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10/26/2016 - Turn Onto Old Dixie. After a Long, Rocky Stretch, It Becomes Obama Highway.

Turn Onto Old Dixie. After a Long, Rocky Stretch, It Becomes Obama Highway.

A main thoroughfare in the predominantly black town of Riviera Beach, Fla., was once called Old Dixie Highway. But now the road has a new name: President Barack Obama Highway.


RIVIERA 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 Dixie Highway.

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.

Our 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.

War, 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.

The 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 California coast.

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 Mar-a-Lago.

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.

The 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.

“My 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 nowhere.

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.

While researching 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 Dixie.”

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 prejudge.

 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.

But 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.”

But 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.

“Hating 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 direct customers.

“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 the country.

“When people ask me for directions,” Mr. Saunders continues, “I say, ‘Old Dixie — but now it’s President Barack Obama Highway.’”

Some 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.

But Mr. 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 a sign.


Article New York Times October 23,2016 Danny Barry