Interviewed by Gregg Lightfoot on December 12, 2000
Otto G. Richter Library-University of Miami-Archives and Special Collections
Gregg Lightfoot: Where are you from and when were you born?
Wilbur Bell : I was born in Lake City Florida on July 22, 1940. I came to Perrine when I was a year old.
GL: Can you remember what your parents did for a living when they got here?
WB: First of all my mother brought me here. I was less than a year old. I had an abusing father. She left him in Lake City and fled with me and my older sisters. She left three older boys in Lake City. So, she actually raised me in Perrine with the help of the income she received as a baby sitter. She was a baby sitter for the Perrine area; one of the first back in the forties. She had bad health she always suffered from high blood pressure. She was never able to work, physically leave the house and work, she always stayed home. She was a stay home mom. We lived with my only uncle in his house. From time to time my mother and uncle would fall out and he’d kick us out. So that we had to rent a house somewhere in the neighborhood and as soon as they would make amends we could move back together again in his big house. That was my life; an in and out situation.
GL: Give me some early physical descriptions of the area?
WB: What I remember most about Perrine was that we never had paved streets until 1959. That’s the year I graduated high school. I went away to FAMU and came back home. They had started putting down asphalt down but prior to that the only street paved was the main street, Homestead Avenue. In 1969/1971 that’s when they started putting in the sidewalks and the water and sewer system with the help of a federal grant for community redevelopment. Prior to that, the area where my store is sitting now was bushes in 1959. You had a few houses in this area in 1949 they were built for veterans. They had built the new homes in Richmond Heights. The homes at that time I think it was $30 down and $30 a month. That was commensurate with the income for the area and the nation at that time.
GL: Go through some early employment or jobs that you had when you were growing up?
WB: The first job I had when I was when I was nine years old. I worked bagging groceries at Golden Rule. We had another general merchandise store in Perrine, the U-Save-It Market. The guys who owned the store had a son with a bike he wanted to sell. The bike was only $10. So for 5 weeks I worked for zero dollars and at the end of the fifth week they gave me the bicycle. This was working on Sunday Morning from 8 to 2.
When I was ten the guy that was elected mayor of Perrine, Ben Shavers, I started on the garbage truck with him. They didn’t have Metro Dade County at the time. So at ten years old I started on the garbage truck. Then when I was off school like on break, Easter break, Christmas break, summer break, I worked with him until I was like 14 years old. Then I went to work as a shoe carpenter. Perrine had a shoe shop so I start making shoes repairing shoes. From that my junior year I washed dishes at the University of Miami after school from there to pumping gas in Perrine. You don’t have to be told what to do you just watch observe and do what everybody’s doing.
GL: Do you think that work ethic was instilled by your mother at all? Was she particularly forceful and demanding that you have a job at all?
WB: My family, my entire family, and I brag about it my nieces and nephews they live in the area of the store they all have their own jobs, they’ve always worked. They have their own house and their own cars and have never borrowed money. I think it is something that comes down from generations, from father to mother. The work ethic itself is something that’s inborn into you, instilled into you. Something handed down to you. I found from the Perrine area that the people that didn’t work in the thirties and forties their children don’t work today. You got people without the will to get up and go to work seven days a week. Not like me I’ve been in this store 31 years and every morning for 31 years I’ve opened this store I’ve never been closed down.
GL: Do you remember any interaction with the water or Virginia Key in particular?
WB: Virginia Key was the black beach. Once you went to the Rickenbacker, at one time it was a dime that was to just pay for the road back in the early forties. That was one of the bad things that came with integration. That’s what happened to Virginia Key - they shut it down. The system shut it down.
In Miami, Overtown by Third and Second Avenues, that area was a vibrant and healthy. Black hotels, funeral homes, theaters, restaurants, shops, everything that it took to make a community, nightclubs the whole nine yards. With integration they came with the idea to tear it down. We’ll make the blacks come to our side, which is Miami Beach or South Beach or Coral Gables. They ran I-95 right through the heart of the black community. It was all planned it was no accident. I left here in 1959 to go away to college and I came back in 69. When I came back all that stuff was destroyed, completely destroyed. They write today trying to figure out how to rebuild it. You can’t rebuild it. They tried with the Arena that didn’t work. They put a big old arena in the area to make up for the economic impact but it just doesn’t work. Virginia Key was the black beach and it was shut down by the system.
