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Preserving Miami’s black history


Leadership meeting: In 1970, John O. Brown, second from left, met with other local leaders in Miami, including Bob Simms and A.D. Moore, to resolve a neighborhood sewage problem.

Archival material—including photographs, letters, and newspaper clippings—from two of Miami’s most iconic and influential black leaders have found a home in the University of Miami Libraries’ Special Collections

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The stacks of old papers remained out of sight for nearly two decades, hidden beneath a mound of other items inside a closet in Thelma Gibson’s Coconut Grove home.

Then one day about a year ago, the retired nurse and community activist decided to do a little housecleaning. That’s when she came across the long-forgotten material: newspaper clippings, photographs, and correspondence from the pioneering career and civil rights work of her husband, the Reverend Theodore Gibson.

“I was about to throw it all out,” Gibson recalls. “But as I went through it, I began to realize that a lot of it held tremendous value.”

So she packed all of the items into boxes and called University of Miami Deputy University Librarian Yolanda Cooper. Archivists collected the boxes from Gibson’s home soon after, taking them back to UM’s Richter Library, where they would begin the long process of cataloging the contents.

When archivist Beatrice Skokan opened the boxes, she was amazed at what she found: a 1972 photograph of Reverend Gibson with U.S. Senator and former democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. A letter from Florida politician and champion for the elderly Claude Pepper. A campaign flyer from the reverend’s race for the Miami City Commission, outlining his platform on housing, crime, and social service programs.

Today, those items have found a permanent home in the Special Collections division. Together, with the recently acquired articles related to the life of pioneer Miami physician John O. Brown, the materials tell the story of the city’s civil rights movement and the iconic and influential local leaders who led sit-ins, organized marches, and pushed for laws that helped blacks gain racial equality.


A button on the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” which took place in 1963. Several of the buttons were distributed in black communities across the nation, including those in Miami.

“They pack a punch,” Dean and University Librarian Bill Walker says of the collections. “They remind this current generation of students that things weren’t always the way they are now.”

The Reverend Gibson, who passed away in 1982, was Miami’s third black commissioner and the president of the city’s NAACP branch. His widow, Thelma, is a UM trustee who became the first black assistant supervisor nurse at the county’s health department.

Among other items in the so-called Gibson Family Papers: a 1962 letter from then-NAACP national chair Roy Wilkins encouraging members to back Gibson, whom authorities wanted to put in jail because he wouldn’t divulge the members of the Miami branch of the NAACP.

Just as riveting and educational are the items in the Brown Family Papers. Among the contents: a photograph of Brown and his wife, Marie, with former Florida Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham, a 1970 photo of Brown meeting with community leaders to resolve a neighborhood sewage problem, and a flyer publicizing the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

A World War II hero who received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal after being injured by German mortar fire in Italy, Brown was Florida’s first black ophthalmologist. He attended Meharry Medical College in Tennessee and in 1955 moved to Miami, where he opened a practice that lasted for more than 40 years.

Angered by the lack of opportunities for blacks and the segregation that was pervasive throughout the city, Brown helped form a Miami branch of the Congress of Racial Equality, staging sit-ins at lunch counters, department stores, and movie theaters, and leading protests to integrate the city’s public beaches.

He died in 2007 at the age of 84. But now through the old letters, photographs, and documents donated by his family, his story lives on.


John O. Brown’s crusade against racism began in the 1940s, sparked by an incident aboard a train headed for Tennessee. On the train, he rode in an integrated passenger car from Michigan, where he had been recovering from his war injuries. When the train reached Kentucky, a conductor ordered Brown to move to a car in the back. He refused, and police officers boarded the train and took him to jail.

“He was outraged,” says his daughter, Gala Brown Munnings. “He thought to himself, ‘I’m a soldier who almost lost my life for this country, and I come back to be treated like this.’ ”

During a recent Friends of the Library event to celebrate the acquisition of her father’s and the Gibson family papers, Munnings recalled walking a picket line with her dad when she was 10 years old, in protest against the policy of a local restaurant that refused to let blacks eat at the lunch counter.

“He was principled, driven, confident, always looking out for the welfare of everyone,” Munnings says, recalling how her father’s activism rubbed off on her. As a high school student, she organized a sit-in at Miami Edison High in 1968 to protest the lack of black cheerleaders, majorettes, and drill team members at the school.

“An initiator” is how Brown’s 84-year-old widow, Marie Faulkner Brown, remembers him.

Brown’s son, John O. Brown Jr., a physician, also spoke about his father at the library event, where several items from the collection were displayed on the Richter’s second floor.


The Reverend Theodore Gibson, second from left, and his wife, Thelma Gibson met with Democratic Presidential nominee George McGovern in 1972.

Those items will remain until May 1 as part of the exhibit, “The Civil Rights Movement and the Black Experience in Miami.” And the collection will keep growing.

Items donated by Gibson, for example, make up only the first wave of records she intends to give to UM. She keeps the remainder of the material—boxes filled mostly with documents from the ’50s and ’60s—at the Thelma Gibson Health Initiative, her Coconut Grove nonprofit that provides health care, educational, and social service assistance to the needy.

Marvin Dawkins, UM professor of sociology, says the papers “provide rich source materials for scholars to make the case that Miami was, indeed, among the Southern cities referred to as ‘movement centers’ by Aldon Morris in his book The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Sit-ins, marches, and other forms of protests were often organized by activist groups in these so-called movement centers to keep the fight for civil rights at the forefront of public awareness, explains Dawkins. “Both the Reverend Gibson and Dr. Brown were at the center of the movement for civil rights and racial equality in Miami,” he adds.

Cristina Favretto, head of Special Collections, says the acquisition of more materials like the Brown and Gibson papers depends largely on discoveries made by family members.

“Papers and artifacts of an individual or a family covering several generations sometimes sit in boxes in an attic for years until a daughter, son, or other relative comes across them and realizes their importance,” she says.

Often, such material isn’t organized or arranged in chronological order. It’s strewn randomly in boxes, making it difficult for archivists to organize and date the items.

“We have to go through it piece by piece and figure out what goes where,” Favretto said. “Sometimes, we can’t identify every photo. So we might enlist the help of researchers from the outside. In a way, we’re like detectives.”

Now that the pieces are out of her closet, Thelma Gibson wants them to remain available for future generations.

“These [papers] are part of a legacy young people can learn from,” she says. “I’ve learned that many young people don’t have a clue of what we went through to get to this point where we can have a black president of these United States, that people died for the right to vote.”

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