Viter Juste, Haitian community pioneer and leader, dies at 87

Viter Juste, a Haitian immigrant who nurtured the growth of South Florida’s Haitian community, was a visionary and pioneer.

11/28/2012 6:01 PM

11/28/2012 6:08 PM

Two years after the first recorded boatload of Haitian refugees arrived in South Florida, a young Haitian entrepreneur turned to the Catholic Church for help.

That meeting with Msgr. Bryan O. Walsh in 1974 would help launch Viter Juste’s role as a community advocate for the South Florida’s newest arrivals from Haiti.

Juste, considered the father of Miami’s burgeoning Haitian community and credited with helping coin the name “Little Haiti,” died Nov. 19 at an assisted-living facility in North Miami. He was 87.

In recent years, Juste’s health had deteriorated as he suffered from dementia and diabetes, said his daughter, Chantal Juste Watson.

“For you to see someone who was always active deteriorate to what he became was difficult,” she said. “He was a great father and a great husband to my mom. He always wanted better for his kids.”

And he always wanted Haitians in South Florida to build a vibrant and viable community. Over the past four decades, Juste took pride in seeing Haitian immigrants transition from boat people to elected officials to first- and second-generation hyphenated Americans.

“This is a huge loss for the community,” said Jean-Claude Exulien, a retired history professor and former Haiti political prisoner who met Juste in Miami in 1977 after his release from prison. “We didn’t always agree on Haiti, but on the plan for the community here, we were together.”

Recalling those early days of struggle and protest against mistreatment of Haitians and non-Haitians alike, friends say Juste deserves much of the credit for helping South Florida’s Haitian community become the thriving group it is today.

He was always among the first to arrive at protests that included a boycott of a local Winn-Dixie supermarket that discriminated against Haitians and against the Miami-Dade School Board’s refusal to enroll undocumented Haitian students. It was out of his struggle that the phrase “Little Haiti” was coined, Exulien said.

“He wrote an article to The Miami Herald calling it, ‘Little Port-au-Prince.’ The Miami Herald found it too long and headlined it, ‘Little Haiti,’” said Exulien, who along with fellow Haitian historian Claude Charles would spend hours reminiscing with Juste in the nursing home about their community activism.

Rulx Jean-Bart, who also worked alongside Juste in the 1980s on behalf of equal treatment for Haitians, said “he was a visionary.”

“All of the basic foundations that made this community what it is today, he was involved in putting them together,” said Jean-Bart, director of admissions and registration at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus.

Juste also was a pioneer: He was the first to establish a business selling French- and Creole-language books and records, Les Cousins Records and Books, which eventually moved to Little Haiti; the first to publish a French-language weekly, a 12-page newspaper that sold for 25 cents; and the first to start an adult-education program in the evenings, where he not only taught new arrivals English but helped them assimilate into their newly adopted homeland.

He also was one of the first chairmen of the Haitian-American Community Association of Dade, which was one of the first social-service agencies dedicated to the Haitian community. It was also the group that Juste had sought Walsh’s help in forming, along with several others.

“He was a man passionate for making his mark in the Haitian community; both as a businessman and a community leader,” said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who met Juste in 1979. “He was a pioneer, and paved the way for young generations of Haitians to follow.”

Juste was born Dec. 15, 1924, in La Gonâve, an island off mainland Haiti. His father was an affluent businessman. In 1946, armed with an accounting and business degree, he opened a grocery store in Port-au-Prince, his family said.

Juste eventually closed the store and went to work for a United Nations disease-eradication program, said his son, Carl, a photographer for The Miami Herald. That decision and the election of Haitian “President for Life” Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in 1957 would forever alter Viter Juste’s life.

A supporter of Duvalier’s opponent, Louis Déjoie, and fearing for his own safety, the outspoken Juste decided to leave Haiti for the United States. In 1973, after a few years in New York, he moved his wife, Maria, and children to Miami.

Here, Juste found not just warmer weather, but his calling.

“I am not a political leader, but I think I am a community leader,” he said in a 1983 Miami Herald interview. “There will be a time when there will be a solid link between the two.”

The Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary, who served as Juste’s pastor at Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church in Little Haiti, said he was the “conscience” of the community.

“He was a true fighter. He was somebody who stood up for what he believed in,” Jean-Mary said. “Every single morning, Viter would accompany his wife, coming hand in hand with her and never missing an opportunity to go to confession. That is the climax of his life because I felt that at the end, he truly gave himself to God.”

Juste was preceded in death by Maria, to whom he had been married for 60 years before her death in 2008; and two sons, including Henry, a local activist who drowned in 2004 while vacationing in Haiti.

In addition to children Chantal and Carl, Juste is survived by daughter Maria Blain; sons Wagner and Patrick Juste; 15 grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.

Visitation is scheduled for 2 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Hadley Davis Funeral Home, 2321 NW 62nd St., Miami. A funeral Mass is scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday at St. Mary’s Cathedral, 7525 NW Second Ave., followed by burial at Southern Memorial Park, 15000 West Dixie Hwy. and a memorial reception at 2 p.m. at the American Legion Hall, 6445 NE Seventh Ave.

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