Black Miami leaders

Miami civil rights leaders meet with Thurgood Marshall who became the first black to serve on the United States Supreme Court.\ Christ Episcopal Church Coconut Grove.

In the late 1950s, Miami’s NAACP leadership met in a glass fronted room on Northwest Third Avenue on the third Thursday of every month. At that time, it was one of the most controversial groups in south Florida. The local NAACP’s goal was to eliminate all forms of racial segregation by 1963. In asserting this aim, the group claimed to represent the 110,000 blacks in the metropolitan area. Reverend Theodore R. Gibson, the organization’s leader through the turbulent 1960s, estimated the local group to have a membership of one thousand in 1963.

Gibson led Christ Episcopal Church Coconut Grove. His was a new voice. In 1959, he enunciated the group’s plan: “The NAACP in Miami . . . is perfectly willing to listen to sweet reason in its demands for equality and to work with responsible organizations toward a sensible approach to racial problems -up to a point . . . We’ll appeal to your reason, but when that fails, we’ll appeal to your hide.”

Early in his tenure as Miami NAACP chapter president, Gibson came to the most crucial confrontation of his public life when he refused to divulge the membership list of the group. The demand came from the state and was a reflection of the nation’s preoccupation with Communists in the 1950s and the view of many conservatives that the “Reds” had infiltrated the civil rights movement.[1]Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.2.

Dade School Superintendent Dr. Johnny L. Jones was believed to be the highest ranking black ever in the Dade County Public School System in the 1970s but there was a black Dade School Board chairman long before Jones was born.

William Gleason became a legend in south Florida in his ruthless grab for power. Notably, he associated with two freed slaves, Andrew Price and Octavius Aimar, who had settled in Lemon City after the war. After Gleason managed to become lieutenant governor in 1868, he arranged to have Aimar appointed school board chairman and Price appointed as both a county commissioner and as a member of the school board, even though Price is believed to have been illiterate.

According to Miami historian Thelma Peters, Aimar was a mulatto from Sullivan Island, South Carolina, and Peters believes that Price was the first black person to hold public office in Dade County. The carpetbagger appointments were made before there was organized government in Dade County and were probably made as a political ploy by Gleason rather than as a serious attempt to empower blacks.[2]Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.4.

Rev Edward T. Graham

Other Miami civil rights leaders included, Sam Solomon, a writer and black advocate, and activists Otis James. There were also the Drs. George Simpson and Elmer Ward, the Reverend Edward T. Graham, head of one of the largest black churches in the city, and attorneys G.E. Graves and John D. Johnson, who represented the NAACP and other groups to force desegregation in the county.[3]Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.4.

Black Giants Emerge: Father Theodore R. Gibson

Father Theodore R. Gibson and Attorney G. E. Graves violate the law by sitting in the front of a public bus in Miami, Graves represented many defendants during the movement in Miami. Gibson is well known as a leader of the time but Graves is an unsung hero.[4]Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.6.

Miami was blessed with several civil rights leaders but the most prominent among them was the Reverend Theodore R. Gibson, the head of the venerable Christ Episcopal Church planted deep in the heart of Miami’s Coconut Grove. His accent to power was fueled by his Bahamian roots and the support of almost eight hundred members of the enormous church. Gibson had no reason to worry about what the white folks thought of him and he acted like it.

Theodore R. Gibson was born on April 24, 1915 in Miami to Bahamian immigrant parents. His mother worked as a maid and laundress to send him to St. Augustine College in Raleigh, North Carolina. He later went to Bishop Payne Divinity School in Virginia. From a young age he had a problem with racial segregation. He saw his best friend horse whipped in Miami by the KKK. He developed very strong feelings about racial injustice and inequality. He is shown here with his wife, Thelma Anderson Gibson who was a notable activist in her own right.[5]Dunn, Black Miami History, p.84.

“We had a very good president of the NAACP, Reverend Theodore Gibson…. He was a fiery leader of the NAACP. I remember Father Gibson used to stop by the office sometimes and say, Garth, what problem will we attack next? I remember one day, I told him, you know, we really ought to go after the golf courses. I said, you know, I like to play golf, but they only let us play on Monday…. Monday was the day they maintained the courses. They were watering the lawns and cutting the grass and you are out there trying to putt…. He said, well, hell, let us do something about it. Sure enough, we organized a group called the Cosmopolitan Golf Association, which was a group of black golfers…. we started… 12planning our fight… with the municipal golf course. We had two good NAACP lawyers there. We did not have any money to pay them, but these guys were committed. If we got the $380, I think that is what it cost in those days, to file a suit, they would file it for us. So… we decided to file the suit. We did this back in the 1940s, but the suit lasted seven years, I think. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, and it became a landmark case…. (Rice v City of Miami. Joseph Rice was a regular member of the Cosmopolitan Golf Club). The Supreme Court ruled that you cannot take tax money, build a golf course, and restrict any of the residents. Simple as that…. “[6]Dunn, Understanding Our Past.

A.D. Moore, Miami civil rights leader

Miami’s had many other civil rights activists during the movement. They included A.D. Moore also a leader of CORE. He led a boycott of one of the city’s largest department stores, Shell City, for refusing to serve blacks at its lunch counter. In August 1960 a group of 18 blacks were arrested in their attempt to desegregate the lunch counter. Howard Dixon and Tobias Simon defended the arrested CORE demonstrators. But, their clients were convicted and placed on probation for one year by Judge George E. Shultz.[7]Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.3.

Washing Clothes in Colored town

Perhaps one of the best-known black female business leaders in early Miami was the indefatigable Florence Gaskins. She was born in 1863 in Jacksonville, Florida. Gaskins arrived in Miami in 1896 as a widow. According to Ellen Johnson, an expert in local black history and the owner and manager of Lincoln Memorial Park, a black cemetery in Miami, Florence Gaskins began her rise to prominence in the days of the Royal Palm Hotel. According to Johnson, “all the visitors coming down from the North used to wear Palm Beach whites,” a virtual windfall for black washerwomen.”

Gaskins operated a laundry business which catered to the city’s tourists. She collected the laundry from the hotels and brought it to Colored Town, where she hired two or three women in the community to do the work. Eventually, Gaskins prospered and began a real estate agency, a private school, and as her success increased a Junior Red Cross chapter. In addition to being an astute businesswoman, Florence Gaskins became a dominant figure in the social circles of early black Miami.[8]Dunn, Black Miami in The Twentieth Century, p.5.

M. Athalie Range HOW ABOUT A MONUMENT TO THIS LADY? (placed next to the Confederate monument on the state capitol lawn)

“There were fruits of the civil rights movement in Florida. As the movement advanced in Florida blacks made gains on the political front. African Americans began to emerge in powerful state and federal positions. As the age of affirmative action arrived Florida blacks continued to enter the halls of power in the state. Florida’s first truly moderate governor was Reubin O’Donovan Askew (1975-1979). He appointed the first black woman to the state cabinet, Miami’s M. Athalie Range who he named Florida’s Secretary of Community Affairs. At the local level, scores of blacks were elected to city and county commissions, school boards and the state legislature. By the 1990s, several Florida cities and counties had been served by black police chiefs.” She was the first black person to serve on the Miami City Commission.[9]Dunn, Understanding Our Past.


1 Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.2.
2, 3 Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.4.
4 Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.6.
5 Dunn, Black Miami History, p.84.
6, 9 Dunn, Understanding Our Past.
7 Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.3.
8 Dunn, Black Miami in The Twentieth Century, p.5.