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If you trace the story of Bahamian migration to South Florida, you trace the story of the region itself, slowly transforming from a lush wetland to the modern metropolis it is today. In no other neighborhood is the Bahamian influence on Miami as pronounced as Coconut Grove.
Many of South Florida’s earliest settlers were lured across the Atlantic by land grants offered in the mid-1800s with the Homestead Act, which promised 160 acres of land to anyone who remained in the region for five years, built a home, and raised a crop.
The first permanent settlers of Coconut Grove were Edmund Beasley, an American sailor from Connecticut, and his Bahamian wife Ann Beasley, who settled in what is now known as Barnacle State Park. Soon two more white Bahamian families, the Pents and Frows, also found their way to the Grove.
In 1873, a widowed Ann Beasley rented land to another settler who opened a post office in the area, naming it Cocoanut Grove — after a few coconut palm trees that were nearby. (He left after only a year, but the name sans the “a” clearly stuck around.)
It wasn’t long before the growing village began attracting sailors to its tropical shores, among them English sailor Jack Peacock and Staten Island sailboat designer Ralph Munroe. And as early settlers called their friends and family members to join them, a town was born.
A new era
By the early 1870s, South Florida had grown enough to need a hotel. The Bay View House (later known as Peacock Inn) was the first of its kind. Owned and operated by Jack’s brother, Charles Peacock, and his wife, Isabella, it opened in what is today Peacock Park, according to Dr. Paul George, resident historian at HistoryMiami.
It opened up a new era for the Grove. Desperately needing staff, the Peacocks looked to Key West, where many black Bahamians settled a decade prior, attracted by jobs and the similar climate.
Mariah Brown, originally from the Bahamian island of Eleuthera, became the village’s first black Bahamian resident in 1889. As the hotel grew, Brown called her friends and family to join her, said Miami historian Arva Moore Parks.
Word got out that there was a small, but thriving community up north who needed help with everything from cooking to carpentry.
South Florida’s first black millionaire
Around this time, another black Bahamian, Ebenezer Woodbury Franklin Stirrup, Sr. made his way from Key West to the Grove to work as a chauffeur and a farm worker at industrialist James Deering’s magnificent winter estate, Villa Vizcaya.
Over the years, Stirrup acquired vast amounts of land in Coconut Grove by working in exchange for land rather than pay. He and his wife built his own house and scores of houses on their land, made of of sturdy termite-resistant Dade County Pine.
The two-room, long, straight, narrow house with doors on either end, called the shotgun style, mimicked those found in the Bahamas, other parts of the Caribbean, and West Africa.
Stirrup constructed more than 100 homes and sold or rented them to new Bahamian immigrants to the area, and some of those homes still stand today in west Coconut Grove. By the early 1900s, a thriving black Bahamian community had formed along Evangelist Street, now known as Charles Avenue, not far from the Bay View House where many of them worked. It came to be known as Kebo, after the majestic mountain peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro.
As Coconut Grove’s first black millionaire, Stirrup became the de-facto leader of the growing black community. He even helped purchase the Charlotte Jane Memorial Park Cemetery — the above ground cemetery where many early black Bahamian families were buried. These above ground vaults were common in the Caribbean where the water table was too high to bury the deceased underground, explained George.
The turning point
In early 1900s Coconut Grove, the relationships between black and whites were cordial, a dynamic uncommon throughout the rest of the United States, especially the south, at that time.
“It wasn’t as repressive as your southern white community because the community in Coconut Grove was very hip — full of writers, travelers, and artists,” George said.
While initially, the two groups attended church together, blacks eventually established their own Episcopalian churches, ones that were lively and full of song and dance like the Caribbean churches they grew up in — a key in preserving their Caribbean identities.
The relationships slowly began to shift after the city of Miami annexed Coconut Grove against its will in 1925. In the years to follow, west Coconut Grove was increasingly marginalized and choked of resources for many years to come. The annexation was a significant turning point, fracturing the collective spirit of the neighborhood, according to both George and Parks.
While relationships continued to endure strain through the years, today the Bahamian history is honored with events like the Miami/Bahamas Junkanoo Festival (formerly called the Goombay Festival), a now 40-year-old celebration of the Bahamian-American influence on Coconut Grove with bright costumes, music, and the aroma of conch fritters and conch stew filling up the streets.
This is just the early history of the Bahamian community in Coconut Grove. Next week, we’ll be exploring some of the issues that face west Coconut Grove today.