With profound faith and a commitment to education that transcended generations, Walter James Finley came to the United States in 1897.
The Bahamian entrepreneur, farmer, and first black man in Broward County to own an automobile, planted fields and grew a dynasty.
Today, the close-knit third generation of Finleys, includes educators and engineers, business owners, athletes and one newly minted Hall of Fame member.
Like their patriarch’s, the Finley family’s rise involved determination, maternal discipline, pride, humor, perseverance, loyalty and love.
My brother in-law Keith Finley and his cousin Priscilla (Finley) Miller-Jones personify these attributes. In 1964, they became the first two students to integrate Pompano Beach High School.
Priscilla made the switch because she loves a challenge.
“I heard them say the school would remain lily white and I, the bold one, said, ‘Over my dead body,” she said.
Keith did it because his mother, the formidable Lucy Finley, told him he had to.
As the only two black students in a school population of 3,000, the two cousins negotiated occasionally hostile territory. In 1964, Broward County still had black only drinking fountains and black bathrooms, and many people weren’t anxious to see that change.
For two years, Keith hitchhiked to school, walking the final mile, because he refused to take the bus. Priscilla rode the bus, dodging gum wads and racial epithets.
“Priscilla would come home daily with gum stuck in her hair, and my mom would have to use kerosene to get it out,” said Priscilla’s sister, Carolyn Miller Menendez.
A math teacher told Keith he could skip class as long as he passed the unit tests.
“I was young at the time and I thought it was great that I didn’t have to go to class. Later, I realized he just didn’t want me in his class,” Keith said. “He didn’t know that I had an excellent math teacher in junior high, Mr. Humphries, so I passed those tests.”
Keith was only 14 and Priscilla 15 that first year, but they stuck it out.
“The one thing is, we had each other,” Priscilla said.
The following school year, 25 black students attended Pompano Beach High, and, by their senior year, more than 100.
“Guess what? I opened the door for my brother, Quan L. Miller,” Priscilla, who had 15 brothers and 2 sisters, all single births from the same two parents. “He ran cross country and track at that school and was vice president of his class.”
Today, Walter James Finley’s grandchildren continue to do him proud. Priscilla, who graduated from the University of Cincinnati, runs a very successful family U-Haul business.
Keith, about whom I’ll be writing more on Monday, earned a master’s in education and recently retired as a high school administrator. Their cousin Dr. Eric Williams, serves as Assistant Vice Provost and Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Wisconsin. Another cousin, Edith Spivey, a legendary coach, was just inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame.
An unexpected guest added a postscript to the Finley story during a recent visit to Priscilla’s business.
“He said he wanted to apologize for the way he treated me in high school,” she said. “He said he didn’t know any better at the time. I was astonished. I said, ‘You are forgiven.”