Belle Glade Faces Its Demons After a Senseless Murder

Belle Glade Faces Its Demons After a Senseless Murder

Corey Graham Jr. walked into a Belle Glade grocery store at 6:30 a.m. on the second day of the new year to commit what should have been an ordinary crime.

Graham was 19, fresh out of high school, and built like the offensive lineman he had been at Glades Central. With his broad shoulders and long dreads, Graham carried an ungainly 260 pounds and was far too tall to blend into the grocery aisles. A hooded sweatshirt hid his hair, and a blue-and-white bandanna covered his nose and mouth.

He pointed a revolver at the store clerk and barked at her to empty the cash register. "Right now!" She pulled out the cash drawer and set it on the counter. Done.

The Alabama Georgia Grocery Store has been in Jimmy McMillan's family for seven decades.
Monica McGivern
The Alabama Georgia Grocery Store has been in Jimmy McMillan's family for seven decades.
Jimmy McMillan (left) was a champion bass fisherman and owner of the store his family had run for generations.
Courtesy of the McMillan Family
Jimmy McMillan (left) was a champion bass fisherman and owner of the store his family had run for generations.

Except she was not alone. She wouldn't be, because the shop's owner was there 16 hours a day, watching over the store that had been in his family for seven decades. Trying to rob this shop, a landmark in a dirt-poor town on the western edge of Palm Beach County, could never be an ordinary crime.

The Alabama Georgia Grocery Store was named after the people who migrated south decades ago to work in Belle Glade's tomato and sugar cane fields. Much of the fieldwork has since dried up, able hands replaced by efficient machines. The Glades cities south of Lake Okeechobee now have a 40 percent unemployment rate. The area has become a place the rest of South Florida knows for its propensity to churn out NFL football stars and violent crime.

Graham was one of many kids who never made it as a football star. Now he was giving crime a try. But he badly miscalculated his chances.

When he fled the grocery that morning, the floor was stained with blood. Belle Glade was wracked with pain. Sins long ignored were now on display for the world to see: crushing poverty, hopelessness, racial tension, rising violence. The small, proud town was facing a crisis no one knew if it could handle.

On the 42-mile drive from West Palm Beach to Belle Glade, palm trees give way to plots of rich, brown soil interrupted by shoots of young green sugar cane. Clusters of corn stalks form straw-colored walls, blocking the view from the road.

Out here, the sky stretches to the end of the Earth. Farmers are burning cane after the winter harvest, and a plume of brown smoke rises from the fields like a twister on the horizon. In town, clouds of smoke from the burning crops mingle with the smell of manure. Visitors are greeted by the barbed-wire fence of the Palm Beach County Jail and the Glades Work Camp. There's a handful of old-fashioned farmhouses and then the arched, faded sign: "Welcome to Belle Glade. Her soil is her fortune."

The enormous, white, wooden frame of the Community United Methodist Church takes up the length of a city block at the intersection of Main Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Next comes a tiny Dixie Fried Chicken restaurant, a liquor store, a humble, block-lettered sign for Brown's Take Out Home Cooking. Aluminum foil covers the windows of apartment buildings, and swarms of men wander the streets in the middle of the afternoon.

The drab gray of the Alabama Georgia Grocery Store is easy to miss. In the lot behind the store, a group of men gathers around card tables with buckets of beer, eating peanuts and swapping gossip to pass the time. A rooster pecks the ground behind them. A stray cat climbs over a discarded couch. "The jobs 'round here ain't enough for the people in this town," says Calvin Leggett, a man with torn work pants and dirt ingrained in his hands. "That's why we sit up under the trees and drink beer."

This town was built to support sugar and tomato plantations. Today, it's home to an uneasy mix of wealthy farmers; a shrinking middle class of teachers, nurses, and fishermen; and people so poor that they can't scrape together $3 for a bus ride. Migrant workers come from Mexico and Haiti to pick tomatoes and plant sugar cane. They work for slave wages, live in squalid apartments, use buckets to catch rainwater when the utility bill gets too high. More than half of Belle Glade's population is black, and a third is Hispanic. Census data shows that wealth resides in the hands of a few landowners; 15 percent of the city's households earn more than $75,000 a year, while 43 percent earn less than $25,000.

Leggett has been in Belle Glade all his life, and now some flecks of gray sprinkle his goatee. During the growing season, he used to cut cane and drive tractors through the sugar fields. That changed in the mid-'90s, with a wave of public outcry and lawsuits over the treatment of farm workers hunched over in the muck, whacking at cane stalks with machetes. Local growers responded by replacing most of their laborers with machines. Leggett still spends long hours in the packinghouse when the corn comes in. But when the harvest ends, so do paychecks. He now works as a plumber when he can.

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16 comments
PONYBOI LIVE
PONYBOI LIVE

THERE IS ANYTHING WRONG WITH THE TOWN ITS DA PPLS IN IT(SOME OF THE PPLS)THAT DONT WONT TO WORK LIKE OTHERS.ARE LET DRUGS TAKE OVER THEM.IN LIFE U HAVE TO WANT TO DO BETTER,AND SET GOALS....SMH.ETC.

