Key West’s Black Community Fighting for Survival

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Mercedes Wildgoose, Former Frederick Douglass School Teacher, Sacred Elder

April 8, 2016

by Arnaud and Naja Girard…….

Even though the debate at City Hall this week was not officially about race, it shed an unflattering light on Key West’s cultural divide in ways that no journalist could express better than the passionate speakers did on Tuesday night. You’re just going to have to listen for yourself and be amazed.

But before you click on the video, we need to make you privy to a few basic facts and to the one little secret that no one “in the know” that night had the guts to reveal to the Black men and women who came to plead for the preservation of their cultural heritage.

Most Black residents over fifty who grew up in Key West went to school at the iconic segregated Frederick Douglass School in Bahama Village.

“Douglas was redeveloped into a first class school by people who were truly eager to bring the best education to Black students,” says John W. Smith,  “Teachers were recruited from around the country and they came to be part of this project.”

“That school was excellent,” said Monroe County historian Tom Hambright, “often putting out better results than Key West High.”

[Pay attention, as you watch the debate unfold, to the rather shocking explanation given by Donald Carey as to why the school board took the decision to destroy the Douglass school.]

“You felt the love and high expectations from all your teachers,” says Smith, “You felt challenged. I am not sure that our black students feel that way today.”

The numbers in Monroe County are staggering. As we previously reported: In 2013, while 83% of white students graduated with their class at Key West High, only 40% of black students did. According to the most recent statistics made available by the Florida Board of Education, there are 451 non-Hispanic White teachers in Monroe County, 78 Hispanic and only 5 Black teachers. That’s only 1% of district teachers yet Blacks currently represent 10.6% of the student population.

So, Bahama Village residents, concerned with gentrification and school dropout rates, want to create a community center and a black educator memorial museum in the last classroom left standing on the old school property: The Frederick Douglass Band Room.

They created the Frederick Douglass School Black Educators Memorial Project and have been working with Village children and working on the museum and cultural center concept for the past five years.

Key West schools were integrated in 1965; these are the lyrics of the official song for the class of 1965, written by Colette Butler-Hopkins

But three months ago they were told that the deal was off and the City was going to move the Health Department’s Roosevelt Sand’s Clinic into the Band Room. The clinic is very important to the community and is currently located in the annex adjacent to the Douglass Gymnasium [which will soon be undergoing extensive renovations.]

Now, those are the clues that you have to keep in mind as you watch the debate.

It is never explained why the museum cannot simply move into the gym annex after the clinic moves out and it is never truly explained why the clinic cannot move back into its current location after the gymnasium renovations are completed and even expand into the adjoining office space that will also be restored. Assistant City Manager, Greg Veliz, explained that it would cost extra to move the health clinic back after renovations are completed. But to put things into perspective, the City was recently able to find 17.4 Million dollars just for the underground infrastructure and pathways for the green park at the Truman Waterfront. The Village is fighting for its soul.

Here is what’s happening behind the curtain:

This story has very little to do with a Band Room, a Health Clinic, or cultural heritage. It’s about the 60 million dollar development of Truman Waterfront Park and the relocation of the Police Athletic League [PAL]. According to the grandiose plans for the park, the well-maintained PAL building is to be demolished to make room for a modern multi-use playing field.

Veliz’ solution is to relocate PAL in the annex to the Frederick Douglass gym, where the Health Clinic now operates. This in turn pushes the Clinic into the Band Room. Veliz’ plan was revealed to the Truman Waterfront Advisory Committee at its December 14, 2015 meeting.

Every evening the Bahama Village gymnasium helps 20 to 30 kids stay out of trouble, doing their homework and playing basketball under the supervision of the Village Elders.

PAL and the Bahama Village kids represent two different cultures. In a perfect world it shouldn’t matter but, as the school racial data shows, sometimes being “color blind” turns out to be an insidious way of not facing very real racial issues. This is the question no one wants to address:

After the gym has undergone a 9 month long high-class renovation, who will be in control of it? Will it be PAL or will it be the Bahama Village Elders? And if the kids stop going to the gym, where will they hang out instead?

