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Historically Black Coconut Grove in Miami nurtured young athletes. Now that legacy is under threat

An older Black man in a black shirt
Lynne Sladky
/
AP
Gerald Alexander Tinker, a gold medal winner in the 1972 Olympics, and former NFL player, stands in the Coconut Grove Sports Hall of Fame in the Miami neighborhood of west Coconut Grove, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. The majority-Black neighborhood — known by names such as West Grove, Black Grove, or even Little Bahamas, in a nod to its Bahamian roots — has nurtured the early careers of numerous notable sports figures. Today, few remnants of that proud Black heritage exist. Years of economic neglect followed by recent gentrification have wiped out much of the neighborhood’s cultural backbone.

Historically Black West Coconut Grove is a majority Black neighborhood hidden among some of the most affluent areas in Miami that once boomed with sports and economics. It nurtured the early careers of Olympic gold medalists and football stars like NFL receiver Amari Cooper and former pro running back Frank Gore.

Amari Cooper’s football jersey hangs in the Coconut Grove Sports Hall of Fame. So does Frank Gore’s, alongside tributes to Negro League baseball player Jim Colzie and football coach Traz Powell, whose name adorns perhaps the most revered high school football stadium in talent-rich South Florida.

They represent West Coconut Grove when it was a vital majority-Black neighborhood hidden among some of the most affluent areas in Miami that boomed with family businesses, local hangouts and sporting events. Some call it West Grove, Black Grove or Little Bahamas in a nod to its roots. Most just call it The Grove — a place steeped in cultural history transformed by the decades.

“When you talk about what is The Grove, you’re talking about true history of South Florida,” said Charles Gibson, grandson of one of the first Black members of the Miami City Commission, Theodore Gibson.

Sports was its heartbeat. It nurtured the early careers of Olympic gold medalists and football stars like Cooper, national champions and future football Hall of Famers like Gore, all of whom trace their first sports memories to this close-knit community.

Today, few remnants of that proud Black heritage exist. Years of economic neglect followed by recent gentrification have wiped out much of the neighborhood’s cultural backbone. Robust youth leagues and sports programs have dwindled. Now, the community that once created an environment for young athletes to succeed — a trusted neighbor watching out for a young football player on his walk to practice, a respected coach instilling discipline and persistence in a future track star — is at risk of extinction.

“I think in two or three years, if something’s not done, Black Grove is going to be totally eradicated,” said Anthony Witherspoon, a West Grove native and founder of the Coconut Grove Sports Hall of Fame.

Witherspoon, known as “Spoon” by everyone in town, is a former college basketball player and coach who returned to West Grove in 2015 after nearly 30 years in Atlanta and found a neighborhood far different from the one that raised him.

Witherspoon recalled the late 1970s, when he would walk down the aptly named Grand Avenue — once the economic epicenter of West Grove — after a Friday night high school football game, grab dinner at a local mom-and-pop place and hang out at the popular Tikki Club.

The neighborhood's earlier generations died, many of their families moved elsewhere and disinvestment led to poverty and neglect. Then redevelopment moved in, replacing longtime locals with non-Black newcomers. The mom-and-pops are largely gone. So is the Tikki Club, now an empty building, its last bit of vibrancy the Bahamian-inspired colors lingering on its walls.

“I was here. I lived in the community. I felt the impact of sports,” Witherspoon said. “I came back from Atlanta, Georgia, and I ran into the gentrification. And this was in the back of my mind: We still need to preserve this history.”

Witherspoon founded the Hall of Fame as a way to keep that legacy alive. A time capsule of about 90 athletes and coaches from the area, it starts with figures like Colzie, a World War II veteran who played baseball for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, and continues with the former pro running back Gore and Cooper, a receiver with the Cleveland Browns.

“Coconut Grove is the nesting place for all of us athletes from this neighborhood,” said Gerald Tinker, a West Grove native who won a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics as a member of the U.S. 4x100 meter relay team. “They would always expect us to be just as good (as earlier generations), and just as humble as well. And it’s always been that way.”

The community’s reputation for athletics was birthed at George Washington Carver High School, a segregated Black school. Carver was a football powerhouse in the 1950s and 1960s, winning five state championships under Powell, who helped shape the landscape of Miami's high school sports scene.

Harold Cole, a former coach and athletic director at nearby Coral Gables High School who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2019, said Powell's influence has lasted generations.

“He was a coach; he was a mentor,” Cole said. “He was responsible for so many of the athletes that have come out of Coconut Grove.”

Cole said West Grove still has youth sports programs, but since many families have moved out and kids have dispersed to other school districts, “it isn’t quite the same.”

Integration in the 1970s forced Carver to close. It's a middle school now, located in the wealthy nearby town of Coral Gables.

“That division broke the fabric of the community to a degree in the '80s," Witherspoon said.

Nichelle Haymore's family hopes to preserve some of the old neighborhood by reopening the Ace Theater, a popular spot for Black residents during the Jim Crow era. Haymore's great-grandfather, businessman Harvey Wallace Sr., bought the theater on Grand Avenue in the 1970s. Born in West Grove, Haymore spent years in Texas before moving back in 2007 to help maintain the theater.

“The feel of the neighborhood is different,” Haymore said. “Neighbors who may have looked out for your house in the beginning, they don’t say hello, they don’t speak. People walk their dogs in your yard. That neighborly respect is different because the neighborhood is different.”

Shotgun-style homes belonging to Black residents have been torn down for sleek, boxy estates — called ice cubes by some — and condominiums far too expensive for the middle-class people that built the community. Abandoned, boarded-up buildings sit where landmarks used to draw crowds. Giant real estate advertisements are plastered on the fences of vacant lots.

“They’re knocking down homes that’s been in people’s families for years and they’re building townhomes,” said Denzel Perryman, a Coconut Grove native and former University of Miami star who is a linebacker for the Los Angeles Chargers. “So, it does affect the community because some kids who are from there, they end up going to different places, different parks because they don’t live in the Coconut Grove area.”

Perryman, who lived in Miami’s historic Black neighborhood of Overtown as a kid, spent most of his time in West Grove playing football at Armbrister Park or participating in the many after-school activities the community had to offer.

Some still exist today. Perryman watched his childhood football team, the Coconut Grove Cowboys, win a Pop Warner championship in December. Youth teams still hold practices at Armbrister Park, though some of them look different from teams of years past.

“It’s unfortunate because you lose so much, the character,” said Gibson, a football and lacrosse coach. “There’s certain things in a community that has family ties to it. When you lose that, I think that it’s a sadness.”

Gibson is determined, like many other residents, to foster the same family environment that nurtured him.

“You can’t put a dollar sign on saying, ‘Go to grandma’s house. She (lives) next door,’” Gibson said. “You don’t even have to look outside because you know that it’s just 10 steps away and they’re inside the house. How can you put a value on that?”

In The Grove, that is the question people are struggling to answer — before it's too late.