox and Mr.

Fox got sick and had a big two-story building next door to it and

he had people renting that but Morris kept up the place and checked

on him when he was sick and everything it was two houses in that

yard, he gave...he died and in his will he gave Morris Keaton both

of those houses. He gave Morris Keaton both of those houses so we

had nice neighbors there. Across the street in front of me now was

the...oh I should remember the name of it...the paint place there

building, where it turned out to be a brewery later on across the

street on Sixth Avenue but at that time wasn't anybody living over

there, it was paint place and I just can't think of the name of the

paint now, local, Miami paint.

(Mrs. Ford): Well what happened to those neighbors?

(Mr. O'Berry): That's a good question. The Strong family,

Stanley went to Florida A&M, his sisters went to Florida A&M. I

think both of them...all the Strongs passed except Stanley and he

went to live in Chicago and I think he passed up there. The

Strather family, the Strather family is still here...some of them

are still here. In fact, Strather, Mr. Strather's daughter lives

on Seventieth Street, the corner of Seventieth Street and


Thirteenth Avenue. She was Father Baron's aunt, see.

(Mrs. Ford): When did they leave the area of Overtown?

(Mr. O'Berry): They, they probably...let's see, they stayed

in Overtown until...the families that I mentioned of, my neighbors,

they stayed, they were strong homeowners when I lived on Morris

Keaton's back porch and these people who lived right around there

were strong homeowners and they stayed over there until they

expired cause also, also I was right close to Dr. Chatman's house

and Dr. Chatman's house is one of the relics the Black Archives

have saved on the Booker T. campus now. I only lived a stone's

throw from there, from Dr. Chatman's house.

(Mrs. Ford): Could you describe the main business areas you

went to in Overtown?

(Mr. O'Berry): Oh yes, Northwest Second Avenue and Northwest

Third Avenue was something you could appreciate, you'd have to

realize something you could appreciate that were owned and operated

by Blacks at that time. See integration actually did something for

us and did something to us. We lost a lot of our Black business

when the integration came because when we moved and expanded to

different places, a lot of the Black business in Overtown that were

outstanding and went down because prominent Blacks use to come in

town for entertainment, everything all of it happened on Second

Avenue and Third Avenue.

(Mrs. Ford): Can you describe where your family brought

groceries Overtown?


(Mr. O'Berry): Yes, we bought grocery from the Cuban Market

where I was working and right before I had the little job...before

my mother marred Mr. Larkin, Overtown, we lived about two houses

from what was known as Speigelman's grocery store. That was a

jewish grocery store on the corner where he credited everybody and

everybody paid him whenever they, whenever they could afford to.

(Mrs. Ford): Could you describe where your family went to the

barber shop or beauty shop?

(Mr. O'Berry) : Ummmm? The barber shop, the haircut was

twenty cent and I got one of those when I could and I don't recall

my mother ever going the beauty shop. I had a girlfriend that knew

how to do hair and she use to do my mother's hair, she didn't go to

the beauty shop.

(Mrs. Ford): Could you describe where your family went to the

drugstore Overtown?

(Mr. O'Berry): Yes. The Economy Drugstore. All Black people

in the community went to...Overtown, went to Economy Drugstore,

Eleventh Street and Third Avenue, owned by Dr. Ward, Dr. Elmer A.

Ward. The building on Fifty-Fourth Street is named after him. He

was one of the first civil rights activist in Dade County, Elmer A.

Ward and he died just a few years ago. He was 101. He was 101

when he died. Incidently, when I finished high school, I was a

grown man...I was a grown man when I finished high school I was 21

and his wife, his wife was my homeroom teacher and she is still

living, she is about 99, 98 or 98 years old and she was our

homeroom teacher. We had the first class out of Booker T. with


over 100. The first class from Booker T. was 12 and we had 100, we

had 112, 111 in our class. I picked Mrs. Ward up when we had our

Fifty Year High School Reunion I picked her up and took her to the

Holiday Inn where he had our fifty year celebration and we had a

nice printed program and everything and she...I picked her up and

she said, Benny I see you have me on this program as the speaker

and you didn't tell me a word about that." I say, "well look Mrs.

Ward when I was in your class you didn't tell me when you were

going to call on me." The class members like to...they cracked up.

(Mrs. Ford): Could you describe where your family went to the

cleaners to get their cloths cleaned?

