Interviewed by Gregg Lightfoot on October 26, 2000
Otto G. Richter Library-University of Miami-Archives and Special Collections
Gregg Lightfoot: Where and when you were born?
Steve O’Brien: I was born March 3, 1954 at the Boca Chica Naval Hospital in northern Key West
GL: Can you describe a little of the relationships you had, how your family operated and how your parents brought you up?
SOB: We moved up from the Keys after the Cuban Missile Crisis. South Dade was at that time Cutler Ridge specifically, was more wilderness than development. In fact it is hard for most people to understand how much wilderness there was in this area. Most of us went to parochial schools. Most of us, the group I hung out with, got a catholic education and there wasn’t really that many public schools or really that many public highways. It was basically US1 and we were a very close knit community. All of us had the same background, the blue collar/white collar transferred up from the northeast, places like Chicago, New York stuff like this. Our parents had come here because they had been here or some of the family had been here because of experiences in W.W.II.
GL: Was your dad a participant in World War II?
SOB: He was a participant in Korea but my grandfather, who was, came down and moved right across from Sunniland in 1946.
GL: Could you describe a little bit of the people you came into contact with paying particular attention to race?
SOB: In Key West we had Hispanics but we had the old Cubans who had been fisherman and they’d been there forever, they were more Key West than Cuban. They were pretty much part of the mainstream. We didn’t think of them as being a separate race just kind of like the old conchs and the new conchs. But up here there was not really that much race mingling I can remember. The only black high school I can remember was Mays Junior High which is now an elementary school. Between 1968 and '72 Christopher Columbus High, the catholic high school I attended, had 4 blacks. I can remember very well in the early ‘60’s at the Cutler Ridge shopping center the white and colored water fountains. But that was pretty much phasing out by the early 60’s. I can remember not knowing which fountain was which as a young man, probably in 1959.
GL: When you were first confronted with, for instance seeing the water fountains, as young as you were what kind of effect did that have on you outlook?
SOB: I think we practiced passive racism because no one in my family was really a racist or really had any racial problems but we were so separated that we didn’t come into contact with blacks or Hispanics like we do every single day now in Dade County. It was the deliveryman might have been black or the garbage people. You might have run into the occasional black cab driver. It was not an overt racism, it was like, they do their thing and we do ours. They stay over there, we stay here. So I think that what we learned, we learned from our parents. We knew the Klan was in Homestead, we knew there were problems in Liberty City. It wasn’t overt, but it definitely to some degree present.
GL: Do you remember any specific events, maybe pertaining to the clan or any think else that you can remember, that might have effected you outlook on the community?
SOB: Well, I think it was in 1963-64 at Cutler Ridge there was the shopping center back then it was an open air mall. There were only about 4 or 5 stores and we played Khoury league behind it at place called Food Fair. There was a robbery that went bad and the manager was killed by two black assailants. The community I lived in at that time basically had a theory that if we kept allowing integration to happen that this would be our way of life here in Cutler Ridge. I think that was one of the first few times I ever heard the expression "nigger" used in hatred because there was a big, big fear of crime because in those days as you might know there were no steel bars on the windows and no security locks and it was pretty much an open community. But there was definitely an "us and them" mentality even as a young kid you could feel it.
GL: Can you maybe go into so reminiscences of the community in general in terms of how it might have changed from say when you were growing up in your teens to today?
SOB: I don’t think anybody in the early 60’s could have dreamed the population would be what it is today. I lived in a time went the biggest concern was trying not to hit a deer on US1 or literally having to tie your trash cans down because red foxes took your garbage. This place is so different than it was 30 or 40 years ago that it is hard to make a comparison. I think it is a much more, should we say cosmopolitan atmosphere. In those particular days I think there was class between the wealthy and the poor, between the black and the white and those who labored and those who managed. I can remember it quite distinctly that besides the black and white issues that came to a head with the death of Martin Luther King in 1968 with some of the rioting that happened down here and some of the high schools, local high schools like Palmetto being closed, I think the only other really divisive issue that came up was the Vietnam war.
