Forgotten newspaper casts light on painful stories from Miami’s past
Ten years ago, Julio Capo was researching his book on Miami’s LGBTQ history before 1940 when he discovered a long-forgotten alternative weekly newspaper, Miami Life.
By Janet Scherberger
Featured image above: Miami Life used attention-grabbing headlines to challenge some of the most powerful state, local and national institutions of the time.
“In the state archives I kept coming across references to this newspaper,” said Capo, who formerly worked in TV news. “It was kind of sensational, but people paid attention to it. It was really important at the time.”
He couldn’t readily find copies of the paper in any library. So he went through the phone book and looked for people with the same last name as the paper’s last owner, Reubin Clein.
“The second person I called was his grandson and he said, ‘Yeah, I have some copies in my garage.’ He was very generous with his time and we met up and he allowed me to take photographs of the newspapers,” said Capo, a professor of history and deputy director of the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab (WPHL) at Florida International University.
Capo used the material to inform his award-winning 2017 book, Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami before 1940, finding the newspaper useful because it often covered the experiences of the city’s marginalized groups, though through the tainted lens of the time.
Those newspapers also serve as the foundation for “Miami Life: Unpacking Difficult Stories From Our Past,” a symposium that WPHL will host early next year with the help of a $5,000 Community Project Grant from Florida Humanities. The symposium will use the newspaper to highlight the significance of the area in shaping key debates from the past to the present, including anti-Black violence, incarceration and detention, anti-immigrant fervor, climate crisis, gentrification, and unequal access to resources.
Interns with WPHL are digitizing available issues of Miami Life, which roughly cover 1927 through 1929, 1935 and 1949. These will be used to create four exhibits to coincide with the symposium, which will also include a panel discussion with community activists and scholars. The entire program will be available on the WPHL website and its YouTube channel.
Reubin Clein was, by all accounts, a colorful and controversial character. An aspiring boxer and avid gambler, he reportedly won the newspaper in a card game in 1931 and published it until it was shuttered 30 years later.
He turned it into what today might be considered a supermarket tabloid.
With attention-grabbing headlines and aggressively bold and often outrageous arguments, he challenged some of the most powerful state, local and national institutions of the time. Popular targets included local elected officials as well as Florida’s East Coast Railway, Florida Power & Light, and its competitor, the Miami Herald.
In addition to being anti-establishment, the editorial content adhered to some of the era’s long-held popular beliefs. That viewpoint — anti-immigrant, anti-gay and anti-Black — provides a snapshot of life in the Jim Crow South and a starting point for the symposium’s exploration of issues still being grappled with today.
“Some of the stories are really difficult to read,” Capo said.
Doing so provides a look at how the thinking of the past informed and shaped current social structures and thinking.
“Newspapers are a window into social, political and economic history and sometimes it might not seem obvious. Just reading two different newspapers that cover the same story, we get a textured look at disagreement, of consensus,” Capo said. “Newspapers are subject, like any other source, to a number of biases. We have to understand they are not complete. They don’t necessarily tell the whole truth, whatever that means. And that’s an important question for the humanities. We don’t stop with just looking at a newspaper, we try to find other sources that corroborate or challenge the narrative.”
The stories also offer glimpses of the past not available in mainstream newspapers of the time.
“Because it was an alternative paper, it covered marginalized communities,” Capo said.
The stories of immigrants, bootleggers and sexworkers appeared in the paper’s pages.
“They didn’t necessarily cover them in a favorable way, but they tell us something about the thinking of the time,” Capo said. “We also get nuggets of information about people who lived then. It’s not much, but at least now we know that person was there and we can try to find out more about them. It’s the work historians do.”
The articles, the editorials and even the advertisements also tell the story of Miami — what was the news of the day, what were the nightlife hot spots, how much did things cost.
“You can almost feel the pulse of the city. You get this local flavor of what’s going on around town,” he said.
Capo is hoping the project will surface additional copies of the paper, which happened as the students were digitizing the papers and a librarian told them the FIU special collections also had a copy, which was added to the digital archive.
“We imagine there will be stories like this and there will be community-based efforts to find other issues that might exist,” he said.
And Capo hopes exploring Miami Life’s coverage of the big issues of the day will serve a purpose as the nation continues to face the fall-out from our past.
“It’s a reckoning,” Capo said. “This is how healing happens.”
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