BEACH, Fla. — The rechristened road runs beside a railroad freight
line, slicing across a modest corner of Palm Beach County and a
considerable section of the Southern psyche. It used to be called Old
But now this two-mile stretch,
coursing through the mostly black community of Riviera Beach, goes by a
new name. Now, when visitors want to eat takeout from Rodney’s Crabs, or
worship at the Miracle Revival Deliverance Church, they turn onto
President Barack Obama Highway.
national journey along this highway is nearing its end, these eight
years a blur and a crawl. That historic inauguration of hope. Those
siren calls for change. The grand ambitions tempered or blocked by
recession and time, an inflexible Congress and a man’s aloofness.
economic recovery, Obamacare, Osama bin Laden. The mass shootings, in a
nightclub, in a church — in an elementary school. The realization of so
much still to overcome, given all the Fergusons; given all those who
shamelessly questioned whether our first black president was even
American by birth.
His towering oratory. His jump shot. His graying hair. His family. His wit. His tears.
presidency of Mr. Obama, which ends in three months, will be
memorialized in many grand ways, most notably by the planned
construction of a presidential library in Chicago. But in crowded and
isolated places across the country, his name has also been quietly
incorporated into the everyday local patter, in ways far removed from
politics and world affairs.
You can find a
trapdoor spider (Aptostichus barackobamai) inching across certain parts
of Northern California, or see a bright orange spangled darter
(Etheostoma obama) swimming in a Tennessee river, or come upon a lichen
(Caloplaca obamae) the color of gold on Santa Rosa Island, off the
A youth football team practicing at
Wells Recreation Center in Riviera Beach, just across the tracks from
President Barack Obama Highway, formerly called Old Dixie Highway.
You can visit the Barack Obama Academy in Plainfield,
N.J., or the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy in Dallas, or the
Barack Obama Academy of International Studies in Pittsburgh. You can
drive down Barack Obama Avenue in East St. Louis, or Obama Way in
Seaside, Calif. — or President Barack Obama Highway here in Riviera
Beach, just 10 miles and another reality from the stately pleasure-dome
This Obama road runs through the
complex reality of America: the family-owned businesses and the ghostly
vacant storefronts, a church here, a liquor store there, gas stations,
convenience stores, a football field, a day care center, a medium-size
manufacturing business that is expanding and hiring.
“Everything the president fought for and is fighting for — it’s there,” says the mayor, Thomas Masters.
Mayor Thomas Masters of Riviera Beach near a wall that once separated black and white neighborhoods.
Older black residents of Riviera Beach recall a time,
not so long ago, when you avoided the east side of Old Dixie Highway
after dusk because that was the white side of town, and no good would
come from lingering.
West of the tracks was for
black residents, the men who worked mackerel down at the docks, the
women who worked as domestics in swanky Palm Beach homes. The only slice
of white on the black side was a subdivision called Monroe Heights,
which was bordered, or protected, by a high cinder block wall built in
the 1940s. If your ball bounced over that wall into whiteness, you found
yourself another ball.
“They put the wall up to
keep us from looking at them,” says Dan Calloway, 78, a former deputy
sheriff and athlete revered in Riviera Beach for his half-century of
mentoring and coaching local children.
glaucoma affecting Mr. Calloway’s sight has not dimmed the vividness of
the Riviera Beach of his youth: the guava and mango trees, the chickens,
the horse-riding lawman who would snap his whip at black people; that
is, until a man named Shotgun Johnny pulled him from his horse and beat
the hate out of him. Mr. Calloway remembers, too, how the “black” beach
was moved up to Jupiter when Singer Island suddenly became desirable,
and how the Ku Klux Klan occasionally announced itself.
“They burned those crosses,” Mr. Calloway says. “We had to blow the lamps out and hide under the bed.”
Dora Johnson, 88, remembers one cross that set Old Dixie Highway aglow. It was around 1948, and she was married with two babies.
God, it was way up in the air,” she says of the symbol of her faith set
aflame. “It was very upsetting. I’m a deep Christian, but seeing it,
you’d break down and want to do something you shouldn’t do.”
Dora Johnson, 88, remembers the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross near Old Dixie Highway around 1948.