Just like the high schools for example. When integration came along in Dade County one man Holmes Braddock, shut down all the black schools. They just didn’t want the white children coming into black schools of the black neighborhoods. This is why we have such difficulties today. We have some serious difficulties, in Dade County, in the State and in the Nation. The whites just don’t think they way they should. They don’t think fairly. Once people can treat people right and justly then you’d have a better world and a better country. The problem you have today you didn’t have them back in the thirties and forties. People got along better before this so called "integration". The average black man on the street even myself. I didn’t care about integration. I went through college, through the Air Force and I never had a problem with race.
I had an interview with the Miami Herald about 20 years ago and a girl asked me "You could live anywhere in the world, anywhere. Why do you stay in Perrine?" I said, "I wanted to. It’s where I belong." And blacks are really the only ones who leave black neighborhoods. If black people who lived on Old Cutler or Gables by the Sea would come back and put their resources into the neighborhood all the black communities would be better. You wouldn’t need those government subsides, or handouts or welfare programs or food stamp programs because the neighborhood would be vibrant.
Like the black churches. All the black churches that are big and successful bringing in thousands every week. You don’t have one black minister living in this black area. They come here to have church and find Jesus on Saturday and find the money but Sunday afternoon they’re gone. They say, "Its such a bad area." But it was good enough to pray in on Sunday and collect money to live on in other areas. They should be able to sleep here seven nights a week.
Its not the white persons' fault Perrine is the way it is it’s the black folks. Because the people who should be making decisions should be sleeping here to. You’ve got to live by example. I have people come in my store all the time, parents saying, "Bell you should feel good about yourself. Me and my kids were sitting last night talking and they say ‘I want to be like Mr. Bell when I grow up. I gonna stay in Perrine just like Mr. Bell did.’" That’s important to be an example. When I went into business I didn’t go in business to compete against Winn Dixie, neighbors or Publix. I went into business to service this area.
When I was doing the brick work on this building in 1986 one of the guys Leif Youngson president of Sofisa bank, said, "You know Wil you look like your overbuilding the store. You look like your overdoing the store." I said, "You know Leif if I was having to come to your bank to borrow the money to put the brick on, or to borrow the money to put the asphalt on or to do the electrical then I would be overbuilding. The way I operated is I got a cigar box and as I build up money in the cigar box then that when I do things to the store." I’ve been here 31 years and I’ve managed to stay focused. My children are a part of the business; Darlene is an attorney, and Desiree is working here today. She retired from the school board a month ago to work here with me. And my son whose living in Tallahassee for 19 years came back home about 6 months ago to be a part of this business.
GL: Do you remember any instances in Perrine or anywhere in Miami where you felt the hand of segregation affect you personally.
WB: No, I've never had a problem. I’ve always gone where I wanted to go, spent what I wanted to spend. Honestly, I've never had any problems. Maybe its just my mind, I’ve never felt inferior and I’ve never felt superior, you go to work, you do what you want to do. Back about 30 years ago, they had this family package up at the hotel and country club up there in Boca Raton. My kids and my wife and I we packed up everything and spent a week at this hotel that was really for the bourgeois. They took the kids and my wife and I stayed by ourselves. This area was top notch. We weren’t thinking about integration.
Along with that, on Mondays I would always take my family out to dinner. We would go to Key Biscayne, Miami Beach. They went to a variety of restaurants. We never had problems. I never had no one tell me I could come or couldn’t do this or that. Seriously, it might seem unreal but that’s true.
GL: Did you take a particularly active role in the Civil Rights movement?
WB: When it all started in 1959-60, I was a student at FAMU and my roommate who is a PhD. at FIU now, Dr. (Cowage) would get up every morning and go downtown to Woolworth’s and sit in and go to jail. It was a segmented routine. That was his job because he came from a two-parent household. He would get up and go to jail and I’d go to work. I’d come back on Saturday and no Ben, Sunday morning no Ben. Monday morning getting ready to go to class there’s Ben. During the sit in demonstrations they never withheld the kids from going to school. They would always be out of jail Monday morning and Saturday morning they would be right back down at Woolworth’s again.
