It was a day in May 1984 when I first met Garth Coleridge Reeves Sr. I had immigrated to the U.S. that February and had spent the time in between looking for a job, both in South Florida and in New York, sending out probably 20 resumes. But, despite my 16 years of experience as a journalist in my native Guyana and parts of the Caribbean, no one hired me.
When I walked through the door of The Miami Times, at 900 NW 54th St. in Liberty City, I was fully prepared to be disappointed once again. But there was a ray of hope. I had read in The Miami Herald a few years earlier, that Reeves, the publisher, had passed the publication to the third generation of the family, his only son, also named Garth. He had planned to step away from the day-to-day operations but the younger Garth died in 1982 at age 30 from cancer and Reeves had to step back into the business. His other child, Rachel, was oriented towards business, not journalism.
I felt that, with my experience on small newspapers and with a Third World orientation, I could make a contribution to The Miami Times but acutely aware that it is an African-American newspaper and I am a Guyanese of Indian descent. Reeves put the doubts to rest after he interviewed me and said he was impressed by my resume. He offered me a job, on the spot, as a reporter.
I was eventually promoted to managing editor and given responsibility for the editorial content of The Miami Times. In the nearly 15 years I worked at the newspaper, Reeves allowed me full control, until I left to join The Miami Herald’s Neighbors staff in an effort to broaden my professional horizon.
Reeves seemed to trust me with the newspaper which his father, Henry Ethelbert Sigismund Reeves, started on Sept. 1, 1923. But he did more than that. I had an opportunity to see his interaction with community and political leaders of various kinds and with regular men and women at this time when he had already established himself and the paper as a bulwark against abuses against the African-American community. It did not take long for me to realize that this was a man of worth, a champion of the African-American community and a committed defender of civil rights.
I learned about his life story during conversations with him and it was a story not to be forgotten. He explained that when he was a young man he had little interest in journalism. He studied printing at Florida A&M University in his 20s and was more interested in that aspect of The Times when he returned from college because the paper was not making money and was being subsidized by the printing operation which his father, Henry E.S. Reeves, a master printer from the Bahamas, started in 1919. The elder Reeves started The Times to give a voice to the African-American community. The son’s attitude changed after he returned from nearly four years in the military.
Disembarking the ship, Reeves and other African-Americans had to use a separate path from whites. He was furious, saying in a Times interview for the paper’s 70th anniversary, “I took a new perspective. I gave 46 months of my life. I felt my country owed me something. When I came back, we were still on the back of the bus,” he said. He “could have been killed” serving his country and “the war didn’t change anything” at home, he told an audience at the Black Archives Historic Lyric Theater Cultural Complex in Overtown three years ago.
Reeves said he vowed to dedicate his life to resisting racism, in a city where it was historically deeply entrenched. He put The Times on the front lines of the struggle. By the time I arrived at his office looking for a job, the paper had already established a track record which earned it and its publisher the respect not only of his community but also of those outside and Reeves was already an icon among African-Americans and others. To know African-American Miami is to know Garth Reeves and The Miami Times.
He told me that, while The Miami Times became the mouthpiece for his community, he did not hesitate to join the struggle personally. Reeves would relate to me, as he did to others, the time when he and other activists challenged the city of Miami’s rule that Blacks could play golf on the municipal course only on Mondays – when it was watered. The group demanded an end to that practice and when the city ignored them, they sued. The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor, saying the city could not tax its residents and at the same time deny them use of city facilities.
Reeves and his group also took on Miami-Dade County for its discriminatory policy on using its 28 beaches. African-Americans could go only to the poorly maintained Virginia Key Beach. After the county refused to change that policy, Reeves and his group put their bodies on the line, going to Crandon Park beach and walking into the water, defying the heavy police presence. “We expected to be beaten up or harassed but nothing happened,” Reeves told the Lyric audience. “The beaches were all open to us from then on.”
Asked by a Lyric audience member about his approach to the struggle for equal rights, Reeves said, “There are always some good white people and you need those people. But you cannot reason with hoodlums who want to beat you up.”
Alliances with those “good white people” provided Reeves with access to the corridors of power in Miami, including seats on the boards of business and civic organizations and, thus, a voice for the African-American community. Reeves took pride relating to me another kind of personal risk when he bought the People’s Bank of Commerce, which was failing and was about to be bought by Latinos: “How could I justify to my grandchildren that I had a chance to get a Black-owned bank in our community and I did nothing?” The bank went on to fail anyhow but Reeves never expressed to me any regrets about what he did.
He remained convinced that financial resources was the key to economic advances in his community. “Money talks,” he said in a The Miami Times interview, “and we don’t get anywhere by being poor; Rich is better.”
The curtains finally came down on the story of Garth Coleridge Reeves Sr. Monday, Nov. 25, when he died at age 100 – two months after, despite his age, he attended the funeral of his daughter, walking upright all the way and gave me what would be a final greeting.
There are many people in Miami who will remember how Reeves helped to make life just a bit better, kept the police from continuing to attack and kill African-American men, mobilized the African-American vote and raised the consciousness of more than a generation. I am one of those who is grateful – especially this Thanksgiving season – that I met and got to know him. Without the job offer at his newspaper, my career in journalism would have ended. Instead, I was allowed to grow in a different environment and to so advance personally and professionally that I can safely say that all that I am, all that I have become, in the U.S., I owe to him, as I told him when I called to express my condolences on his daughter’s passing.
As for the Reeves family and The Miami Times, there is reason for hope. The newspaper was passed to the fourth generation, to Reeves’ grandson, Garth Basil, who is at the helm as it enters its 97th year of publishing without missing an issue.
Funeral service will be 10 a.m. Friday, Dec. 6 at the Historic Saint Agnes’ Episcopal Church of Miami, 1750 NW Third Ave., Miami.