However Veliz, the architect of this plan, was careful not to drop that explosive news during Commission meetings. In fact, even the most involved people in the Village seem to have no idea as to the extent of these “relocations.”

Apparently nothing out of the ordinary for Mr. Veliz, who was recently recorded casually describing how he gets things done: “on a wing and a prayer and a couple of lies.”

Now you should watch the video. [So sorry about the video quality.]

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12 thoughts on “Key West’s Black Community Fighting for Survival

  1. Great, courageous article. I should be tarred and feathered for not saying, during my citizen comments last Tuesday night, that what really is going on here is the city government wants to put PAL (Police Athletic League) into the old Frederick Douglass School, instead of have an African Cultural Center there.

    I later heard that one of the black speakers had spoken with Mayor Cates about that, and she had thought he was going to bring PAL up during mayor and commissioner comments, but he did not do that.

    When I spoke with Commissioner Kaufman on the telephone Wednesday morning, I told him the hidden agenda the night before was PAL, and he agreed. Yet not even he had brought PAL into it during his withering questioning of city staff, Commissioner Clayton Lopez, and black citizens.

    I told Sam the meeting between the black community and the health department, at which Lopez showed up with city staff, and Lopez and city staff were turned away, and then it was made to look like the black community didn’t want to cooperate, work it out … well, as I sat in the audience listening to all of that, the way it looked to me was the black community purposely did not invite Lopez and city staff to that meeting with the health department, because they wanted to try to work out a solution, and they felt Lopez and city staff would try to prevent that from happening, and that’s why Lopez and city staff were not invited to the meeting, and why they were asked to leave when they showed up anyway.

    The health department woman made it crystal clear during the commission meeting that the health department never rejected being temporarily moved into the band room, then moved back to where the health department now is. She said it was city staff who did not want that to happen. That was confirmed by assistant city manager Greg Veliz during the commission meeting. During our telephone conversation, Commissioner Kaufman told me that he likes Veliz, he does good work, but he is not the right person to be on that city project.

    Before the reconvened city commission meeting started Wednesday night, I took city manager Jim Scholl aside and I replayed Sam’s and my telephone conversation, and asked Jim to speak to Sam about it. I said, look at the dais. Two lawyers (Sam Kaufman and Richard Payne), who tried to work out a settlement the black community and the health department were okay with: the health clinic moves to the band room for a while, then it moves back to where it is, and the cultural center goes into the band room. And five Key West Conchs, who don’t want that to happen. I don’t recall if I said apartheid, but I was thinking it.

    I also was thinking Clayton Lopez was way too close to the subject matter to be talking about it, or voting to decide it. He works for the health department. The health clinic is named after his grandfather. His first wife, who is black, belongs to the group pushing for the cultural center being in the Band Room. A while back, Lopez tried to recuse himself, because he felt he had conflicts of interest. But city attorney Shawn Smith ruled there was no conflict of interest under Florida law, because Clayton didn’t stand to make any money from how he voted. So Clayton participated and voted.

    In hindsight, I am glad it went that way, because we’d never gotten to know Clayton nearly as well as we now know him – we who attended that city commission meeting, and the one before it, where Clayton waited until closing commissioner comments, after the black cultural center people had left the meeting, to hammer them, instead of doing it while they were in front of him.

    I made a point, in my citizen comments this past Tuesday night, to say I hoped that didn’t happen again; that whatever the mayor and commissioners had to say, they said it when the black cultural center people were there to hear it.

    Several closing citizen comments at Wednesday night’s reconvened commission meeting, and the mayor’s and other commissioners’ closing comments, addressed what had happened the night before. Here’s a link for those closing comments:

    Closing comments start at the 02:04:54 mark. Open that link, wait for the video to start running, and slide to button rightward to that time on the video. I first speak about the mayor and commissioners walking and bicycling to commission meetings, instead of using cars. Then I speak about the black cultural center. Then come several citizens speaking about the cultural center, and then the mayor and commissioners speak about the cultural center and other matters.

