HONORING VICTIMS OF 1928 STORM
Storm of ’28 coalition aims to build hurricane shelter, museum on site.
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
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.
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.