It was amazing that back in those days because so many people were from Homestead Air Force base or had a military background that almost everybody in this community was completely pro-Vietnam and completely anti-drug, anti-marijuana, anti-race mixing, conservative, white Anglo- Saxons. They really felt that there was no question at all that John F. Kennedy and LBJ were doing the right thing in SE Asia and that Martin Luther King was basically a trouble maker and that these issues were kind of a specter of things to come.
I went through Mariel and I went through the McDuffie riots and I’ve gone through at least five major hurricanes and I've seen ever immigration pattern you can imagine and the thing I can tell you the most about growing up in South Florida is the unpredictability of things. The catalyst of change down here is really quick, its just amazing how things change. But the amazing thing about it is that somehow it seems to work. Every one bitches and moans about South Florida but the majority of my friends have not left yet. Everyone is saying when we get enough money to leave we’re gonna do this or that but nobody’s left yet. So for some reason we still stay down here and we still call it home.
GL: Talk about any specific instances maybe you were a part of or your friends were a part of pertaining to Vietnam or in a reaction to some of the other events like Martin Luther King’s death.
SOB: Well in the late 60’s at the Cutler Ridge Junior High I was involved with something called the Civil Air Patrol. It was like the civilian air patron sponsored by the air force but it was kind of a para-military thing I guess. And a couple of the guys I learned to fly with went right into the Air Force and both of them were killed in Vietnam and didn’t even see 5 months of duty. I think at that particular time for myself I began to look into the dove movement. I can remember at that particular time the people that were involved in the peace movement, at least for us down here, were all white and the people involved in civil liberties and stuff like that were all blacks. We had nobody that was black or Hispanic that I can remember that was involved in any anti-Vietnam War activities.
We didn’t go out and burn down recruitment centers or anything like that but basically getting the literature, going to speeches and stuff like that, attending rock concerts where the anti-war theme was prevalent. And to be honest with you even with myself to some degree it was tourism. It wasn’t that we were going to go out there and stop the war it, was a popular idea. It was an identifier that brought people together. To say that we were all united against the war would not be accurate, to say that we were all concerned about civil rights would not be accurate, to say that, in my opinion that the blacks and white put aside their differences and came together under one banner to stop the Vietnam War would not be accurate.
GL: How did the white community, in particular yourself if you had any strong emotions, react to the assassination of Martin Luther King?
SOB: Well and I’m embarrassed to say this there were people in my neighborhood that actually celebrated. There were people in my neighborhood that truly believed that this individual really had communist tendencies or socialist tendencies and that he was going to spark a revolution that would swallow South Florida. Which is probably being too dramatic. But a lot of people, particularly the old timers really truly believed this was a bad harbinger, a bad specter on the horizon. I can remember very well people buying cases of beer and didn’t care if they had work the next day or not they drank to the death of Martin Luther King. That’s not to say everyone in the neighborhood did but there were one or two guys. And when you were a teenager that makes an impression on you. Because quite frankly at that time I knew who Martin Luther King was but I couldn’t write an essay on him. I couldn’t tell you about the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or any of that stuff. He was just a guy who seemed to agitate, incite or irritate a lot of people.
The rioting that broke out almost immediately after his death had caught us by surprise. I can’t recall but I think the school system in Dade County might have been closed for the better part of a week due to the rioting. I had friends at Palmetto High School Senior and there was black/white violence and that’s what tore it, that was the watershed right there. The day the rioting began I think the community took a huge step back and a lot of people have bad memories.
GL: Do you think at this point the community has recovered?
SOB: I really don’t think it has. I think that basically with younger generation the guys that are 20 and under there’s a chance, but I think that the guys born in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s its not going to happen. I think that the death of Martin Luther King is what started it and the McDuffie Riots is what finished it. I think there is probably mutual suspicion of both sides at least for the guys who are lets say 40 plus. I think that they are not going to change their minds about things. There’s a tolerance, a hard won tolerance that has come because of the experiences. I don’t want to use the word respect, but I want to use the word tolerance.
