By Audrey Wright-Peterman
When Westside Gazette publisher Bobby Henry Jr. invited me to write about the South Florida woman considered most worthy to be recognized this Women’s History Month, I immediately thought of my late mother-in-law, Veta Mae Peterman, who opened the first school for Black children in Broward County. Many of today’s leaders got their start at the Peterman School in Dania, where “Big Teacher” inculcated in them not only the ability to read and write and do math, but also the values of honesty, integrity, and pride in themselves that would guide them through life. She was celebrated by the county as a Broward Pioneer.
The next person I thought most worthy was the Hon. Carrie Meek, the late Congresswoman representing Miami-Dade County who shepherded legislation through Congress in the Year 2000 at our urging, requiring that Black Americans in the region affected by the restoration of the Florida Everglades should be included in the business opportunities resulting from it. Sadly, laws being on the books doesn’t mean that they were observed.
The third most outstanding woman, Mrs. Athalie Range, an icon of South Florida, was the first woman to head up a Florida state agency 0 the Florida Department of Community Affairs. When we took her and other leaders to visit Biscayne National Park in Homestead and shared the story of the Jones family that owned islands in Biscayne Bay since 1897, she burst into tears. Having helped organize and lead the “wade in” that eventually enabled Black Americans to secure a place where they were allowed to swim – Virginia Key Beach – she was overcome by the knowledge that there were Black Americans owning islands in the bay at the same time, and she didn’t know.
But the winner hands down is Dr. Dorothy Jenkins Fields. The Founder of the Black Archives; the woman who saved the Historic Lyric Theater in Overtown from the wrecking ball; spearheaded the creation of the Historic Overtown Folklife Village, and established Miami-Dade County’s Black Heritage Trail is the South Florida woman I admire the most.
My favorite story about Dr. Fields is the one I heard first, back in the 1980s. As an educator in the Miami school system, in May 1974, she went to the county library and asked the librarian for the material they had on Black history. When the white lady plopped down a folder containing a scant few pieces of paper in front of her, she also added these fateful words:
“I guess those people haven’t thought enough of themselves to write their history.”
It cut to her core.
“She said it without malice, just very matter-of-factly,” recalls Dr. Fields. “But those words stuck, and they guided and propelled me to do all the things I’ve done, thank God.”
Dr. Fields worked nights and weekends to establish the Black Archives while also doing her job as a school librarian and raising her two daughters – two and four years old at the time. Her husband also being a student, she was the family’s primary bread winner.
“Many people in the community thought I was getting grants to do the work,” she recalls. “But it was my mother’s retirement money that we used to support the students doing the research and generally putting things in place. My mother and my uncle were my chief supporters because they believed in what needed to be done.”
When she learned that the Lyric Theater was about to be torn down because it was so neglected, she jumped into the fray. Under her leadership and as the grants writer the Black Archives acquired, restored, and operated the Lyric, Miami’s oldest performing arts theater and received state designation for the Historic Overtown Folklife Village.
“I was able to get money at that time from the Florida State Legislature – $50,000 – to buy it, and I was able to get it put on the National Register of Historic Places, along with several other buildings in the area,” she says.
On the 20th anniversary of the Archives’ incorporation, Congresswoman Carrie Meek led the celebration by having it recorded in the United States Congressional Record, November 12, 1997.
It’s literally impossible to speak about the history of South Florida and Black Miami without the name of Dr. Jenkins-Fields, synonymous with the Black Archives, being central to the conversation. The research collection of photographs, letters, articles, and family albums is a treasure trove of information direct from the source.
A graduate of Overtown’s Booker T. Washington High School, Dr. Fields earned a bachelor’s degree from Spelman College; Certification in Archives Administration from Emory University; a master’s degree from the University of Colorado; a Ph.D. in Public History from The Union Institute, Cincinnati, Ohio and a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for High School Teachers at Princeton University. She chaired the Miami-Dade County Historic Preservation Board and is a founding member of Miami-Dade County’s Women’s Park and a member of the Community Partnership for the Homeless. She is a member of the Church of the Incarnation; Zeta Phi Beta Sorority; Jack and Jill of America and The Links, Inc.
Dr. Fields says her proudest accomplishment is to be the mother of two successful daughters: Katherine, an attorney in New York and Edda, a history professor and author who’s currently collaborating with Oxford University Press on a book about the last raid of the Civil War with Harriet Tubman; four grandchildren and the many students and historical researchers she continues to mentor.
“If we can get the young people – and older people – to understand that our power is in our history, we can really move things forward,” she affirms.
Indeed. Which explains current efforts to suppress and distort it. I think now you understand why Dr. Fields is my ultimate choice to highlight this Woman’s History Month.
(Audrey Wright-Peterman is an award-winning environmentalist and author of “From My Jamaica to the World and Back,” 2022)
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