That’s why today I don’t really care for Woolworth’s or Morrison’s. I pay them no attention because they were things you couldn’t do.
Take right here in my Perrine area. You got Perrine and then Cutler Ridge and Fairway Heights. Those areas I don’t really know that well because they were built for whites, so I never paid those areas any attention. You couldn’t live there, couldn’t buy a house there so it didn’t make any difference to me one way or the other. I never got upset about what you could do or couldn't do. They didn’t want to be in Perrine so they get a swatch of land and called it Cutler Ridge and they chopped a piece back in there and called it South Miami Heights and they developed homes built in South Miami Heights Manor. Blacks didn’t live in those areas, they weren’t permitted to. They didn’t sell them the homes. I just never paid any attention.
GL: When you were in the Air Force did you spend any time in Vietnam?
WB: I spent 367 days in Southeast Asia. I got a Vietnam Service Metal. I did a total of 7 years, 3 months, 27 days, 9 house and 15 minutes on active duty Air Force and I enjoyed it. We would launch, in the Air Force, seven days a week. We would launch aircraft from bases in Thailand into Vietnam. An hour after they’d launch you’d hear the bombs, boom, boom. They’d bomb all day. It was an eight hour a day job. Then they’d come in and repair the aircraft and then you’d have another 150/200 airplanes taking off to bomb again. And I seen just two weeks ago Mr. Clinton went over there visiting it. You have a lot of Americans who made well, done well who are veterans that have gone back to establish companies over there and they are doing well.
GL: How did you get involved in the Air Force? What brought you into that Service?
WB: Well, during that time you had the military draft. It was a subscription system. If you didn’t go into the Army or Air Force or Navy then you got drafted into the Army. So after I had left college in 1962 rather that waiting to get drafted I went and volunteered, took the test and went into the Air Force October 1, 1962.
GL: Could you describe a little of Perrine? It’s early government and incorporation? How did that affect you growing up?
WB: The guy, the black man who was elected mayor, Ben Shavers, I lived next door to. Even though he wasn’t blood related, he was like a father to me. All the things he wanted to do, I managed to do. He used to sell land for this guy, M.C. Jessee, for the Perrine Land Grant Company. He would sell a lot and get $5 or $10 when the lots only cost $50. We used to ride Saturday and Sunday afternoon and stake these lots out for the Perrine Land Grant. At the time Ben could write but he didn’t have a formal education. He still could have gotten a legitimate real estate license. But blacks weren’t afforded that opportunity because they didn’t really know the law. They thought they had to be subjugated to the whites, the white males but that wasn’t the case.
I first got involved in 1964 when I bought my first property. I built my first building in 1965 another in 1968 and in 1969 we opened this store. In 1970 I started buying houses and fixing them up and selling them back. 1975 I got my license that’s when I found out there were not really Florida real estate laws before that anyone could get a license. But blacks didn’t know that. With Mr. Shaver, he never got a real estate license, from that he was elected mayor of Perrine. Me, I'm the first native elected official here, elected Dade County Community Council in 1996. I serve on a number of boards, YMCA, Church board, Perrine-Cutler Ridge Board, Chamber, I’m the vice-chairman of the State of Florida Correction Commission. The things he wanted to do politically, I did and am still doing. It’s not something I had in my mind its just something God brings out of you. Little things he wanted to do, he didn’t do them but I did them. I'm sure he seeing, he’s knowing. Sometimes I think he’s my guardian angel.
GL: How important a role has the church played in your life?
WB: It’s been everything. Right now I’m on the board of trustees for the church, United Methodist. I’ve been there in that church all my life. My family goes there. The same man we were talking about, Ben Shavers was the deacon of the church. I remember Sunday mornings he’d have people there from the farm areas like the Quail Roost area and he go with his car, a ’47 Chevrolet, out in the woods and pick up the children give them a ride to Sunday school at the same church. And after church Sunday school he take them back home there in the woods and some of those same families set up right here. In fact the Welcher family lives right around the corner and then you got the Pratt family that are still around and I remember them distinctly. The church is the basis. In fact, that don’t change. The home, the school and the family, that for me makes up a complete society.
GL: Describe your educational experience at FAMU?
