Who Fixed the Charles Avenue Historical Marker? ► A Coconut Grove Mystery
The condition of the historic marker on April 21, 2014.

It was just a week ago I posted  Surprises on the Latest Visit to Charles Avenue, a summing up of the latest information about Charles Avenue, designated a Historic Roadway by the city of Miami in 2012. However, yesterday’s visit to Coconut Grove provided the biggest surprise of all:

The Charles Avenue Historical Marker has been repaired!!!

This is actually a big deal for me, forget the neighbourhood.

It was the physical condition of this historical marker that alerted me I had stumbled across an interesting story about Race Relations in ‘Merka. You can take the journalist out of the newsroom, but you can’t take the newsroom out of the journalist.  I just didn’t realize how deep into the Coconut Grove rabbit hole this story would take me.

The condition of the marker on January 16, 2009, the first
time I saw it. The bags of garbage covered up a broken base.

Follow the bouncing ball, dear readers:

I stumbled across the Charles Avenue Historical Marker in 2009. At the time I was still embedded in my long-form performance artist character of Aunty Em Ericann. When Aunty Em wasn’t tickling the internets, I was freelancing for a banking clearinghouse, inspecting and taking pictures of houses in foreclosure.

Still new to South Florida, it was a great way to learn my way around. My route took me from Florida City — called the Gateway to the Keys — north to Hollywood. The real estate failures I visited ran the gamut from condemned properties to multimillion dollar homes in some of the most exclusive gated communities in the entire country.

On January 16, 2009, I was working my way up from Florida City, through Cutler Bay into Miami. The GPS told me to go up Main Highway and turn left onto Charles Avenue. Almost immediately I saw the Charles Avenue Historical Marker. Markers this size are rare on a residential street. Since I’m a history buff, I had to stop. This is what I read:

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.A. Methodist Church, which housed the community’s first school. At the western end of Charles Avenue is one of the area’s oldest cemeteries.

Since I’ve studied Race Relations all my adult life — and possibly because I was in the middle of reading Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen — instinctively I translated the sign and read between the lines:

Had it not been for the Black Bahamians of Coconut Grove the White folk would have starved in this God-forsaken swamp. Had the Bahamians not built it, this neighbourhood never would have existed.

My second visit on March 2, 2009

While 6 years of subsequent research only confirmed Aunty Em’s original conclusion-jumping, it was the garbage bags piled up all around the marker that set off my Racial Radar™. Here was a marker memorializing the first residents — Black residents — yet it became just another stop for garbage collection along the street. Six weeks later I came by the same spot only to discover a new assortment of garbage at the foot of the marker. However, this time I was able to see that the base had been broken, and not recently.

Because I never metaphor I didn’t like, for me this summed up race relations in ‘Merka over the last century. That simple discovery 5 years ago led to all my subsequent research on Coconut Grove, Charles Avenue, Trolleygate, Soilgate, the [allegdly] corrupt Miami Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff and the E.W.F. Stirrup House.

Why is the E.W.F. Stirrup House culturally important to Miami?
Please read:  Happy Birthday Coconut Grove!!! Now Honour Your Past

The E.W.F. Stirrup House across the street from the marker.

January 16, 2009 was also the day I first set eyes on the lovely E.W.F. Stirrup House, catercorner to the historical marker, on the south side of Charles. It was empty the first I spied it and it remains empty, as Aries Development allows it to undergo continued and deliberate Demolition by Neglect.

For the longest time nothing changed at the historical marker, either. It remained broken, leaning back against the fence. However, a few years back I noticed the sign had been straightened out. A short time later a small plant, which only recently started to justify its existence with beautiful red flowers, had been added between visits. 

However, that’s all that has been done . . . until quite recently. Between my last visit and yesterday the Charles Avenue Historical Marker has been given an entire new base and pole about 2 feet east of the former location. The new pole is round steel and feels much more substantial than the previous flimsy aluminum one. The base also seems better and more deeply embedded in the ground, with concrete surrounding it. It’s also been set on a slightly different angle, giving it a greater prominence to on Charles Avenue.

IRONY ALERT: The biggest surprise of all is that no one seems to know who repaired the sign. I have now interviewed representatives of the Charles Avenue Historic Preservation Committee, the Coconut Grove Collaborative Development Corporation, and the Coconut Grove Village Council. So far it remains a mystery to everyone I’ve interviewed, as well as everyone they’ve spoken with.

Eventually we may solve the mystery of who fixed the Charles Avenue historical Marker.

April 21, 2014 panorama • Right: The refurbished Charles Avenue marker at the beginning of the historic roadway. Charles Avenue was laid out by E.W.F. Stirrup and ends at Douglas Road, the site of the Charlotte Jane Memorial Park Cemetery. This quaint cemetery is named after the childhood sweetheart and, later, wife of E.W.F. Stirrup. At one time it was the only cemetery where Black folk could be buried in the Miami area. Far left: The 5-storey Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums looming over the modest 2-storey house E.W.F. Stirrup built with his own hands for his family. The developers of The Monstrosity have been allowing the 120-year old E.W.F. Stirrup House to undergo Demolition by Neglect for more than 8 years.
Please join Save the E.W.F. Stirrup House on Facebook.

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.