Neighborhood leader Freddie Miller fought crime, blight with vegetable garden

Published Jan. 13, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — Freddie Miller moved slowly, as if acting on quiet purposes he preferred not to disclose.

So slowly, a few buddies in a service club gave Mr. Miller a nickname: "Lazy Man."

That easy style belied the fact that Mr. Miller staggered his time between driving a truck, manning a photo lab and tending bar. Members of the Palmetto Park Neighborhood Association came to rely on the quiet strength of their longtime vice president to face their many challenges.

As other neighborhoods lobbied the City Council to preserve their hexagonal block sidewalks or planned candlelight Christmas tours, Palmetto Park was fighting crack dealers and outsiders dumping trash in vacant lots.

Mr. Miller helped lead a counter insurgency that has lasted more than a decade, a pushback in which every shoulder counted. Alongside his neighbor and friend, perennial president Lurlis Simmons, he shouted down the drug seller and found inventive ways to help both the neighborhood's children and its elderly.

"He was not the person you see up front, but the foundation that the person up front stood upon," said Uwezo "Zo" Sudan of Tampa, Mr. Miller's son. "Men like that are the tensile strength of our community."

Young people found in him a source of nonjudgmental advice.

"He used to drive 18-wheelers," said Elliott Kiadii, 24, his grandson. "He could tell you how to get to Tallahassee or New York and the back roads to go with it, too."

They looked to him for help navigating bigger challenges, too.

"He had this capacity to listen to people. When he listened to them, he listened so completely, it was almost as if those moments were sacred," his son said.

Mr. Miller's own story began in 1933 in Leary, Ga., where he was born into a sharecropper's family. As a child he survived polio that left one leg 5 inches shorter than the other.

He attended Albany State University, moved to St. Petersburg in the mid 1950s and married Rosa Lee Jones. He drove a truck and ran the photo lab at Eckerd Drugs. Between catnaps, he worked at Sun Liquors on 18th Avenue S and tended bar at The Blue Flame in Clearwater.

Mr. Miller also lent his steady hand through changes in Palmetto Park, a neighborhood bounded by 22nd and 34th streets, from Central Avenue to Eighth Avenue S. Residents resented the incursion of the drug trade in the 1990s.

They stepped up Crime Watch activity. Tensions increased.

Dealers hit the homes of two Crime Watch captains with Molotov cocktails.

Mr. Miller and Simmons, the neighborhood president, pointed out drug houses to the police. They stood outside with neighbors, chanting slogans. Eventually, they drove the dealers out.

"We always fight what comes in here," said Simmons, 81. "You got to come through the front door to do anything in here. You're not coming through the back door."

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In 2001, the neighborhood started a grant-funded vegetable garden on city property. Residents still tend okra, greens and tomatoes and more, distributing the harvest to more than 200 of the neighborhood's elderly residents. A few years later, Mr. Miller talked someone into donating a half-dozen computers so that young people could start learning.

"Mr. Freddie was one of the most respected persons you would ever want to meet," Simmons said.

In recent months he had battled multiple health problems, including congestive heart failure. Mr. Miller died Jan. 6 at Bayfront Medical Center. He was 79.

Sudan, an African folklorist who changed his name from Freddie Miller Jr., has since heard from dozens of people, each telling him about "unique" relationships they enjoyed with his father.

Sudan briefly wondered how that was possible. Then he decided it sounded just like his father to listen to so many, to extend that sacred space that far.

"What I have discovered is, that's what wise people do."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at or (727) 892-2248.