(Mr. O'Berry) : Ummm, let's see, there was a cleaners on

Seventeenth Street and I recall...I recall a cleaners on

Seventeenth Street but I think my stepfather, he's the only one

ever use to go there. He use to get his suit cleaned there.

Lucky's Cleaners, Lucky's Cleaners on Seventeenth Street and Third

Avenue. Lucky's Cleaners but I never had anything cleaned there

because I didn't have anything...I didn't have any suit to be


(Mrs. Ford): Could you describe where your family went to


(Mr. O'Berry): Oh yes, okay. Mt. Zion Baptist Church was

right across the street from the shotgun house I grew up in 550

Fourteenth Street. Mt. Sinai Baptist Church was 1417 Northwest

Fifth Place, it's still in existence's still in existence

now. When 1-95 was coming, 1-95 took the church and we purchased


a new church and Mt. Sinai Baptist Church is now located on Seventh

Avenue and Forty-Seventh Terrace. I was baptized there when I was

a little boy, I've been a member 67 years. Sixty-seven years, I

started there down in the card class and I've been a deacon there

since 1952.

(Mrs. Ford): On this question, Mr. O'Berry, could you

describe where your family went for entertainment such as theaters,

bars, restaurants or sporting events?

(Mr. O'Berry): Actually there was no, in my family as far as

I could remember they didn't go...there was no bar to go to. The

only thing that we went to at time was a church. You couldn't go

the beach because we weren't allowed to go the beach. For sporting

events at that time, we could not attend any of the football games

early in existence but later on as time expired and the Orange

Blossom Classic started coming to Miami, that became one of the

most outstanding events of all. People dressed up exceptionally.

Now when the Orange Blossom...Dr. Hawkins who passed on was usually

in charge of all the activities with the Orange Blossom for years

and Edgar J. Pias, was the coordinator for the program, the parade

and everything and it was a terrific affair well attended by the

public, they looked forward to it. People were talking about it in

advance and most of the parties were held at different places

Overtown. Some of the parties were being held after the classic,

evening classic at the Carver Hotel, some were held at the Mary

Elizabeth. The Mary Elizabeth was a popular place anyway. All of

the Black entertainers use to come to entertain...some of them were


there to entertain the people, even at the classic. All of those

that weren't able to go to those places, the Mary Elizabeth or the

Sir John or the Carver Hotel, they had private home, recreational

affairs where they would eat home cooked food, (Peas and/Pizza??)

where they had a whole of fun and enjoyed themselves.

(Mrs. Ford): Electra R. Ford, today is August 11, 1997. I'm

interviewing Mr. Benny O'Berry. The is the conclusion of side No.

"A" and the set of questions that I left on are regarding

neighborhood life between 1945 and 1970 and we are now discussing

question No. 15.


Electra R. Ford at the Black Archives office. Today is

Monday, August 11, 1997, it's approximately 4:30, I am interviewing

Mr. Benny O'Berry of O'Berry Driving School. This is Side "B" and

we are on the question continuing on question No. 15 regarding

neighborhood life between 1945 and 1970.

(Mr. O'Berry): Alright, the...another form of activity from

Overtown that is sorely missed by the people who remember it and

lived there for years in Overtown was the Junketnews and the

Sheperds. The Junketnews and the Sheperds always come out

Christmas time and this was a big, big affair, they would celebrate

with the music and what you call all the good home bands before

daylight on Christmas morning and they use to do the same thing on

News Year and they would parade from around Eighth Street, down

around Mt. Zion Church Ninth Street...around Mt. Zion Church,

they didn't start at Bethel but around Mt. Zion Church all the way


up to Twentieth Street passing all the major churches down

ah...celebrating Christmas...down Third Avenue, that was an affair

to be witnessed by many. In fact, they had a crowd almost as big

as classic time except for the people who were still in bed at that

time in the morning, that's the Sheperds and the Junketnews.

Now one of thing that's probably missed also is the

Mondays...what use to happen on some Mondays, what use to happen on

some Mondays on Second Avenue and Third Avenue, especially Second

Avenue at the major places was known as dress-up-day on Mondays.

A number of people were off on Mondays and some who weren't working

period would dress and people would dress and walk down Second

Avenue and go to various theaters. They had the Lyric Theater and

the Modern Theater which was on Third Avenue and the Ritz Theater

and people would be going...they had the matinees, they'd go to the

matinees and then, then in the evening time, they would have the

Harlem Square Club where you many...where you had all the major

dancers and social events. In fact our prom was at the Harlem

Square Club. They had the Harlem Square Club on Tenth Street and

Second Avenue and also they would have the Mary Elizabeth was

popular...the most popular place because the Mary Elizabeth had bar

and various entertainment there. However, however they had rules

that minors could not go in any of places where alcoholic beverage

was being served.

