Urban League chapter president T. Willard Fair honored for 50 years of service

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Civil Rights activist, T. Willard Fair will be honored as an icon and a revolutionary at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach on Saturday, for the work he’s done to advance people of color throughout South Florida. This is the same hotel where he pressured management to hire blacks 50 years ago. He is also being celebrated as the longest serving executive in Urban League history.

He was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., the youngest of seven siblings. He received his undergraduate degree in sociology from Johnson C. Smith University and a master in social work from Atlanta University School of Social Work. While in Atlanta, he volunteered with the student non-violent movement to desegregate movie theaters and lunch counters.

Fair was voted chapter president in 1963. At that time he was 24 years old, the League’s youngest chapter president.

“If you keep talkin’ to us like this, you might wake up one day and your car blow up.” For Fair, president of an Urban League of Greater Miami chapter, death threats came with the territory in the 1960s. Fair, along with Rev. Edward T. Graham and NAACP Miami Chapter President Theodore Gibson, met with businesses around Miami in hopes that they’d put blacks on their payroll.

The head of the hotel union Herbert “Pinky” Shiffman had no interest in hiring blacks. “He said to us, you know I can kill niggers whenever I get ready.”

Within a few years of accepting the presidency, he successfully pushed to get blacks hired at Eastern Airlines, Southern Bell (which later became AT&T); Florida Power & Light, Florida Highway Patrol; department stores including Burdines (now Macy’s), Richards, Jordan Marsh and even the Fontainebleau.

By 1967, Fair’s efforts – paralleled with the national outcry for civil rights – led to the development of the Equal Employment Opportunity Task Force, which to this day prohibits discrimination in the workplace.

“Anybody who can do 50 years in one job – and still have the enthusiasm and effectiveness as T. Willard Fair – is a special person,” says National Urban League president Marc Morial, who also admits that Fair’s reputation precedes him.

Fair was getting things done. However, folks in Miami were growing tired of his larger-than-life personality. Fair walked around town in a zoot suit. Sometimes. he carried a spear while wearing a dashiki. He says that his colleagues tried to get rid of him every chance they could during his first five years as chapter president.

He admits that at times he acted inappropriately, but somebody had to do it.

“People were staying in their place, giving the impression that they were happy when they really were not happy,” he says. “I was talking back to white folks and talking bad about black folks. Someone had to call them out.”

Despite his seemingly bad behavior, he grew the chapter from three employees with a $19,000 budget to having 476 employees with a budget that topped $5 million over a 10-year period. Employees provided direct services such as housing, health and welfare, education and employment to Liberty City and Overtown residents.

Racial tensions were already at a tipping point when the two communities were dealt big blows. The first setback to hit Overtown, then called the Central Negro District, was when an expressway was built through the spine of the economically thriving community. Blacks were uprooted. Their only option was to move to the neighborhood of Liberty City, which to this day houses one of the largest concentrations of African-Americans in South Florida.

Then, government neglect aggravated the community and led to the Liberty City riots of 1968. In 1980, more than 125,000 Cubans came ashore, which added to racial tensions throughout the city. That same year, four white cops killed Arthur McDuffie, a working-class black male. Liberty City erupted once again.

“Progress of black Miami halted,” Fair says. “Things were getting worse.”

He decided to shift gears by focusing his chapter’s energy on economic empowerment through the housing market. He revamped abandoned buildings into affordable homes and developed the first HUD-certified Housing Counseling Agency in the area.

Today, the U.S. Census suggests that Liberty City has roughly 23,000 residents with a median household income of $18,000.

Morial says that the Urban League of Greater Miami was the first of its chapters to get involved in the affordable housing arena. Now, other chapters use Liberty City as a model that can be adapted across the nation.

Fair focused the latter part of his career on education. He joined forces with Florida Governor Jeb Bush to improve educational standards throughout the state.

Together, they instituted the state’s first charter school – an independent public school that is free from school district guidelines. In 1998, FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) was implemented throughout the state as a way to measure each school’s performance based on student achievement, a move some argued was counterintuitive.

Students who fail risk being held back or not graduating. Schools that received repeated Ds or Fs could be forced to close.

Congresswoman Federica Wilson was among the critics who felt FCAT penalties were too severe, especially for black students who were already struggling with achievement.

“He was for high-stakes testing and he’s a republican,” Congresswoman Wilson says. She also disagreed that public money should be used for independent education. “I’m a democrat and I don’t believe in high-stakes testing.” Despite popular belief, Fair says that he’s a registered independent.

Wilson had reason for concern. The Florida’s 24th District, which she represents, is predominantly black and Hispanic.

She devised a solution that would allow students to use an alternative exam and have an option to attend summer reading camps in case they failed FCAT. It passed, but not without a little help from Fair.

“I knew the only person I could get to convince Governor Bush to help me make this law was T. Willard Fair,” she says. “We were able to cross party lines and come up with a solution to help young people who are not equipped to pass the FCAT because of the opportunity gap.”

Even though they disagreed, Wilson says that she has always respected Fair’s leadership abilities and intellect.

“You get an education, I can get you into Harvard, Princeton anywhere you want to go,” Fair says. Unlike his generation, racial issues “no longer exist.” He adds that blacks today can get a job, marry whom they want and live where they want. “I promise you, you’re not going to die early because of the color of your skin.”

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