With time came change. In 1962, F. Malcolm Cunningham Sr. became the
first black person elected to the City Council — and, some claim, the
first black elected official in the South since Reconstruction. By the
end of that decade, the city was predominantly black, and by 1975, it
had its first black mayor.
The notion of renaming the highway after the
country’s first black president popped up at a City Council meeting
shortly after Mr. Obama’s 2008 victory. A citizen raised the prospect
before moving on to discussing a local supermarket. The suggestion went
It was resurrected a couple of years ago
by the indefatigable Mayor Masters, 64, who has followed a circuitous
path to politics. A bishop in a nondenominational church, he began
preaching at the age of 4 — he was once known as the “Wonder Boy
Preacher” — and has demonstrated a talent for publicity ever since.
A picture of Mayor Masters with President Obama.
Mr. Masters is not a Riviera Beach native; he moved
here from California nearly 30 years ago. But as a black man, he was
bothered that a constant celebration of “Old Dixie” ran through the
center of his predominantly African-American city. “Dixie meant slavery,
bigotry, the K.K.K.,” he says.
the history of his adopted city, the mayor says, he spoke with a
white-haired woman in a wheelchair, Ms. Johnson, who dearly wanted to
fill him in. “I wanted to tell him about the cross burnings, because
there’s not many of us left,” she says. “So much had happened on Old
Mr. Masters resolved to have the stretch
of the highway in his city renamed, gathered community support and put
it to the City Council. The vote was 4-to-1 in favor, and the sole
dissenting member was also the sole white member: Dawn Pardo. But do not
carwash fund-raiser at Bethesda
Haitian Outreach Church in Riviera Beach, a few blocks from the highway
now named after Mr. Obama.
Ms. Pardo, who grew up in New York, says she voted
against the plan because she envisioned a grander, more ambitious
tribute, perhaps at the city’s recently renovated, multimillion-dollar
marina. The monument or renaming could also honor various black
trailblazers in Riviera Beach’s past.
“If we’re going to honor him, let’s make it great,” she remembers arguing.
the mayor prevailed. At a ceremony in December, residents cheered as
workers in bucket trucks took down the old and put up the new. This
meant, among other things, that traffic would flow through an
intersection of Riviera Beach streets named after the Rev. Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr. and Mr. Obama.
“It made me feel real good,” Ms. Johnson, an honored guest at the event, says. “Now I don’t have to think about Old Dixie.”
the reality of America again imposed. News of the name change had
spread well beyond Florida, and now came the emails and telephone calls.
A traffic signal at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and President Barack Obama Highway in Riviera Beach.
If you want to honor a Black man then Honor Black Men who are fighting for our Country and Not against it …
“This One” is lucky that I am not standing in judgment …
Why is everyone so bent on changing this road’s name? I do not get it. A lot of southern blacks are wrapped up in the past …
And there was much, much worse. Bad enough for Mr. Masters to alert the Secret Service.
on the president just for who he is,” the mayor says. “It got so bad,
they were making direct or indirect threats: ‘He needs to be hung from
the street sign.’”
The angry calls and emails became distant shouts,
leaving Riviera Beach to incorporate into its lexicon a street name that
was nearly the opposite of “Old Dixie.” It has meant changes to
stationery, of course, but also challenges for businesses trying to
“Everybody from here knows Old
Dixie, you feel me?” says Rodney Saunders. He owns Rodney’s Crabs, a
takeout restaurant on the highway, a few dozen yards from where the gray
cinder block remnants of the old Monroe Heights decline in the shadows
of sea grape trees.
A wall in Riviera Beach that once
separated black and white neighborhoods. The city’s decision to change
the name of Old Dixie Highway drew anger from people in other parts of
“When people ask me for directions,” Mr. Saunders continues, “I say, ‘Old Dixie — but now it’s President Barack Obama Highway.’”
along the highway call the renaming a nice but benign gesture. Some say
they never took umbrage with Old Dixie; it was just a name. Some simply
shrug, as if to suggest the new street name means more to
out-of-towners than it does to locals.
Calloway, the legendary coach and mentor with failing vision, says he
can see into the future — 20, 30, 40 years from now — when a long-ago
decision will have children wanting to know the story behind the name on
Article New York Times October 23,2016 Danny Barry