Sports Legends Honor Threatened Miami Neighborhood’s Legacy

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In the heart of Miami, where palm trees raise their silvered fingertips to the ever-present sun and urban glamour collides with the nostalgic echoes of an era lost to time, lies the Coconut Grove Sports Hall of Fame. Inside this modest monument to human excellence, the football jerseys of esteemed athletes, Amari Cooper and Frank Gore, drape proudly alongside the faded tributes to Negro League baseball icon, Jim Colzie, and legendary football coach, Traz Powell. A native son of the region himself, Powell’s moniker emblazons one of the most illustrious high school football stadiums in talent-dense South Florida.

These testimonials symbolize the days when West Coconut Grove was a pulsating, majority-Black neighborhood nestled within the city’s opulent sectors. This enclave flourished with family-owned enterprises, local gathering spots, and lively sports events, permeating Miami with its authenticity and charm. Familiar to some as West Grove, Black Grove or Little Bahamas, this spirited neighborhood was typically referred to as ‘The Grove’ — an intimate locale steeped in South Florida’s rich cultural tapestry.

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“The Grove embodies genuine South Florida history,” asserts Charles Gibson, the proud descendent of Theodore Gibson, one of the earliest Black members of the esteemed Miami City Commission.

This cultural haven was galvanized by one universal passion: sports. The neighborhood nurtured the fledgling careers of peerless Olympians and celebrated football legends such as Cooper and Gore, all of whom credit their early encounters with sport to this tight-knit community.

Sadly, today, only mired vestiges of the Grove’s dignified Black legacy remain discernable. Chronic economic oversight followed by recent bouts of gentrification have virtually eliminated the cultural sinews that once tied The Grove together. Once thriving youth clubs and sports initiatives have dwindled, and a community that once provided fertile ground for aspiring athletes to flourish is now teetering on the brink of obliteration.

In the bleak prognostication of Anthony Witherspoon, a born and raised West Grove native and founder of the Coconut Grove Sports Hall of Fame, if remedial steps aren’t taken promptly, Black Grove may be irrevocably extinguished within a span of two to three years.

Passionate about preserving the history of this community, the basketball player and coach fondly called ‘Spoon’ remembers the nights he walked down Grand Avenue, the area’s epicenter bustling with life, dined at local eateries, and unwound at the popular Tikki Club.

Now, old-time residents are replaced by newcomers, bereft of the old neighborhood’s cultural bearings. Beloved mom-and-pop shops have vanished, and the Tikki Club is no more than an abandoned structure, clinging to its last vestiges of color inspired by Bahamian hues.

Looking to immortalize this extraordinary legacy, Witherspoon established the Sports Hall of Fame. A living testament to about 90 distinguished athletes and coaches, the commemoration begins with figures like Colzie, unfolds to include Gore and peaks at Cooper in its comprehensive chronicle of neighborhood heroes.

Once home to the segregated institution, George Washington Carver High School, the Grove was a hub to championship-winning teams of the 1950s and 60s under Powell’s tutelage. However, post-integration, the strings that bound the community together were ripped apart, and the school closed down.

While attempts are being made to salvage glimpses of the past, like the planned reopening of Ace Theater, the neighborhood is being fractured by the construction of pricey housing, replacing the homes of original residents with sleek residences and condominiums well beyond the reach of the middle class that built The Grove.

Indeed, the exodus of locals has eroded the essence of community spirit, reducing what were once bustling youth teams to mere shadows of their past glory. Charles Gibson, a football coach, believes it’s a matter of preserving the value of the community’s identity, lamenting the ominous question with which everyone grapples — whether it is possible to preserve this singular heritage before it’s too late.