  2. As an Advisory Board member of the Truman Waterfront Board, but commenting as a private citizen: In short, demolishing the PAL building does not make any sense. I have talked to people from all walks of life, including long time Bahama Village residents, and when I tell them that they plan to demolish the PAL building they say in disbelief, “WHAT?!” Then when I add that they also want to build townhouses or whatever on the existing Gilleran Field, (previously known as the Petronia St. Field or Fort St. Field) they say even louder, “WHAT?!!!!!”

    Forget that voters, where probably 90% or more of them had no idea of what they were REALLY voting for – and having no clue as to what the long term effect could be, voted in favor of giving permission to the Mayor and City Commission to decide if they would allow 6.6 acres of land to be utilized by the Bahama Village area. The referendum passed with probably somewhere around 75% “yes” approval, HOWEVER, and this might seem irrelevant to some, if that vote was taken today I’d wager to say that the referendum would be turned down by a vote of 75% “no.”

    Regardless, it boils down to this: Sometimes in life when you possibly “can” do something like turn the People’s Park into a large building development – that alone does not mean that you “should” do it.

    And for those who want the Bahama Village area to have an ongoing money stream, the present numbers as given to me are: The area now receives on the average $761,000 yearly (through the graciousness of voters who approved this windfall), but will get to utilize only $451,000 yearly for the next four years as the city is taking back the difference to pay off a loan for Bahama Village. Then, Bahama Village will begin to receive the approximately $761,000 again. Plus, if I or someone could negotiate or mediate with the city and Bahama Village, in my recently released Park Plan there are a total of 13 units of mixed commercial/residential rentals that the Bahama Village area could share in part with the city – and that could bring the total received by Bahama Village to over $1 million annually.

    The only stipulation here is – Leave Gilleran Field like it is; the city will renovate the PAL building and Horse Stables; and keep as open space and free from development the large, vacant lot across the street from the proposed Amphitheater. Sounds simple enough to me – and then everyone wins.

  3. I can not keep track of what is going on in this city – the stories and plans change so often! The PAL building was going to be torn down. Then it was going to be ‘recycled’ and renovated. Now I read it is going to be torn down. WHICH IS IT?

    Too many of the cities many many issues & problems are inter-related.
    Take for instance we have the most unsafe city in Florida for bicycles and pedestrians.
    Consider residents on Southard St now want stop signs to slow cars down to the 20, 25 or 30mph speed limit on Old Town Streets – even the city seems confused as to what it is! Everyone wants cars, taxis, workers in pickup trucks & vans, and tourists in their rented Mustang convertibles to SLOW DOWN. So why don’t we enforce the speed limits? Give tickets out? Maybe make some revenue off those in such a hurry they put us all in danger. Maybe get creative in limiting the number of cars – make the city safer with less traffic, and slower traffic – and less need for ADDITIONAL PARKING GARAGES! See how I mean city problems are inter-related?!

    Now back to the color issue. Bahama Village it seems has long gotten the shaft. When the Navy conveyed the Waterfront Park land to the city they stated Key West was “fully built out” and Bahama Village would finally have access to the waterfront again with the park land – THEN came the Misel-Spottswood paln with their MEGA YACHT Marina and the city granted them rights to do the upland (park) also. Stalled without funding (their not wanting to use their own money!) that plan too failed. In the meantime the 6.6 acres for Bahama Village granted by the voters also seemed to shrink. I can’t figure that one out either – is all 6.6 acres back now?

    I understand the sentimental attachment to the band room. I also understand the needs of the Health Dept, and too many projects for city staff, with too little time and too little money to deal with all of them – maybe because we deal with nothing in a timely or financially efficient way!

