HON­OR­ING VIC­TIMS OF 1928 STORM

Storm of ’28 coali­tion aims to build hur­ri­cane shel­ter, mu­seum on site.

The Palm Beach Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Daphne Duret Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

WEST PALM BEACH — In Zora Neale Hurston’s clas­sic novel “Their Eyes Were Watch­ing God,” the cen­tral char­ac­ters in an ill-fated love story prove no match for “Old Okee­chobee,” which the au­thor de­scribed as a mon­ster that “be­gan to roll in his bed” with winds and rains from the hur­ri­cane of 1928.

In real life, the 1928 hur­ri­cane killed be­tween 2,500 and 3,000 peo­ple, mostly black mi­grant farm­ers and pi­o­neers whose bod­ies were buried in mass, un­marked graves.

The bones of 674 of those vic­tims are scat­tered un­der­ground in a mass burial site at Tamarind Av­enue and 25th Street, where on Satur­day af­ter­noon the un­tied shoelace tips from 7-year-old Eli­jah Steven’s right black dress shoe clacked against the roots of a tall, shady tree as West Palm Beach ac­tivist Mary Brob­ham asked him if he knew why it was so im­por­tant for him to know his his­tory.

Mo­ments ear­lier, they had been among a group of sev­eral dozen peo­ple gath­ered at the Storm of ’28 me­mo­rial site, where the Storm of ’28 Me­mo­rial Park Coali­tion, the city of West Palm Beach and the West Palm Beach Com­mu­nity Re­de­vel­op­ment Agency hosted a wreath-lay­ing cer­e­mony to com­mem­o­rate the 90th an­niver­sary of what is still known as the sec­ond dead­li­est nat­u­ral dis­as­ter in U.S. his­tory.

Eli­jah, a sec­ond-grader at West­wood Ele­men­tary, said his fa­ther, Wil­lie Wil­burn, had ex­plained to him that they would be com­ing to the cer­e­mony “be­cause there was a lot of dead peo­ple” in the hur­ri­cane, and he con­cluded that it was im­por­tant for him to hear more about it.

“Well, if some­one comes to me and asks me do I know my his­tory, I can tell them I don’t know a lot, but I know about this,” he told Brob­ham.

“Not only that,” Brob­ham added, “you can also bring your kids here when you grow up. We’re pass­ing along this story to you, so that when we’re gone you can pass it on. That way the peo­ple who died won’t be for­got­ten, and we can learn from their story. Does that sound good?”

Eli­jah, a red Kan­gol hat perched back­ward on his head, pushed his sun­glasses back on his face

and nod­ded.

Brob­ham’s words echoed what Eli­jah heard dur­ing what he called the high­light of his af­ter­noon — the chance to meet West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio and shake her hand.

The mayor asked both the boy and ev­ery­one gath­ered at the park to promise to re­mem­ber the thou­sands of lives lost in the storm.

Both Muoio and Storm of ’28 Me­mo­rial Park Coali­tion Pres­i­dent Dorothy Haz­ard doubt that many peo­ple in Palm Beach County or even West Palm Beach know that such a crit­i­cal hall­mark of Amer­i­can his­tory is un­der the grass and asphalt of the land that sits across from a tire shop.

“This com­mu­nity is so rich with African-Amer­i­can his­tory,” Muoio said. “It’s so im­por­tant that we not only rec­og­nize and un­der­stand what hap­pened here, but that we have this me­mo­rial and that peo­ple con­tinue to take care of it as we move for­ward.”

Haz­ard said to that end, the park coali­tion lead­ers have a three-part plan. The first was to get the me­mo­rial built. Now, they’re work­ing on get­ting two gran­ite pil­lars on the prop­erty in­scribed with quotes from Hurston’s novel about the hur­ri­cane.

Their ul­ti­mate goals are to build a hur­ri­cane shel­ter some­where on the site, along with a first-of-its kind mu­seum where both chil­dren and adults can learn more about hur­ri­canes and about the lives of those who died 90 years ago.

“There were mi­grant work­ers, the ones who picked the veg­eta­bles. Th­ese were our black pi­o­neers,” she said. “In our so­ci­ety to­day, we need to move for­ward in a pos­i­tive way, and the way we do that is to learn about each other and about all of our his­to­ries.”

In ad­di­tion to Muoio, West Palm Beach Com­mis­sion­ers Kelly Shoaf and Cory Neer­ing at­tended the event, as did Max­ine Cheese­man, a can­di­date in one of three runoff races for Palm Beach County cir­cuit judge seats in the Nov. 6 elec­tion.

Haz­ard said any­one who wants to vol­un­teer with the coali­tion should call 561881-8298.

PHO­TOS BY BRUCE R. BEN­NETT / THE PALM BEACH POST

Betty Lou McCray-Wells (left) hugs Mayor Jeri Muoio as Dorothy Haz­ard (sec­ond from right) kneels dur­ing a wreath lay­ing Satur­day at the mass burial site for 674 vic­tims of the hur­ri­cane of 1928 at Tamarind Av­enue and 25th Street in West Palm Beach.

Taber­na­cle Bap­tist Church’s Com­bined En­sem­ble sings fol­low­ing the wreath lay­ing. The 1928 hur­ri­cane killed be­tween 2,500 and 3,000 peo­ple, mostly black mi­grant farm­ers and pi­o­neers.

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