Belle Glade Faces Its Demons After a Senseless Murder | New Times Broward-Palm Beach


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.

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.