    Bahama Village needs a satisfactory space for their historic black education museum and community center. Children of Bahama Village need to be mentored and taught and take pride in their cultural past – where are they learning this? A 40% graduation rate for the black community compared to an 85% for the white community is UNACCEPTABLE. A community (Key West) can not reach its full potential until all members of the community contribute fully. What happens to the other 60% of black students not graduating? – that is the important question? Not every student has the skills, desire, or money to go to college. We need plumbers, carpenters, secretaries, mechanics – WHERE ARE OUR VOCATIONAL EDUCATION PROGRAMS for students not pursuing college??? Could the 15% white non-graduation rate and 60% black non-graduation rate be tied to crime statistics in anyway? What do all these kids do who drop out of school?

    Give the black community space for a community center so they can mentor young lives, and a museum they can take pride in. If the Douglas gym is so important historically to them do everything possible to make that their space in time, but at a very minimum find room for them in Bahama Village or incorporate this into the 6.6 acres voted to Bahama Village in the park land – maybe instead of a 6 story boutique hotel! No, it would not create the same “revenue” in terms of money – but some rewards are not measured in $ and become much more valuable over time.

    1. Island Girl, my recollection from citizen comments is, black students learned well at the Frederick Douglass School, and the decline began after the school was closed and they were forced to attend other schools in Key West, and the younger black students were bused around the other Key West schools all the way out to the new Gerald Adams school on Stock Island, next to the community college. That busing is still going on.

      When I ran for the school board in 2012, I kept harping on the school district’s mission statement: to have its students career or college ready by graduation. I kept harping on a serious increase in vocational training, for ALL students. I harped on all students being able to touch type by the 8th grade, and on ALL students being fluent in English and in Spanish by the 8th grade. I kept harping on teaching students the 3 R’s (readin’, writin’, rithmatic’, instead of teaching to standardized tests.

      I kept harping that the school districts own statistics, as well as the State of Florida’s statistics, and national statistics, showed a heavy drop out rate in college, and of those college students who did graduate, many had trouble finding jobs that paid decently and they had to take jobs that did not require a college education.

      Let’s see, I think I received maybe 112 votes in that election. Perhaps due to having run only as a write-in candidate. Maybe if I had filed to run the regular way, I would have gotten 224 votes. Regardless, I think that election, and how it went thereafter in the school district, proved just how interested the voters, the school board, and the schools were not in getting students ready for the real world.’

      That aside, I try to put myself into a black student’s skin. Well, I can’t do that, can I, since I’m white? But I try. I try to read the mind of the black woman who raised me as her own, whose father was a slave in south Alabama. I try to imagine what it’s like to be a black student in a school system run by white people. I’m having a really hard time imagining that. But that’s what I have to imagine, because that’s what is in Key West, and in the Florida Keys. What is leaves me at loss for a solution. What is leaves me thinking just how important a black cultural center really would be, if there was one in Key West.

      You’d think the people running this city would see that crystal clear and would have it on the front burner. But you’d think wrong. Not even the one city commissioner of African descent, Clayton Lopez, thinks in that way. His words and actions during the city commission meetings, where the Frederick Douglass Band Room was on the agenda, were disgraceful. As were the words and actions of his four white Conch brothers and sister.

      The only elected officials who tried to prevent the massacre are white immigrants, like you and me. They also are lawyers. One is a retired judge. They tried to do the right thing, in a sea of misinformation, misdirection and deceit. I imagine the KKK and the Aryan Brotherhood are quite pleased over the massacre. Perhaps, hopefully, the five elected city officials who did it will have their hearts and consciences and souls pricked. Perhaps they will have a Road to Damascus experience. I hope they do.

      I hope the same will happen to the five elected school board members, and to the superintendent of schools, and to all of the school principles and school teachers.

      Maybe Reverend Gwendolyn Magby should lead us all in making that prayer, starting with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” being played in the Frederick Douglass School Band Room.

