Coral Gables founder George Merrick’s legacy is evident in the City Beautiful’s Mediterranean architecture and tree-lined boulevards. But also part of this legacy is his attempt to push Black residents out of Miami in the 1930s.
The University of Miami’s decision to remove his name from a parking structure should increase pressure on the Coral Gables City Commission to address its founder’s racist actions. A grandiose statue in his honor sits in front of City Hall, and his name adorns a park and a museum built in his home.
Faced with a national debate on what to do with such historic figures, the city’s administration whitewashed Merrick’s actions last week.
“While like most people, he was not perfect, his memory and presence are still very important in and to Coral Gables,” spokeswoman Martha Pantin told the Miami Herald.
“Not perfect” might describe someone’s short temper or personality flaw. While many, or most, white people in the 1930s were complacent about or agreed with the systematic discrimination against African Americans, Merrick wasn’t just a “a man of his time,” as one of his supporters said. He used his influence to advance segregation.
The group of students and faculty who signed a letter to UM point out that, as the head of the Dade Planning Board, Merrick pushed for the 1937 “Negro Resettlement Plan” to move Black residents to rural locations outside of Miami. The plan didn’t come to fruition, but it paved the way for other segregation measures, the letter states.
It is the city of Coral Gables’ responsibility to acknowledge Merrick not just for his vision but for all his actions. There’s no reason the city can’t highlight his contributions, but the act of having a statue or naming a building after someone without adding context is, by its nature, holding that person up as a positive example.
What’s most important is that the commission pay attention to Black neighborhoods in the city and ensure that its residents are treated fairly by police and administration. They should also reverse a previous vote and support renaming Dixie Highway in Coral Gables for Harriet Tubman.
Leadership, not whitewashing, is what we expect from the city’s leaders and newly elected Mayor Vince Lago, whose signing of a letter condemning his daughters’ school’s curriculum to address racial inequality prompted the Herald’s Editorial Board to withdraw its election recommendation. The debate over Merrick’s legacy provides Lago an opportunity to set the right tone.
At the same time, should a city whose identity is so intertwined with the Merrick name disassociate itself from him?
The statue of Merrick isn’t the same as monuments honoring Confederate generals. The latter fought, and lost, a war to secede from the Union and maintain the system of slavery; the former advocated for racist measures, but without him Coral Gables and UM probably wouldn’t exist. Perhaps any discussion on Merrick belongs in the same category as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who founded the nation, but committed the reprehensible act of enslaving people.
Merrick’s supporters say UM overlooked his contributions to the Black community. He admired Bahamian immigrants and recognized their contributions to the Gables and donated land to establish their communities, the MacFarlane District and Golden Gate, according to a letter by a UM law student asking the school to reverse course. He also donated money to a school for Black children, according to the letter.
Do these good deeds cancel his racist ideas? No, but they provide the nuance that’s often missing from such debates.
Acting as if George Merrick was solely a visionary hero denies the painful experience of African Americans. But we don’t think removing him from every nook and cranny of the city will accomplish much of anything.
If there is a middle ground, whether by moving Merrick’s statue to the museum or building monuments to honor those who have been forgotten as history gets told, Coral Gables — and, by extension, the nation — should seek to occupy it.