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Monday, August 27, 2012

Unpacking Coconut Grove ► Part Seven ► Signs along Charles Avenue

The Charles Avenue historical marker with the
historic E.W.F. Stirrup House in the background.
Now that the City of Miami has designated Charles Avenue an Historic Designation Roadway (whatever that is supposed to mean), the informational signs along Charles Avenue might get a little more attention. Every day several tour buses rumble down Charles Avenue, starting at the Coconut Grove Playhouse and the Charles Avenue historical marker all the way down to the Charlotte Jane Memorial Park Cemetery at South Douglas Road. The bus slows down at various locations, and even stops along the route, but no one ever gets out. No one! Any pictures taken are taken through the windows.

The original historical marker (at left) commemorates the first Black Bahamian residents who settled the area in the 1880s. It reads:
The marker in 2010.
"The first black community on the South Florida mainland began here in the late 1880s, when Blacks primarily from the Bahamas came via Key West to work at the Peacock Inn. Their first hand experience with tropical plants and building materials proved invaluable to the development of Coconut Grove. Besides private homes the early buildings included the Odd Fellows Hall, which served as a community center and library, Macedonia Baptist Church, home of the oldest black congregation in the area, and the A.M.E. Methodist Church, which housed the community's first school. At the western end of Charles Avenue is one of the area's oldest cemeteries."


When I first discovered the marker in 2009 I wondered why it hadn't been kept in good repair. At the bottom, in smaller letters, it reads "Sponsored by Eastern Airlines in cooperation with the Historical Association of Southern Florida." Eastern Airlines went out of business in 1991. I couldn't find out when the Historical Association of Southern Florida became defunct, but it no longer seems to exist either. I also couldn't understand why it was being used as a trash pick-up spot. However, every time I visited there was a whole new assortment of garbage piled up around the base, so clearly the trash was being picked up from there on collection day.

The 120-year old E.W.F. Stirrup House.
The marker has recently been straightened and a flowering plant has been stuck in the ground next to it, but it was hard not to see the state of the marker as a metaphor for Race Relation in 'Merka from the distant past right up to the present. The E.W.F. Stirrup House is a manifest representation to how Black History is treated in 'Merka, marginalized and only mentioned for one month of the year, if at all. Yet Black history is ALL of our histories and, not to put to fine a point on it, it was the Black folk that did most of the hard work that built this country. As the Charles Avenue historical marker makes clear, the Black folk also taught the White folk how to survive in the godforsaken swamp that was Coconut Grove in the late 1800s.

 However, the Charles Avenue historical marker is not the only sign along Charles Avenue. At some time in the relative recent past a number of informational signs were erected, too small to be appreciated by even the most eagle-eyed passengers on the tour buses.

A few doors west of the E.W.F. Stirrup House is the current United Christian Church of Christ, aka Coconut Grove Seventh-day Adventist Church, which had once been the Odd Fellows Hall mentioned on the Charles Avenue historical marker. A sign in from of the building, erected by the Coconut Grove Cemetery Association, tells of the history of the Odd Fellows Hall and its importance to the early settlers of Coconut Grove.


Moving westward, immediately next door to the Odd Fellows Hall, is the Mariah Brown House. The Brown House predates the E.W.F. Stirrup House and is said to be the first house owned by a Black Bahamian on Evangelist Street, as Charles Avenue was first known. This means it predates the beautiful 120-year old Stirrup House at the end of the block.

The Brown House has been empty and boarded up as long as I have been visiting Charles Avenue, and quite a bit longer, I am told.

The sign in front of the Brown house speaks of the first settlers and makes it clear that these were the people who served, or worked for, the few White folk who had already moved to the area. The sign also mentions three early families who settled on Charles Avenue. Conspicuously absent is the Stirrup name.



As one moves farther west along the street, at the corner of Charles Avenue and Plaza Street, is a two-sided sign paying tribute to the unique Bahamian architecture brought here by those first immigrants who helped settle the area.

The Mariah Brown House is an example of a Conch, or Bahamian, house.

The reverse of the sign, with an example of a gentrified "shotgun" house in the background.
Two gentrified shotgun houses turned inwards, faces removed from the street view.
I've written more fulsomely about the Charlotte Jane Memorial Park Cemetery elsewhere. However, I include its sign here for completeness.


At the very end of the street, immediately across the street from the Charlotte Jane Memorial Park Cemetery, and outside what is currently known as the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, is the last sign on our Charles Avenue signage tour. Another two-sided sign, it speaks to the importance of religion to the original settlers along what used to be known as Evangelist Street, for rather obvious reasons.



The tour buses that ramble down Charles Avenue do not take enough time to impart the information on the signs along the route. I wonder is what the passengers are told, if anything, about the original Bahamian community that made and built Coconut Grove, currently considered one of the most exclusive areas in all of 'Merka.

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