GL: Sticking with the race issue, when did the tide start to change in terms of the Cuban/Hispanic immigration and what kind of effect did that have on you personally and in the community?
SOB: Well, going to Columbus High School in the 1960’s it was predominantly white. We had about 20% Hispanic. I really didn’t start to notice the change until the late 1970’s. In the late 1970’s you really began to see the numbers of Hispanics in this community rise dramatically. I know it was probably 20/25 years in the making but it seemed to be pretty dramatic after Mariel. I don’t know if the media made us think that but I think that the watershed for me personally was Mariel. I began to understand that for the Black community and the Anglo community, that there was another factor in the mix. When I say Hispanic, I’m not just saying the guysfrom Cuba, I’m saying from all of South America and Central America because I can remember around `78 or `79 the large number of Nicaraguans that were coming in.
GL: Can you maybe describe some of the differences between where you grew up down on the naval station in the Keys as opposed to the community here?
SOB: On the navy base, of course, I was pretty young, you’re protected. Everything is so regimented and everything is so taken care of that you don’t have time to think about this sort of stuff right! You know you do your job. You know you’re with people from all over the United States in there. Your young, you don’t even think about this sort of stuff. But once you got out of the navy base and that regimented life was different and we got up here, I can remember going to Lake Okeecohobee and I can remember seeing along the way to Lake Okeechobee signs from local bars and places we could buy bait, where it said, "no niggers, kikes or spics allowed in this establishment." I actually happened to ask my father what these words meant because I was too young to understand it but there was always that tone of suspicion that we were taught from the older generation to our generation that you always be on guard with people that were not like yourself. I never felt that there was any immunity, at all, in our new community in Miami or our old community in Key West that would be like a peaceful reaching out to other Miamians. It was basically our neighborhood, our block, our people at school, just us and the hell with northwest Miami and the hell with northeast Miami. Did I feel like a true Miamian? No! I felt like a person from Cutler Ridge.
GL: About what age did you start a relationship with the outdoors, particularly going to the beaches, Key Biscayne, Virginia Key, downtown?
SOB: I tell you quite frankly, that it is nature that has kept me here in South Florida and probably will keep me here. I was in the Boy Scouts for a number of years. I’ve always loved to camp, always been boating, always loved the outside. I’ve taken extensive Kayak trips from Miami all the way to Key West. I’ve been a kayaker for the better part of seven years and to me that’s the true Florida. If it wasn’t for the water or the outside there would be no reason for me to stay in Florida. I can almost take anything as long as we have the water and the sky down here.
GL: What kind of feelings do you have in terms of how the county and city governments, in general, facilitate use of the water and seek protection of the natural resources of the county?
SOB: I believe that most county management has no idea what the hell they’re doing, in the strongest terms possible. I believe its one big political football and that all people are concerned about is manipulation and titling cash. With the exception of a hand full of environmentalist and guys like the county archeologist, Bob Carr, I think most people have no idea what they’re talking about. I think its one big piece of political media and its all slight of hand. Quite frankly, I don’t think these people would know a (goldenorb) from a manatee. I have very strong and bitter feelings about management of natural resources on the county level.
GL: Are there any particular instances that you can think of maybe that you had personal experience with or form the media that has shaped that view?
SOB: I don’t know who they think they’re kidding with the stuff they did at Deering Estates and some of the museums they built in that area but I think they can not let pristine be pristine. Pristine means that you leave everything alone in its natural state and there is absolutely, positively no compromises to the county plan for leaving these areas as wild life preserves from day now to the end of time. I have no patience for these people who claim to be environmentally friendly. There is tremendous room for improvement here, tremendous room for improvement. They have squandered not only our water resources, but also our natural resources and it’s only a matter of time before it all runs out.
GL: Could you describe your earliest experiences with Virginia Key and the beach there and how that might have shaped some of these views that you have on protection of the resources?