(Mrs. Ford): Mr. O'Berry can you reflect on what it was like

as you were growing up in Overtown and later became an adult ah

when families came together for their family reunion?


(Mr. O'Berry): Yes, I was fortunate enough to join because I

got married young and I was fortunate enough to join a large family

where, where they started out with the parties over the weekend,

leading up to family day time and then they would go on the picnics

with the picnic right in the community and then at the various

homes where they would have...where they would actually rent a

place in the...for the main party at the Harlem Square or at the

Delarobia Club which was owned by Bill Rivers at the time and they

would have first class parties for family reunions.

(Mrs. Ford): What memories, Mr. O'Berry, do you recall when

you reflect on places such as the Rockland Palace, the Harlem

Square, the Sir John Hotel and Nightclub, the Mary Elizabeth Hotel

and the Carver Hotel?

(Mr. O'Berry): Oh yes, all of those that you just named,

Carver Hotel, Mary Elizabeth Hotel, Sir John Hotel, those, those

were the main places...the main and only places where we had to go.

Not only that but well named entertainers like Cab Calloway, Ella

Fitzgerald, all of us had dates when they would come down, Chuck

Web...all of us had dates when they would come down and the price

to enter those places were consistent with the income at that time.

Like you would pay $20.00 and $30.00 now, it would be a dollar, a

dollar fifty or $2.00 at the most for first-class artists at the

most in those times.

(Mrs. Ford): When someone in your family got sick where did

they go to the doctor's office?

(Mr. O'Berry): Dr. T. L. Lowery who passed on. He just


happen to be one of the, the main one and Dr. Sawyer which owned

the Mary Elizabeth Hotel and Dr. Greene those were the main doctors

here at that time and Dr. Chatman was the main dentist at that time

and Dr. Hawkins was the main dentist at that time and Dr. Muriel

was a dentist at that time but the doctors were Dr. T. L. Lowery,

Dr. Greene and Dr. Green and Dr. Sawyer. Dr. Sawyer actually owned

the Mary Elizabeth Hotel. In fact, they still...that property is

still owned by his son Bill, William Sawyer, Jr. He has lost his

sight now but he has rebuilt that area into a first class place on

Second and Third Avenue.

(Mrs. Ford): How long did you continue to patronize those

businesses those businesses?

(Mr. O'Berry): I continued to patronize those businesses even

after I moved from Overtown, after I moved my business and after I

moved from Overtown and acquired a home myself out in the Liberty

City area, I still returned to Overtown for entertainment for


(Mrs. Ford): When did you begin to shop or go to

entertainment outside of the Overtown area?

(Mr. O'Berry): Only after integration. I mean only after

integration was somewhat of an acceptable fact. It was exactly an

acceptable fact beginning in the 50's and even in the 60's because

I remember we had the march on Washington in 1963. In other words

we had a little bit more improvement for integration it

was long after the 60's when I began to go out in other places for

entertainment and what not and shopping.


(Mrs. Ford): During the period from 1945 to 1970 what were

the main things that made Overtown a community?

(Mr. O'Berry): The main was was the

comradeer of the people that lived there, they knew each other,

they were ready to lend a hand when someone was having a problem,

actually people knew each other from Sixth Street to Twenty-First

Street but since that period of time, people like you know moved

everywhere and you see people now that you grew up

Overtown with and you think they either died or they been out of

town for years and they been here all the time, you haven't seen

them in twenty something years.

(Mrs. Ford): How and when did the sense of community changed?

(Mr. O'Berry): It changed, it changed with integration, when

we found out we could move and live most anywhere, even though we

had problems when we began to move but when we found out we could

move and live anywhere that's when it began to change, that sense

of fellowship and warmth among the people themselves that lived

Overtown continued not to exist anymore.

(Mrs. Ford): Can you explain why people were moving to

various other places after integration?

