Since 1976, the United States has officially celebrated Black History Month, an annual month-long celebration of achievements by black Americans and their role in our nation. A precursor to this came in the 1920s, when the second week of February was widely known as Negro History Week. While Miami is a relatively young city, our black community has experienced great tragedy and triumph through the years. This month, we’ll take a look at some of the significant events and figures in the course of Miami’s black history, with the help of Mandy Baca.
The story of Miami’s birth begins long before Julia Tuttle and Henry Flagler ever set foot on the mouth of the Miami River. Since the mid-1880s, pioneers, both black and white, had been settling into Coconut Grove.
The area’s first black settlers came from the Bahamas to assist in the building of the Peacock Inn, known at the time as the Bay View Inn. They settled into the neighborhood of present day Village West. The area thrived heavily in those early days with many black-owned businesses. Black pioneers from the Caribbean were extremely important to the early city, not only for their carpentry and trade skills. They also were knowledgeable about the local fauna, flora, and food as opposed to the pioneers from the North, who had never seen sapodilla and the like.
Things changed, however, after the end of World War II, when the city saw a large influx of veterans looking for a change of pace. Many black-owned businesses were pushed out to make way for new apartment buildings. Strolling down the main drag of Charles Avenue, one can still see remnants of the fruitful neighborhood as a few wooden vernacular homes are still up, along with the Coconut Grove Playhouse. Other interesting architectural points of interest include shotgun homes, which are believed to be a Southern architectural tradition imported from Africa, and the use of Dade County pine.
EARLY MIAMI & OVERTOWN
It is important to note the following excerpt from Marvin Dunn’s Black Miami in the Twentieth Century. (Better yet, go out and read this book during Black History Month.) Dr. Samuel Hensdale Johnson, a black man whose parents were early arrivals from the Bahamas and who later became Miami’s first black radiologist, said:
“Some black Miami pioneers believed that the arrival of the railroad actually worsened conditions for blacks. In its early days Miami was a small town, where everybody knew everybody – whites and blacks. Sunday afternoons were times for boat trips to Ocean Beach (Miami Beach) for picnics and baseball games. As the town developed, however, the lines were drawn fast. We became hemmed in . . . Miami really became a hell-hole after the railroad arrived and Carl Fisher developed Miami Beach.”
Miami was officially incorporated in 1896 and blacks were a crucial part of this event. An informal Miami Metropolis census captured around incorporation time, noted that 182 of the 438 registered male voters in town were black. On July 28, 162 of the aforementioned 182 voted to incorporate the city. The first name on the charter of the city of Miami was Silas Austin, a black man. However, many sources note that this was a scheme by the white man to ensure that the city was incorporated.
Truer colors were later shown with the disenfranchisement of the black community and their allocation into “Colored Town,” later known as Overtown. Still, black Miamians built important cultural institutions under the trials of segregation. With Avenue G as its main thoroughfare, Overtown was successful in the early 1900s as the center for entertainment, hotels, and dining for blacks, whites, and tourists alike. Unfortunately, a new section of 1-95 split the neighborhood into two sections in the 1960s, which harmed the thriving community.
One of the central points of Overtown, which still stands today was the Lyric Theatre. Built in 1913 and located in the part of town known as Little Broadway, it operated as a movie and vaudeville theater for almost 50 years. In the past decade, it has been renovated, revived, and is open to the public for special events. The local Black Archives feature an interesting note from a 1915 Miami Metropolis article:
“Walker’s Lyric Theater was ‘possibly the most beautiful and costly playhouse owned by colored people in all the Southland.’ It is equipped with everything that is needed for modern theatrical performances. It is now, and always has been, managed by competent Negro men. Its moving picture machines are thoroughly understood by its well-trained Negro operators. The building is made of brown stone on the front and the sides are of the popular reinforced concrete. The interior compares favorably with the big theaters of metropolitan cities.”
Dana A. Dorsey, better known as D.A. Dorsey, was a Georgia man who came to Miami to work as a carpenter on Flagler’s railroad. He saw a need among fellow workers for housing, so he got into Miami’s favorite pastime — real estate. Dorsey purchased land in Overtown and redeveloped it into affordable housing.
Through years of development, reinvestment and entrepreneurship, Dorsey became Miami’s first black millionaire. Dorsey held property in Dade and Broward counties, Cuba and the Bahamas. He built the Dorsey Hotel, the first black-owned hotel in the city, and founded the first black bank. Dorsey even bought and sold present-day Fisher Island.
Dorsey also left a philanthropic legacy in the community. Dorsey sold land to establish Miami’s first park for blacks, and donated land for the city’s first library for blacks and the site of Dorsey High School, which is now D.A. Dorsey Technical College. Today, the D. A. Dorsey house at 250 NW 9th Street is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and is owned by The Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida.
Mandy Baca is the author of The Sizzling History of Miami Cuisine: Cortaditos, Stone Crabs & Empanadas and Discovering Vintage Miami.