SOB: We had a fortune because my father’s brothers actually had property are were some of the first pioneers of the living Key Biscayne. So we used to actually be in Key Biscayne and was over there all the time even as back far as when the Seaquarium was first built and they filmed Flipper over there. They were pulling tarpon out of blue water on Biscayne Bay. It was an absolutely incredible place. It was a Hemingway experience. With Virginia Key specifically, we never went there because even though by the 1970’s the situation was pretty well deserted, that was the black beach. That’s the beach were all the blacks went and we did not go there. We simply did not go there. We drove by; we looked over there. You know you saw some people in the water and you kept going, you kept going to Crandon. Because remember in the `60s and part of the `70’s the zoo was on Crandon so that was the big calling card.
But I can tell you that people say that the waters around Dade County were never like the waters in the Bahamas; that crystal blue water, well you weren’t here in the late `50s and early`60s because it was. It was absolutely pristine and Virginia Key was really an afterthought. You know, you looked over there a couple times and you drove through. I can remember in the 1970’s early `70s there were some open-air rock concerts on the, not far from Virginia Key at the entrance over there. That was one of the first times ever I went to place where both blacks and whites were mingling together. In fact, it was the largest number of blacks I saw together with whites in my entire teenage years, except for maybe a sporting event. The island was never that well taken care of. A lot of Australian Pines and, to be honest with you, I don’t think you ever saw more than 25 or 30 people ever swimming in that beach.
GL: Have you used it or been in the waters by it recently?
SOB: Yes, as a matter of fact I have. In fact, I train in those waters for kayak races and I go around there all the time because around the Miami Seaquarium and those waters over there, there’s a lot of sharks which are kind of fun to watch and there are still tarpon out there. I have actually been on the Key, I’d say within the last 3 months, probably at least 4 times. I like it because it’s deserted and you can sit there and do what ever you want.
GL: Do you recall any instances in the black community, either in the press, or maybe first-hand knowledge where Virginia Key was referenced or any instances where some of the activities might have been described to you.
SOB: No! As a matter of fact the first time I even heard about any of this stuff is when I picked up a New Times a couple of months ago. I was reading it in a restaurant completely by accident. I have never heard anyone in the media mention this. I have never heard it on any of the local stations I listen to.
GL: Would you assume that would be the attitude taken by most of the white community in Miami? Do you feel it might have specific significance for the black community seeing as though you describe it as "the black beach"?
SOB: Well, my opinion is this that I don’t think that the white community or the black community cares, quite frankly. You know another monument? What the hell, who cares. We have so many streets now named after people we don’t even know. Why should be worry about a beach we don’t know who’s named after it? So, I think the word I’m looking for here is with my generation, which believe I’m not a spokesman for, is apathy. Apathy, completely!
GL: Could you get into your political persuasion, again referencing some of those earlier events and how that might have affected you and also how your parents might have played a part in it?
SOB: My father has always been a Republican and he’s been a very conservative, absolutely conservative catholic, anti-abortion, anti-practically everything. I grew up, I hate to use this term because it’s not accurate, but as kind of a Kennedy Democrat. In the `60s I was pretty idealistic. I classify myself as a closet environmentalist. I will probably vote for Nader and the Green Party and I will do anything I can to help those people who want to preserve what’s left of the heritage of Florida, Unfortunately, I believe that the people that can do that don’t have the ways and means.
GL: Could you describe a little bit about what you currently are employed doing?
SOB: It’s ironic that I teach high school. I teach Florida History, Social Studies, World History, and International Affairs.
GL: Do you find, particularly in your Florida History class, students particularly aware of the resources that Miami offers?
SOB: No, No. As a matter of fact, it’s amazing how little they have of their own community or the city as a whole. But, it’s encouraging that most of them find this stuff pretty fascinating when we do the history of Miami, specially the `40s, `50s and `60s. They find it absolutely fascinating and they have no experience to it what so ever. They’ve never visited landmarks. Some of them have never even been in the Everglades. Many have never been out of their own community. I think that they would welcome an opportunity to learn about it, if it was ever presented in a proper setting.
GL: Building on experience of the particular population you teach, what are your opinions on how the White, Black, and Hispanic communities view Miami’s resources?