(Mr. O'Berry): Yes, I believe I can. They were moving

because they were moving to what they thought better homes, more

facilities available, children nearer to public parks which they

never use to have before and that sought of think and apparently

they said for better schools which they haven't made a decision on

that yet because when they integrated the schools...this is just my


opinion but I believe someone else would share it...when they

integrated the schools, they took the best Black teachers they

could find and put them in the White school and took the poorest

White teachers they could and put them in the Black schools. The

reason why I think I'm right on that, when of the early

people to attend the University of Miami, I was in classes with

some people... at least one White teacher that was already in the

school system and he said to me that he was drinking, he was a

drinker and the principle had threatened him and the threat was

that if he didn't straighten up, he was going to send him to a

Black school.

(Mrs. Ford): How has Overtown changed since 1970?

(Mr. O'Berry): Oh, it has changed miserably in some respect

because you don't have the number of the type of people living

there like families like they had before but they are trying to

restore it somewhat because they were selling some homes to

individuals over there and they improved a lot. The only thing

that have remained consistent Overtown and has not changed a whole

lot, the churches have improved and are about the same like St.

Agnes Episcopal Church, they have rebuilt it, done it over, paved,

new parking and's a beautiful place. They have

improved it from Overtown it's improved but in other ways so far,

the normal living conditions as it relates to homes and that sought

of thing, they are not near as good as it was prior to the period

that you mentioned.

(Mrs. Ford): Mr. O'Berry, I going to ask you another set of


questions regarding 1-95. When and how did you first hear about

the building of I-95?

(Mr. O'Berry): 1961. 1961 because I actually learned about

it early...looking in the newspaper but our church was contacted

and they pointed out that we were directly situated...that they

were going to take our church.

(Mrs. Ford): Where were you living then?

(Mr. O'Berry): Then I was 1961, actually, I was

no longer living Overtown but my, but wife's family was

living directly in the path of 1-95 and so that effected me in that

regard because it effected my wife and they were all upset about

they were going to have to move because my wife's family...she grew

up in her mother and father's home.

(Mrs. Ford): Okay did they rent or own the place at that


(Mr. O'Berry): They owned three homes in one yard at that

time and they lived in the one in the middle. All of my mother-in-

laws children were born in that house, they weren't even born in

a hospital, they were born in that house, 1417 Northwest Fifth

Place, right down the street from Mt. Sinai Baptist Church where I


(Mrs. Ford): What kind of reaction was there to the news that

the expressway would come through Overtown?

(Mr. O'Berry): Where see they were really excited and some

people thought of challenging the idea that they weren't going to

give up on...but you see you can't stop progress so they finally


relented and figured they had to accept what they were being

offered for their homes because a lot of the Black people actually

lost their homes when the expressway came along. My in-laws, my

father-in-law...mother-in-law was, you know a couple that lost

their homes at that time to the expressway and we lost our church

to the expressway. A number of people lost their homes to the

expressway when it was coming through because it came straight down

like Sixth Avenue and Fifth Place all of that was taken when it

come along because a number of people owned nice property along

there at the time.

(Mrs. Ford): Did the neighbors discuss the issue about I-95?

(Mr. O'Berry): What was that question again?

(Mrs. Ford): Did the neighbors discuss the construction of I-


(Mr. O'Berry): Oh, yes, they...not only discussed but they,

they were concerned about as long as it had to be done, how many of

our people would be working, that was one of the things they were

concerned about. Long as they saw it was going to happen there was

nothing they could do about it but accept it so they were concerned

about, well do we get out of it? You know, is there a piece of pie

for us? And most likely if it was, it was only a minimum.

(Mrs. Ford): Did you attend a meeting where it was discussed

or signed a petition or discuss the issue with public officials?

(Mr. O'Berry): Yes, we were invited to come downtown and

listen in as they discussed what they were going to do. They

didn't say like the neighbors had a choice, you know, to reject it.


There was no such thing as a choice to reject it but just a choice

to be informed of what was going to happen.

(Mrs. Ford): What was the most important impact of the

expressway on you?

(Mr. O'Berry): Oh, on me as an individual, I thought it...I

thought it was an improvement because you can't stop progress and

more people were coming in Dade County all the time and the

expressway was an advantage.

(Mrs. Ford): What was it like when the expressway was being


(Mr. O'Berry): When the expressway was being constructed, it

was a disadvantage to some people as it was inconvenient...where

they had know the routes that had been taking going

different ways, it became an inconvenience until they became

comfortable with.

(Mrs. Ford): What was the community able to get from public

officials in return for 1-95 going through Overtown?

(Mr. O'Berry): You mean on a community basis or the community

as a whole.

(Mrs. Ford): The community as a whole.