WB: Excellent. Going through a segregated system of education, you had the black role model male teachers. WE had a lot of male teachers. Now with the integration and the immigration they pretty well have eliminated the black male instructors. That’s why you have a lot of problems with black children because no one understands them. They don’t make an effort to understand them. They just stigmatize them and put them in alternative program and boom that’s how they deal with it. And then when the children get grown and into crime then you have to deal with them in the prison system, the juvenile justice system or the justice system itself. But this whole thing is screwed up. I don’t know how they are going to fix it.
GL: The topic of Martin Luther King’s death has come up often. How did you react personally and how did the community reaction Perrine?
WB: At the time I was in the Air Force. I was in Charleston. It was really unbelievable. Everything just stood still. I'm glad we had Martin Luther King. Had it not been for the things he did we still be sitting at ground zero right now. He opened up everything. That’s what I tell the young kids. Before him you didn’t have Coca-Cola salesmen, truck drivers, telephone repairmen or bus drivers. You’d have none of this. The whole society was segregated.
But under segregation it wasn't bad. Each black community had its own nightclub, its own church; it wasn’t bad under that. Once it was integrated that’s when the whites decided to destroy what the blacks had. Prior to that, under Martin Luther King everyone was one-hundred percent figured that he had all the answers but he did have all the answers but he opened a lot of doors. Prior to him I was in the Air Force and college there were a lot of people who were disenfranchised, I wasn’t, but it was bad. Without Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy it would be bad.
GL: Elaborate a little on John and Robert Kennedy. How did you feel personally towards them?
WB: They were good people. They were for everybody. The first thing that jumped up was his being Catholic. And they didn’t think that a catholic could be the leader of this country. I think a lot of the insecurity with John and with the system was his money. He had his wealth. Some people just can’t handle people with wealth, a lot of wealth. There is a stigma attached to wealth and doing the right thing. Clinton for example is just a continuation for me of Kennedy; in fact he was one of his mentors.
GL: What were your feelings toward Lyndon Johnson. Were they similar?
WB: I liked Lyndon. He was a good man. Another man I really like was () Dirksen. Dirksen was a good man. And Paul Baker. Paul Baker is related to Gore. Because Gore’s daddy was a senator and Baker was a senator was married to the family and that s why gore has good a political background. Bush has good political background. Politics were politics at that time. You had some good leaders back at that time.
GL: Lets talk about you political background.
WB: Me personally I’m a registered republican. Why am I a republican? It goes back a lot of years ago. When I was a little boy I remember distinctly when Eisenhower was elected. I remember that night my momma walked the floor all night worrying about what was going to happen because they were electing this president. When Eisenhower went in the first thing he did was integrate the military. Black people were just being misled. The same thing is happening with our governor, Jeb Bush. Everyone thought he was going to be anti-black and he has opened up so many opportunities for blacks. I just came back from a trip from Tallahassee; I met all kinds of young black attorneys. Females, all kinds of positions in his administration that you didn’t have in the Democratic administration. The Democratic administration was white male. What I’ve seen in the Bush administration really, I’m not being biased I’m being honest, I’ve seen a lot of black males, black females, especially females, attorneys, attorney generals, inspector generals, that are black. But no one talks about it; they just talk about the bad things.
I voted for Gore because when he came on board and he picked Lieberman. I felt during the integration era, with Martin Luther King for example, the Jews were his backbone. Anywhere he needed to pick a fight the Jewish population was right there with him on the front lines marching and going to jail and getting beat up. The Jews with the black community have always been fair. When he picked Lieberman that was it for me. Regardless of who is president I gotta go to work everyday.
GL: Let me get some of your ideas and opinions of immigration to the community, particularly Hispanic immigration and the Mariel boatlift in general. How have you seen the community change and what are your personal feelings?
WB: In Perrine we always had a Hispanic population from the 1949-50’s. We always had in Perrine the Puerto Rican population since the ‘40’s. The Spanish population is here and you have Cubans in Perrine and Mexicans in Perrine that actually live in this black neighborhood. They’ve been a part of this area as long as I can remember. And I don’t have a problem with anybody. Regardless of whose here you gotta get up and go to work anyway. Nobody giving nobody nothing anyway. With the immigration we’ve been exposed to it longer than a lot of people. You got a lot of people in Miami who were never exposed to Spanish people. But Perrine itself is unique. We’ve always have a Spanish population here. People I know personally in my store here
GL: Was Perrine, to your knowledge, effected by the riots in 1980?
