Before the midnight bell tolled at the last city commission meeting (and over three hours after a night of public remarks heard by the commissioners mostly about the Murray Pool project) Vice Mayor Josh Liebman led the city commission vote of 4 to 1 in favor of a limited access pool facility. The packed commission chambers had dwindled down to a handful of stalwart witnesses by the time the ultimate vote was cast in a knuckle- biting finale nearly eclipsed by Commissioner Valerie Newman’s eleventh hour complaints to the city manager. Citing design cost exclusions in the final numbers and declaring programs like the senior center would suffer if the pool moved forward, Commissioner Newman’s was the only voice of dissension. The Murray Pool vote allows for a minimum of ten week summer pool enjoyment, CRA design funding of $50,000. and a fervent promise from Commissioner Liebman that no South Miamian tax dollars will be affected.
The seemingly exhausted audience of mostly pool supporters—including 14 year old public speaker Megan Wilson who admittedly was awake past her bedtime — appeared skeptical at best after the meeting. Although many wondered afterward whether or not the project will actually happen notwithstanding the favorable vote for the pool, Chair of the Parks and Recreation Board Richard Ward said after the meeting, “half a loaf of bread is better than none at all.” The city has until the end of April to show the county the shovel is indeed being put to the ground. The next city commission meeting will present the request for proposal process for potential pool operators.
As Miami was morphing into the busy developed city it is today, the shuffling of bodies of water from digging and dredging projects created ad hoc swimming holes beckoning adventurous youth to jump in and take a dive. South Miami native Levi Kelly remembers “sneaking off to the gravel pit” to swim with friends as a kid growing up in the mid 1950’s. A retired Deputy Director for the White House Park Services Liaison Office who shook hands with six sitting Presidents of the United States during his Washington D.C. career, Kelly recently sat down with South Miami News to share one of the scariest days of his life. It was the summer afternoon when Joseph Johnson drowned in the gravel pit which eventually led up to Kelly’s subsequent stand in favor of a community pool.
“There used to be a big lake in the neighborhood with clear blue water in it and most of us kids would go off to swim there. We would go out there trying to learn to swim. We had heard of other drownings before it happened but we went anyway. We didn’t have a whole lot of fear and we were challenged by peer pressure. It’s a dare and you do it,” said Kelly.
“I didn’t know how to swim but my cousin, who was much older than me, threw me in to swim or drown when I was eight or nine years old. We had several drownings there and now all these years later you shake your head because we are still having that challenge. Probably over 60 percent of the kids in the community are afraid or do not know how to be around water and I am somewhat sad they haven’t been afforded the opportunity to learn how. It is a shame and it shouldn’t be.”
The closest neighborhood kids who grew up in what is today known as the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) got to an officially sanctioned and supervised water outing were the annual December hay rides to then segregated Virginia Beach.
“I can recall very vividly in the December months how we looked forward to the hay ride to Virginia Beach. Everybody would go with a date and we got to hold hands in the back of the truck, some of the kinds of gatherings I wish the kids could experience today. It was an innocent time on the beach when the merry-go-round was still there and the bonfires, hotdogs, and marshmallow cook-outs. You didn’t have to worry about any nonsense happening.”
Kelly credits those years growing up when all children were expected to listen to elders who had something to say about how to behave; with a protected, insular time that led to his positive outlook on life and community activism today.
“It takes a whole village to raise a kid and that was the core behind the Black Community. If you were an upstanding person on the street then when you would say something we kids would have to listen.”
Listening to the apparent needs of Kelly’s father in law, former city commissioner James Bowman, is what brought the couple back home to South Miami. Commissioner Bowman was ill in the late 90s prior to his passing so Kelly and wife Annetta moved back from Washington, D.C. to care for him.
“When I came back I immediately got involved with the recreation board. I have served on the finance committee and the CRA board. I always had a positive outlook about what I could do with my experience to bring back to the community.”
Former South Miami Alliance for Youth President, Kelly said although 60 years has gone by since his childhood, he still enjoys talking with lifelong friends about the good old days. “Even though they were depressed times they were happy times. You look at our affluent society today and yet we have a number of kids that go hungry. No kid ever went hungry when we were growing up.”
Kelly also recalls the bus rides to George Washington Carver High School in 1960’s Coconut Grove that drove them past two other major high schools prior to arriving at the predominately Black institution. “At the time you say in your mind, ‘Why is this happening simply because of the color of my skin?’ I’ll never forget playing on the football team and I don’t think the whole time we played we ever had new uniforms or equipment. We were always given hand-medowns from the white schools.”
Although according to Kelly that did not seem to matter with legendary Coach Nathaniel “Traz” Powell who led the young black men on the Hornets team to become winning champions.
Perhaps it is the kaleidoscope of reflections from the past that have propelled Kelly forward as a leading community activist championing the Murray Pool. Soft spoken in his elegant polo shirt with deep knowing eyes and a crown of white hair atop his head, Kelly speaks in measured frugal passages.
“It is very disheartening that we are still talking about the pool all these years later. I have yet to see a drawing of what we are talking about. Limitations are okay but the pool needs to be serviceable to the entire community. It should be a place to bring people together so we can talk out issues that separate and create a big divide.”