  4. keywestislandgirl & All,

    You mentioned the PAL building’s present status, so I’ll tell you a couple of things I was told and my personal observations about it and also a couple of other things:

    1) I was told the PAL building was in bad shape, but walked inside and outside of the building with someone who was a general contractor along with 2 city policemen and a City Commissioner who all heard the contractor’s evaluation that with a $1 million renovation the almost 25,000 sq.’ building would be in very good condition and would be worth around $8 million. He said he’d like for an engineer’s opinion to back him up. I sent and then received an email from a very high ranking city official that he had heard several times that the building was structurally sound, which seemed to back up the contractor’s opinion.

    2) Then I was told by another, that the building had to be torn down because it was sitting on the Navy’s buffer zone of 30′. The buffer zone is the distance between a building or property and the Navy’s fence that separates the Park property from the Navy’s property. I then received an email informing me that the Navy and city (who were joined at the hip) had negotiated a buffer zone of 20′ for the PAL building. I went down there that evening and measured the distance and found that the building was farther away than 20′. I also measured the distance with a tape measure with the City Commissioner and 3 police officers as witnesses and the distance proved to be 23.5′. There are 2 stair wells that do reach out to the Navy’s fence, but they haven’t been used probably in decades and could be taken out by a man with a sledgehammer in a day or so or with a jackhammer before you know it.

    You also have a right to be confused because: 1) I questioned the Master Plan that had a parking lot in the middle of a vacant field when it makes more sense to put it away in a different area. 2) I also questioned exactly why the originally approved Master Plan Community Center (CC) was also in the way. This original CC was around 32,000 sq.’ and would cost around $14 million. Later on, mysteriously, they changed the CC to 110′ x 125′ = 13,750 sq.’ with an approximate cost of around $3.7 million. Then, at one of our Advisory Board meetings they said how did we feel about moving the CC over to the Douglass Gym area? And all of this after I was told by several people over a couple of months (even before I was appointed to the Board) that there will be no changes to the Master Plan, and I was wasting my time with my questions and suggestions.

    So now, they have ANOTHER plan which they dug up from the past and this got great coverage in the KW Citizen before it was presented at our Advisory Board meeting. This plan is called the Conceptual Plan that is pretty much just completely a building development with almost no open space.

    My opinion is that they are throwing a bunch of spaghetti and sauce against a wall, and are waiting to see how much they can get to stick. This situation and their plans are completely fluid – apparently changing whenever they feel like changing the plans. Folks, a small handful of people are playing you guys like a violin.

    1. Ben – The stories I could tell you from following everything about the park for at least 12 years! I attended every charette, and other meetings. “Conceptual” plans was the term they used as they changed the plans from what the public wanted and thought they were getting. Some of us could see through the shell game but the train rolled on. The amount of money they are spending on phase 1a is a joke. Phase 1 and those following were so expensive they had to be further broken down into smaller phases. That and the city did not have the $58 Million for the entire park project! The park is a joke. A very sad joke. It is not the park the people had dreamed of over the years. For too many years the city refused to televise the TWAB meetings – then suddenly once “The Plan” was finally approved and Topinos given the contract they began to televise them! Why? They did not want the citizens and taxpayers to know what was happening and their park had been stolen from them. For too many years a few of us knew there was something else happening to the park behind the public eye that was not in the communities best interest. Few people attended the TWAB meetings. Until citizens pay attention and take back their governments this will continue to happen. So now they get the park plan they ignored and refused to fight for.

      This parcel of land should have become the focal point of Key West and a beautiful green People’s Park. It is not the Truman Waterfront Park – it is only the Spottswood’s name for the park.

      The city is so short sighted and there is always some people with their own personal agenda behind most every project who could care less about what’s best for the community. I’m sure you saw a city conceptual plan for Building 103 – some kind of convention center for like 900 people! Are you kidding me? And they will park where? What the city s best at is wasting our tax dollars and not dealing with issues and projects in a timely fashion. Mr. Becker has resigned, I would suggest you not waste your time and do the same – the city is going to do damn well what they want and the hell with what the community wants. If only taxpayers could see the actual planned park finished and standing today, most of these clowns would be voted out of office! Now, you want to know how I really feel? This is only the surface!