WB: Not really. People in Perrine are fair-minded, basically God-fearing, church going people. With the advent of drugs you had a few people that came along who were fools but all those people are dead and gone. Anybody who actually dealt with the drug situation in Perrine those guys are dead now. Just prior to Andrew they were dying, four and five a night from drugs. Andrew came in and changed a lot of things. The drugs really cooled off. I just don’t pay it no attention.
Prior to Andrew, people would be driving by shooting, but I go about my business. My daughter would tell me "daddy you’re a brave man." I didn’t pay her no attention. First of all when this stuff is going on I don’t know anything about it and the people who are doing no that I don’t know about it. They know who dealing with it and they know who isn’t. I’ve never had a problem with the police department. Not one problem because they know I don’t know anything about it. Now if I had been here when it got started it might have been different. But my family has stayed clean and I’ve stayed clean, drug free and happy. I have found one thing when it gets into a family its got a hold of them. If it starts anywhere in that family it will work its way all the way to the grandma, because even she sees the easy money and gold and fancy cars.
GL: Give me some of your recollections of Hurricane Andrew and how it changed the community.
WB: Prior to Hurricane Andrew you had a lot of dilapidated houses, really dilapidated. Then Andrew came in and, it was really about 300 duplexes that Dade County didn’t know was here. There was no record of them being here. That house on the corner has been there 40 years and no one ever knew. You see what happened was people who had the power downtown would build in Perrine and their buddies downtown would never put it on record. You got a paint and body shop at the end of Homestead. That building was built prior to Andrew it went on the market for $300,000 and there was no record of it for taxes. The whites who were building these places made money because it was never on the tax record so all that money was tax-free.
GL: Was this building particularly affected and was your home affected?
WB: This building was built in 1949 it was totaled because the roof blew off and all the water came in. All this is new. My daughter and son, who are in business with me, I built this office area for them. My office is in the back. So I built this one with a stove, bathroom a complete office so that when we make the transition from me to them through a corporate trust everything will come over to this side. And one day when I’m old enough I’ll just walk away and they will already have an office and a growing business.
GL: How do you feel personally about the incorporation effort in Perrine?
WB: Well like I said earlier my desire is to put it back like it was in 1949 prior to this town being abolished. We should go to the bay maybe to 147 Ave. from 136 to 200 th street and take it back and put it back like it was. It’s easy. And the people who don’t want to be here, its not black people it’s a few whites who don’t want to be here. Whatever you got here you can still come and collect your rent and manage you buildings but just move where you want to be. These people have a lot of money and they should have no problem going somewhere else. I'm gonna be here, my family is going to be here. The blacks are gonna be here it is just a few whites who got this whole mentality that is out of touch with reality. They want to make another city. If you don’t want to be here just leave. It don’t make sense. Everybody is basically satisfied. You got ten people who aren’t. And those ten can leave.
GL: What kind of feelings do you hold toward Perrine today regarding race relations and its sense of community?
WB: Perrine is a real good community and we always have been. I’ve never had any problems and I don’t know any one who has. If they have it’s not openly spoken. The black people in Perrine don’t teach no hatred or separation. Blacks don’t teach that. They’ve never taught it. It’s something the whites taught that they are better than this side of the highway. Anywhere you go in this nation blacks don’t teach no separation of races or hatred. You question blacks all over this nation they’ll tell you they don’t teach hatred. Blacks don’t teach this. Its survival. You love your family and your neighbor but in terms of separation or hatred no, no. Closest thing we came to that was Malcolm X and the CIA got rid of him. I didn’t pay him any attention because that’s not how I was raised. I was doing the right thing. Even at the Perrine Cutler Ridge Council and the Rotary Club we get along excellent. The people that are that way don’t come to those meetings because they know some black or some Jew might be sitting next to them or some Cuban or some Puerto Rican or someone they don’t like is gonna be there. They go out in the woods and shot bears or hang out in trees. I’ll be here, I love it. I’ll stick around.