After 63 years in the Keys, Chicago is always too cold

James Howard stands by his red Chevy pickup truck in the driveway of the Hibiscus neighborhood house he’s lived in since the late 1950s. (Photo by Donna Dietrich)
James Howard stands by his red Chevy pickup truck in the driveway of the Hibiscus neighborhood house he’s lived in since the late 1950s. (Photo by Donna Dietrich)

In January of 1950, 21 year old James Howard drove down to Key Largo for a vacation with some buddies from his native Chicago.

“There wasn’t much here then, and no place to stay, so we had to sleep in the car,” he said.

Howard decided that he really liked the place and soon phoned his father in Chicago to say: “They are wearing T-shirts down here while you have icicles up there.”

So, shortly after he returned to Chicago, Howard gathered up his belongings and moved down to Key Largo for good. He found work in construction, mostly digging for septic tanks.

“Laborers got around a dollar an hour back then, but we survived,” Howard said.

By 1954 he had launched his own business called Newport Construction, named after the subdivision of Key Largo where he settled. He installed septic tanks, built seawalls and dug massive holes in which to plant large trees. Soon he renamed the business James Howard Construction. He recalls being the first black business owner in this area.

“Back in the 50’s there was nothing from here [U.S. 1, near mile marker 102] all the way down to the Pilot House; just one little shack of a store called Lawson’s Grocery,” said Howard. “The Pilot House was only a little place then, and if you wanted to go to the bank, the only bank was down in Tavernier.”

Howard relates his memories with the manner of an old time country story teller, taking his time and drawing everything out in long, thoughtful sentences, then eventually rounding up to the point. While this gentle mannered man is technically retired, he still works a bit, repairing cars for friends and family, and helping out in his son’s auto detailing business.


On Jan. 26, James Howard’s extended family gathered together in Key Largo to celebrate his 84th birthday.“We had a big barbeque, and a cake, and lots of fun,” said Derek McKinley, Howard’s son.

“James is a great man,” said Jerridean Lee, a longtime family friend. “He’s one of a kind — got a good heart, sharp as a tack, full of common sense and never complains.”

“I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have his help and knowledge,” Derek said. “He’s a leader. He doesn’t bark loud, but you know he’s there. People come to him about everything — work related or life related. You may not always like his answer, but he’ll set you straight. We call him ‘Able James’ because he is able to do just about anything.”

Hibiscus Park

”Back in the ‘50s, I think it was 1957, this real estate guy came to me and said, ‘I want to make a place for the black people to live,’ and I said ‘good,’” recalled Howard. “I was the first one to buy a lot. Next was Clarence [Alexander, aka “Tomato Man”]. He bought the lot right on the corner of U.S. 1.”

Thus began the Hibiscus Park development.

He soon started building the three-bedroom house he still owns and occupies today. Howard said: “I did the drawings myself and got a permit to build a 24x36 house. Back in those days the permit cost me $3.”

“I did a little each night after work and used my own money to build the house, got some friends to help with the building,” said Howard.

Over the years, he had chickens, a hog, and even a horse for a short time. Now, he just has lots of trees on the property.

“I like trees because no matter how hot it gets, it’s always cool in here.”

“I never believed it [Key Largo] would grow like it is now — so crowded. It was nothing but jungle when I got here. There was only one State Trooper from the county line all the way down to Marathon. You would see maybe a dozen cars drive by all day,” recalled Howard.

The 1970s were Howard’s favorite time in Key Largo.

“There was more work, people were known to each other, and we all worked together. Now, you can make $100 faster, but it sure goes much faster too.”

“Work was fun, I liked all of my jobs, especially building the seawalls,” he said.

He described how back then, they used dynamite to blast out holes for septic tanks and to install utility poles.


James Howard said he believes in civility: “Being nice gets you what you need, and if you are in a position to help somebody, you should do it,” reflected the 84 year old. “I taught my children to get along, love everybody and hate nobody; you can always settle issues and misunderstandings by talking it out.”

A few months ago, James Howard went back to Chicago to visit some family.

“I just kept complaining that it was cold. My sister tried to tell me it wasn’t cold, but it was,” he said.

Sixty three years later, he would still rather live in Key Largo.