SOB: Well, I can talk about the water. One of the arguments we have on the water is that the people of Miami, especially new Miamians, think that our resources are completely unlimited, that they’ll never run out. That the laws about poaching and taking conch shells and using conchs for bait and pollution and just leaving garbage every where just doesn’t apply to them. There is anger especially against the Hispanic fisherman, at least in my community, that they feel that these resources are a grab bag. That it’s the wild, wild west and you make a claim on the ocean and what ever you do it’s going to be quite all right. There are feelings that I don’t want to say are racial but sometimes are identified as racial because, rightly or wrongly, some people believe that group is taking advantage of a limited resource for their own profit and own enjoyment, and have no concern about the future.
The black community, to be honest with you, to be completely honest with you, I have not really run in to that many people of color that have really met on the water, not kayaking, not fishing, not skin diving. I really have not seen that many Blacks in Key Biscayne, on the water of Biscayne Bay, the Keys, not at all. I really think that opportunity, financial opportunity has not really improved that much since the 1960s. I think that basically, the day to day struggle of staying alive does not allow the main stream black population to enjoy the water or the resources that Dade County can offer. I think that even though this is a good economy, the lion share of the African-American population cannot afford to take the time or the money to enjoy the port because quite frankly, in Dade county if you’re going to be in the water you’re going to spend money one way or the other.
GL: Is that something you would like to see change in terms of having to equate money with access?
SOB: To be completely selfish with you, I’d like to have no one in the water except my self. I think that with the money that’s present and the social avenue that’s present that the blacks would enjoy the water the most.) But you know what’s interesting to me? Some of the most intelligent fisherman I’ve ever met are not the deep water fisherman, but are the blacks that fish along the coast that you see. They know they have years and years of hard won experience and they have the knowledge there but actually seeing that many blacks on the open water? I’ve never seen a black kayaker, I’ve never seen a black kayaker at all in seven years, and I’ve never seen a black fisherman, a black commercial fisherman working on a boat.
GL: Could you describe some of the relationships you had with blacks in the community?
SOB: My first experience with a black was a Bahamian by the name of Hamen. He was the janitor at our elementary which was Holy Rosary and he was a little bit of a local hero because every year they had a contest, they had the carnival and they had a thing called the grease pole climb, which was impossible to do. I tried it myself, everybody tried it! Actually, to shimmy up a greased pole that’s like say 20 feet you know, ring a bell. This guy was the absolute grand champion of Holy Rosary. He could climb up that greased pole every single time. He became a little bit of a hero to us and I can remember as a young kid we looked at him more as a sports god more than anything else. We didn’t know that he was a janitor. We had never looked at him that way. We’d always bring little candy and stuff like that or sneak him some cigarettes from home because he was our hero. That was my first experience. It’s interesting that now that I’m in the coaching community a great number of my friends are black. It’s more than just a professional relationship. We have a social relationship. I can actually sit down and drink the occasional beer with these guys Two of my closer friends are black teachers in the county system. If you would of told me that in 1959 that you know that almost half of my professional associates would be black or that I would be sitting down breaking bread with blacks, I would have found it hard to believe.
GL: Does working with a predominately Hispanic population at Columbus High give you any feelings, either positive or negative, in terms of where the city/the community may progress from here?
SOB: I think the young Cubans now are kind of losing their heritage. They’re no longer Cuban but not quite American yet, but they’re going to be something soon. I think that they are breaking away from the old customs and they’re becoming Miamians. How they’ll take that freedom and do it responsibly, I don’t know. I’m encouraged to some degree because the majority of the Cubans that I taught that are born in the United States have been very, very successful and very active and they’re intelligent and alert people. But the other thing is the fact that, that I think that Dade county is going to be facing some really, really big problems in the future and I think those problems are in the fact that all the population is not going to go away. They don’t want to tell us the truth about traffic, and an issue they really don’t want to talk about is fresh water. Fresh water is going to be a huge factor in South Florida in the next 20 years. I think this is going to be a community that social scientist and urbanologist will study for a long, long time because we’ve got a host group that’s pretty much moved on to some degree except hard-core guys like myself. We’ve got a new group that’s evolving, that’s going to be the new power base. I think the new power base is going to be the Hispanics that are right now between 25 and 30 and I’m encouraged. I think that they’re going to do a good job but, but there are going to be some problems and over-population is going to be a big one.
