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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
TELL THE STORY
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
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 lived...my 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
(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 returned...is district
manager and district manager was distribution of newspaper to the
(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 job...in 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 Colored...at 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
back...you asked me about the job, that's the job I had in 1945 and
during that time I had other jobs because I sold...in 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
(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
(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 a...my 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
(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
(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 this...my 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 to...you 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 mean...so 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 sell...so 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 upstairs...you 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
(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 for...to tell you where I was living...to
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 old...to 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 started...in 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
(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
(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 now...it'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
(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.
TAPE #1 SIDE #2
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 after...so 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 thing...it was the...it 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 think...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 I...one 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
(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 everything...it'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 living...in 1961, actually, I was
no longer living Overtown but my, but my...my 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 been...you know the routes that had been taking going
different ways, it became an inconvenience until they became
(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 time...like 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
(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
need...as it relates to parks and playgrounds...is 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
(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
(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