(Mr. O'Berry): The community as a whole didn't get too much

of anything. Some individuals got what they thought was somewhat,

they never really thought they got a fair price for their property

in giving it up but they learned to accept it because they saw it

was a matter that they couldn't reject.

(Mrs. Ford): How did 1-95 effect the community?


(Mr. O'Berry): It disintegrated the community, that's the

best way I can describe it. It broke up the community, just like

1-95 came along and split up the neighborhood and split up the

community because people started trying to leave right away. You

know, see, they were losing...some were losing their home while

others were losing the places where they were renting so it broke

up the community.

(Mrs. Ford): Okay, Mr. O'Berry this is the final set of

questions that I will be asking you.

(Mr. O'Berry): Okay.

(Mrs. Ford): It's regarding the future of the Overtown area

What are the most important misconceptions about Overtown the most

misunderstood things about Overtown?

(Mr. O'Berry): The most misunderstood things, I think, one of

them about Overtown is that, in other words a lot of people feel

that it can't be restored, you know to what it formerly was because

they feel like people don't want to go back over there and live

anymore, you know. So look like they are making some effort to

build some first class places over there and where people can

accept it as their home...that seem to be a major problem.

(Mrs. Ford): What do you think public officials most need to

know most about Overtown?

(Mr. O'Berry): Public officials, in fact, I'm thinking in

terms of what the people need to know. The public officials just

about know what they want to do Overtown. See, they plan to keep

encroachment coming north, in other words until they eventually


take all of Overtown...don't you see, I don't...from the time they

built the stadium they wanted to enlarge that and they building

more homesites, conglomerates right on Ninth Street and around

First Avenue, they working up there so they coming, they coming

north with it all the they eliminating us as they go.

(Mrs. Ford): What should be done to improve the Overtown area

now such as transportation projects, attractions, job creation or

beautification programs?

(Mr. O'Berry): Ummm, that's a set of good questions that

takes an expertise to answer because you have to wonder what can be

done. It's a whole lot that can be done but whether or not it's in

the minds of the city fathers to do it is the major problem. You it relates to parks and a limited space

for them. You have to be outside the area to find more parks and

playgrounds, in fact, most...the few that are left are at the

northern part of the Overtown area like around Seventeenth Street

and some parking space there and just a little bit around Eleventh

Street, there's not too much space left in Overtown for recreation.

(Mrs. Ford): What should be the relationship between Overtown

and Downtown Miami?

(Mr. O'Berry): Oh well, Overtown and Downtown Miami have to

have better representation. We don't have...after we lost our

Black commissioner, we need some representative don't we won't get

too much done for Overtown.

(Mrs. Ford): When you have visitors from out of town, where

do you take them to show them culture and history of Dade County


African-American community?

(Mr. O'Berry) : Oh, first of all, I normally when I have

visitors like that, I take Overtown and explain to them what

Overtown use to be and then I ride that...they them to show what

has changed, I ride them around, the northern, away from Overtown

to the northern part of the county like One Hundred Third Street

and show them ah Royal Oaks, that sought of thing, show them where

Black people are living now.

(Mrs. Ford): Could you describe in your own words what kind

of community you would like Overtown to be in the future? Describe

your vision in some detail.

(Mr. O'Berry): Well I could dream, can I, I guess I could

dream of Overtown being similarly like it use to be with businesses

owned Black people instead o Cuban people. I could think...that's

a dream see? I could think of it being owned by them and that

sought of thing, that's about as far as I can extend my imagination

as to what I would like to see. I would like to see it somewhat

similar to what it use to be and more Black ownership Overtown

businesses and that sought of thing.

(Mrs. Ford): This concludes our interview with Mr. Benny

O'Berry and I would like to thank you wholeheartedly Mr. O'Berry

for lending us your time and giving us your opinion, we are

certainly grateful that you took your time to share with us our

history in the past and we will be eternally grateful to you for

sharing this for our youth of tomorrow to have this history that's

not printed in books.


(Mr. O'Berry): My pleasure I assure you. I thank you for

inviting me. I hope that I was able to give you some information

that you didn't have before from your other guest in the event they

neglected some of the things that I happen to remember and again I

thank you.

(Mrs. Ford): Again, I'm grateful to you Mr. O'Berry. This

concludes the interview with Mr. Benny O'Berry. I am Electra Ford.

This interview is taking place August 11, 1997 at the Black

Archives office. Today is August 11, Nineteen Hundred and Ninety