GL: Give me a little comparison or description of Biscayne bay back, say in your teens as opposed to now that you’ve seen.
SOB: We used to go to Matheson Hammocks almost every single Sunday for the whole day and you could walk out there at Matheson hammock at low tide, it seemed like you could walk forever. The entire place was (bringing) of life, everything you could imagine. Now in the 1990’s and the 21 st century here, Matheson Hammocks is not the Matheson Hammocks we grew up with. I like to call it a wet desert. There’s sand and there’s water and there is (dead turtle grass) and there was nothing else. Its day and night, absolutely day and night. The Mangrove trees were huge rookeries for all sorts of birds there were spoonbills we used to see, the fish, the snapper were much larger, the crabs there were crabs everywhere. Its just like the old post cards you used to see from the 40’s about Florida. Its was really and truly was an absolute boys paradise because you could go out there in the morning on the water and not get bored and come home at night and eat a sandwich and want to do the same thing again. Now today unfortunately you know you go down there, you have to pay an exorbitant amount of money to park the car and your in the water and there’s more marl and muck and there’s not much to do down there and quite frankly the water stinks.
GL: Give me some of your perspectives on the environmental movement here in Miami?
SOB: Well the only people I’ve come into contact with mostly are what we call the Friends of the Everglades. My experiences have been limited to county employees that call themselves environmentalists. Most of them that I’ve encountered are what we call historical preservation people. They are trying to save a little piece of the past. Luckily for us most of these people that are historical preservationists also know the value of nature. So our goals and hopes sort of tie into theirs and when they want to take chunks of property and preserve it for the future. But unfortunately for me most of the people that are doing the preservation were not people that grew up in Florida. My experience is that they are people that have come from the outside and have their version of Florida and want to make their impression of what they think Florida was. Well what they need to do is find out what the real people of Florida we like and talk to them. You can’t ask some 22-year-old architecture student from the University of Miami or anywhere else to draw up a plan of what you think Lemon City looked like at the close of the nineteenth century. You really need to go back and look this stuff up. Unfortunately, my experience is that a lot of the oral history and written history of early south Florida is lost. Not Miami itself but the local communities themselves like Naranja, Culter Ridge, and Homestead. Its difficult to do research in this and most of those people are either very old or dying and the opportunities to do oral histories are lost forever.
GL: What kind of things might you undertake in your own class that might try to get at some of those problems of local history?
SOB: Well one of the projects that I do is to make the kids do oral history. They can use interviews or anything they want of what it was like for their parents and grandparents the first time they came to Miami and knew they were going to live here. What their impressions were. What they like and didn’t like. Did they face prejudice? What type of employment did they have? Did they feel like part of the community? Did they feel like they were exiles? Do they want to go back to their home country the old neighborhoods? It is pretty good because once these kids start doing this project and start talking to their moms and dads and grandparents, they learn a lot about the community they would have never known otherwise had they not sat down and done this. SO we’ve had some success with that. The only thing I should have done was to catalogue some of these conversations and kept them myself. But unfortunately I have not.
GL: In closing is there anything that specifically comes to your mind in terms of race issues and environmental issues at the end of our discussion?
SOB: Well being almost 47 years of age and living through a lot of things in South Florida, I’m still basically, even though I have some criticisms, an optimist. I do believe that Dade county and Miami are going to prosper, meet the challenge of the 21st century and even though a lot of bad thing have happened down here, I’ve never personally felt threaten that my way of life is going to disappear. I’ve adapted well as others have adapted well to the changing times. I like Miami. I really think there are a lot of good things worth preserving here. This is a unique and exciting time and I think the best is yet to come. We have growing pains and things like that but this beats the hell out of any place in Nebraska I’ve ever been.