Miami 125, a week-long event celebrating the city’s official 125th anniversary of incorporation, honors four notable historians, all homegrown, recipients of so many awards and other recognitions that to list them all would fill many pages.
Public Historian Dorothy Jenkins Fields is perhaps best known for founding The Black Archives History & Research Foundation of South Florida, now known as The Black Archives Lyric Theater Cultural Arts Complex, which not only preserves the rich history of Black Miami but also serves as a symbol of pride in South Florida and a legacy for future generations.
The inspiration for that achievement came in 1974 when Dr. Fields, then a librarian and reading teacher in the Miami-Dade County Public School System, searched the county’s library system for books written by African Americans in preparation for the US Bicentennial – and came up empty-handed. When she asked why no such books were available, a county librarian remarked, “I guess those people have not thought enough of themselves to write their history.”
Appalled, Dr. Fields was motivated to begin collecting primary sources from pioneers in Overtown, from photographs and letters to advertisements, that documented a thriving business and cultural community.
“As an historian with a focus on public history, I use lessons of the past to provide insight for the future,” she says. “This brings me joy and a greater desire to reach more youth, to encourage them to prepare themselves to participate in this important venture – to participate in Miami’s transformation with a hand up, not a hand out.”
For decades, as HistoryMiami Museum’s resident historian, Paul George has brought history to life with popular walking, coach and boat tours, filled with memorable anecdotes about South Florida’s historic neighborhoods, landmarks and sites.
He was also narrator and a principal player in an historical documentary on the Miami News/Freedom Tower produced by WLRN Television. The documentary was selected as the top film in its category by the Louis Wolfson II Florida Moving Image Archives in 2004.
While such activities have given Dr. George a public image, they’re only a small part of his work as an historian. He curates exhibits, writes books and articles, gives lectures. He has taught history in a number of colleges and universities, most recently at Miami Dade College.
An indifferent student by his own admission, Dr. George was inspired by a history teacher at Archbishop Curley High School. “He made it so alive with his lectures and anecdotes,” he says. “From then forward, I’ve nothing but love for this discipline.
“History is important. It gives us daily a perspective on our world and all that is happening. It can be a source of solace as well as a warning to avoid taking certain paths that have not worked or brought disaster in the past.”
Preservation leader Enid C. Pinkney has worked aggressively to ensure that the role of African Americans in Miami’s history is acknowledged and preserved. As the first Black president of Dade Heritage Trust, she fought successfully to save a number of historically important sites, from Hampton House, where Black celebrities such as Nat King Cole, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. stayed in the Jim Crow era, to Lemon City Cemetery.
It was another cemetery that sparked Ms. Pinkney’s zeal for preservation.
She was a schoolteacher when she attended a television program being filmed in historic Miami City Cemetery honoring area pioneers who were buried there. All of them were white.
“I knew that Black people were buried there, but they were not included,” she says. “I felt that needed to be known, so I did some research and found more than 3,000 who were buried there. That got me interested in what else might be a forgotten part of our history. I realized you need to know the foundation upon which you stand and give respect to that.”
Eventually Ms. Pinkney was able to find 20 Black Miamians whose ancestors were buried in Miami City Cemetery and get another show produced to honor them.
Historian Arva Moore Parks, whose book “Miami: The Magic City” is widely admired, passed away in 2020. In HistoryMiami Museum’s “Miami Stories” archive, she left behind a tribute to the city and the discipline she loved.
“How lucky I was to be born and grow up in Miami,” she wrote.
“Miami taught me to be open to change and to adapt to the unexpected. It taught me to accept people and welcome newcomers. It gave me an eagerness to learn. When I began writing Miami history and working to preserve its important places, I called on all these memories of people, places and events to help me. When I write about Miami, I always include everyone in the story. Each day, I realize more and more that there is no better place to live if you want a jump start on America’s future and always have a great story to tell.”
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