Cartyerc
Cartyerc

There is a lot of talk about the "downgrading" the author did in this article. Back story on me, I was born in pahokee & raised in Belle Glade. I saw everything the author put in this article and more. Some of you say there is more to Belle Glade.... You're right.... There is also more to the world. The author isn't trying to put Belle Glade down. They are merely trying to shed light on a town that doesn't get the same publicity as the "wealthier" parts of Florida.

We love our city
We love our city

This is so sad how you can get on here and downgrade the City of Belle Glade people choose not to better themselves by sitting under a tree playing cards and drinking beer all day. If you want anything in life you have to work for it, its not coming to you and if you choose to sit on the corner or go to school or get a job its your choice. I watch the news everyday and West Palm Beach & surrounding cities are on the news with a higher crime rate than Belle Glade but the wealthy can cover up their crimes unlike the poor communities there is some positive in our town and you don't have to drag our name in the mud we are PROUD OF OUR CITY.

IloveBelleGlade
IloveBelleGlade

This is pointless!!! I don't see the purpose of this article. I see you start off bout Corey robbing the store, how the residents making a living then jump to people who choose not to do anything. What makes you degrade a town u never lived in, the people who live in it when u never been through what we been through growing. Yes this really offends me because I was born and raised in Belle Glade, Fl never had much growing up but im very happy to be the woman that I became. From what I've read you only listed the bad things about Belle Glade what about the good things. Yes we have a high crime rate but crime happens everywhere you go. Im done but to Whomever this maybe im proud of who I and where i came from and i dont care who dont like reruns you are very immature and illiterate etc

Jalou002
Jalou002

How can you write about a town that you wasn't raised in.. What smell like manure to you smells like home to us. There is more to BELLE GLADE then football and crimes. If your going to talk about the bad why not mention the good things that happens in belle glade. This town gives the families that are unemployed a chance to send their kids off to school. You mentioned the liquor store but u didn't mention the library that's across the street. You mention seeing kids hang around but you didn't mention the boys and girls club and YEA. There are crimes everywhere but yet belle glade crimes are bad. You mention the bad things about the school but u don't mention the kids thats in school on the coast that's doing drugs. O wow I guess that's not a big deal because they have parents that is wealthy enough to cover things up. They always say Another man's trash is another man treasure.... Belle Glade is my treasure

Vanessa
Vanessa

This is just plain out ridiculous. How can you down grade a city that you really dont't anything about. What was really the purpose of this article. Was it about a Robbery or did you jut want to say some things about belle glade. And for the record more than just criminals come out of belleglade. There are indeed successful people some just choose not to come back to belleglade due to the fact that their is very small opportunity. Instead of bad mouthing belleglade how about you write about helping belleglade.

Why33430
Why33430

I don't get the part about the smell of manure????  Hey if you want to hang out every day all day sitting under a tree playing games ie: gambling and drink beer (which both costs money from working or PUBLIC assitance which is created by others working while you are sitting and drinking beer) instead of being a "postive" role model to these "young" men wandering the streets with nothing to do but watch you drink beer and gamble, how do you have a right to complain about jobs?  Jobs only come to those who seek not sit a whine about their beer getting warm. 

Carloslndn2
Carloslndn2

Was this sopposed to be a story about a young man who robbed a store. Or are you writing a novel about the surrounding areas of okeechobee lake? .... You wrote a paragraph disrobing what belle glade looks,feels,smells like? .. Learn to get the point! Every time I read an article I have to skip multiple paragraphs to get the point. Mad annoying!

FQS9000
FQS9000

Their momma's are so proud of those two good boys.  The popo are framing them, as the store owner had it coming and probably shot himself.

Let's start up a defense fund and get these two wonderful lads back on the streets where they can loaf around, knock up more ho-bitches and shoot evil, greedy, white store owners who are exploiting the oppressed afro-american community.

Free the Belle Glades Two!!!!  No Justice, No Peace!!!!

Cartyerc
Cartyerc

I had more... The part regarding the people playing card games and such. How many times have we heard,"get your education, or end up at the packing house/loading ramp/sugar mill/bean field"? How is the author downgrading our city by spelling out the facts that are in a census for everyone to see? Take your pride out of the equation. Belle Gkade is

Betterbelleglade
Betterbelleglade

You can't defend something that is plainly caught on video!

Cartyerc
Cartyerc

*Belle Glade is stricken with poverty & crime. It's fact... I'm proud of my roots. I'm not to proud to face the truth. Think about it folks, if you disagree... Get out there & take our town back. Improve the community. Don't avoid the bad parts of town. Rebuild them. Love you all, I'm done.

FQS9000
FQS9000

I see my sarcasm missed you.

NewsDog
NewsDog

Are you going to believe what you see with your own eyes or what a brotha tells you.  

Betterbelleglade
Betterbelleglade

I would like to also know what an ordinary crime is? This article seems to put Belle Glade down harshly. For those that know what truly is, this article was a total slap in the face. We live here because we love it. Those that don't need to get out and quit giving it a bad name.

Betterbelleglade
Betterbelleglade

I believe what can be seen AND what he confessed to. Does there need to be more than that?

 
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