      If only the citizens could somehow vote to scrap this embarrassing, expensive plan and take back what was to be THEIR park!

  5. Yeah, I don’t know why Mr. Becker really resigned as on the surface pretty much everything has gone his way at Advisory Board meetings. This is because out of the seven members, four were re-appointed by the Mayor/City Commissioners and Mr. Becker I understand was previously on the (Bahama Village Redevolpment Advisory Committee (BVRAC), so that has been 5 automatic votes against 2 new appointees ideas – Ricky Arnold, Jr. by Margaret Romero and me appointed by Richard Payne. This means that anything brought up by us two so far has been nixed with no hope of seeing the light of day. Even my Park Plan presentation at our last meeting of March 21 didn’t get one drop of ink in the KW Citizen newspaper.

    Keywestislandgirl, I see where you mentioned that “Bahama Village it seems has long gotten the shaft.” This might be true to some degree, but now (and keep in mind the $761,000 on the average that Bahama Village receives annually), everyone (Conchs, Key Westers and guests of the city) are “on the way” of getting shafted by “some” proponents of Bahama Village.

    AND, here’s a Fun Fact concerning Bahama Village, the now disputed 6.6 acres and the Tax Incremental Funding (TIF): Within my Park Plan, my proposal of having Bahama Village sharing part of the rentals from the 3 small one-story Conch house style retail outlets and also the 5 small two-story Conch house style mixed commercial/residential outlets (making for a total of 13 rentals) is the approximate equivalent of adding $60 MILLION worth of buildings – which I have previously stated could potentially add an additional $240,000 or more to the Bahama Village TIF monies received annually. I am basing this on what I was told that for every $20 million in property assessments – this would bring in $80,000 – $90,000 annually for their TIF in that area. $60 MILLION! Think about it.

  6. More about my Park Plan and the Bahama Village Tax Increment Funding (TIF): Not to mislead, but when I presented the Plan at our Advisory Board meeting, I didn’t specifically mention the amount that could go into the TIF as the Plan mainly addresses the need for a lot of open space with the added benefit of revenue to pay for maintenance of the Park.

    I am continuing this in case there is any confusion about the $60 million worth of property and TIF, so: What could happen in this out-of-the-box scenario is simply that the Bahama Village TIF could be increased by approximately $240,000 annually which would represent property worth $60 million, BUT there would be no need to build anything at all – outside of the 8 out-of-the-way Conch houses that were previously mentioned.

  7. Well, okay. A bunch of us were invited today to tour the Keys Energy buildings that they want to give to the city. The 3 buildings are located between Angela St. and Geraldine St., although Angela stops right before you get there. Plans are to extend Angela so it runs right past the buildings and on to the Waterfront Park. Fort St., which runs parallel to the recreation field, could possibly also be extended to join with Angela.

    The buildings are a wreck, but HARC has designated them historic, and I believe only an engineer can condemn them before they could be demolished. A ballpark figure to renovate or build new there might be around or up to $4 million plus a decontamination cost of what I was told would be about $250,000. Don’t hold me to these estimates, though.

    There has been talk by a few down in Bahama Village to turn these buildings into a museum. Good luck with that, but hey, if you’ve got that kind of money then go for it with my blessings. You might be able to get your investment back in about 40-50 years if you’re lucky. Not trying to be a wise guy here, just speaking frankly.

    Here’s what you could do with $4 million that would give you A LOT OF BANG for your buck, and remember that Bahama Village is not a separate city but rather it is just another part of the City of Key West: You could renovate the PAL building (an almost 25,000 sq.’ building in pretty good shape already- then demolish Building 103 on the Inner Mole and replace it with a solid, single story 50′ x 150′ (or whatever size) concrete structure that could be rented out for – Wedding Receptions, Meetings, Parties and other uses.

    $4 million is hard to come up with, so make it count. That’s my opinion, and if anyone has a better idea, then let’s hear it.

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