The hallowed halls of the Hampton House are coming back to life

Three years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., he rehearsed it in a quaint motel in Brownsville, Miami.

“The ‘I Have a Dream’ speech …. I heard that in 1960, on 26th Ave. in a place known as the Hampton House, Martin Luther King made that speech in a meeting we had,” late Miami civil rights activist A.D. Moore told documentary filmmaker Kathy Hersh during an interview in 2001. “Oh my god, it blew that place wide open. I’m telling you, he was fantastic.”

When Hersh heard this, she stopped in her tracks.

The Hampton House of 2001 was decrepit and crumbling. The room where Martin Luther King, Jr. once stayed was occupied by squatters and drug addicts. The pool he was once photographed swimming in was full of debris.The motel rooms where black artists stayed and held after-parties, because they were barred from Miami Beach hotels, were empty and lifeless.

“I started digging and I found a film in the Florida State archives that was an early promo film for the motel and [saw] all of these famous black people, Muhammad Ali, Althea Gibson, Jackie Robinson, and Martin Luther King, Jr.and I realized what an important meeting spot that was for the civil rights movement here in Miami,” Hersh said.

But the building was scheduled to be demolished in just a few months, so Hersh rushed to Dade Heritage Trust, where she met Dr. Enid Pinkney, the head of the African American Committee. Together the two sought a historic designation to prevent its demolition.

It took more than a year of research, presentations, and persuasion, but on April 17, 2002, the Miami-Dade Historic Preservation Board agreed. Over the next decade, the county invested $6 million to return the crumbling building to its historic vibrancy. 

The early days

Harry and Florence Markowitz, a white Jewish couple, opened the Hampton House in the mid1950s as an upscale motel complete with a jazz club, latenight restaurant, and swimming pool in the Brownsville neighborhood in Miami.

The Markowitzs, who then owned quite a bit of land in the area, designed the 50-room motel in the Miami-Modern (MiMo) style, like The Vagabond on Biscayne Boulevard and The Fountainebleu on Miami Beach.

In the early 1960s, the hotel became a hotspot for famous black Americans visiting Miami.  Because of segregation, when jazz legends like Count Basie and Aretha Franklin came to perform at the clubs on South Beach, they’d have to go stay in “colored town” after their set, and back then, Brownsville was a thriving middle-class black American community.

“At the Hampton House, they’d stay up all night and have their second concert where they’d really get down and that’s when the real party went on,” Hersh said. The parties were so legendary that even white fans would follow musicians to the Hampton House and so “at a time of strict segregation the Hampton House was one of the most integrated places in the city.”  

In 1964, after beating Sonny Liston in an iconic match on Miami Beach, Muhammad Ali headed to the Hampton House and held a massive victory party in the motel’s 24hour café. Ali, who stayed at the house often, usually rented out a room on the second floor just above Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s room, according to Dr. Pinkney. And it was was at the Hampton House where he met Malcolm X, who would later convert Ali to Islam, Pinkney said.

The Hampton House was also a place of community organizing. The Congress for Racial Equality, an influential African-American civil rights organization, held weekly meetings there to  strategize about desegregating Miami.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would join when he was in town.  

The past presents the future

By the late 1960s segregation had been outlawed. The need for Hampton House to be a place of refuge dwindled once black visitors could stay on the Beach and other high-profile parts of Miami. By the late 1970s, the Markowitzs had sold the building. Its new owner didn’t bother to maintain it.

Around the same time, middle-class black families began moving away from Brownsville and towards more affluent parts of Miami. That trend continued. Today’s Brownsville is very different from that of the 1950s and 1960s — it’s now one of the poorest parts of Miami-Dade, many of its buildings abandoned and crumbling.

But now, the Hampton House’s restoration brings some of the neighborhood’s old shine back into focus. After almost 15 years of labor and work, the Hampton House has been returned to its former grace. The exterior walls are a brilliant yellow, bordered by bold turquoise beams.  A golden chandelier hangs overhead in the lobby. Gray staircases flank either side of a fully-restored, retro bronzed-lobby desk, inviting visitors to imagine who might have stood there waiting to check in. Was it Malcolm or Martin? Ali or Aretha?

The sleek white banquet hall sends visitors right back to the 1970s, with white lanterns hanging overhead, and photographs of legendary visitors line the white walls. You can imagine the packed dance floor back when jazz concerts boomed late into the night.  

The 24-hour diner, too, has been returned to its original glory, with yellowed bar stools lining the front counter and an original painting featuring an idyllic Caribbean town on the walls. The room is lit up by original turquoise, orange, and white blue tear-drop shaped hanging lamps.

Bringing back that soul

The non-profit Historic Hampton House Community Trust, which is now managing the property, also hopes to restore Hampton House’s role as a place of community. The café and banquet room can be rented out for events, and was the host of the Miami-Dade County’s Black Affairs Advisory Board’s annual Community Pillars award ceremony.

The ceremony recognizes nine community leaders for their service and awards scholarships to eight local students who have worked to better their local community. The following day is Juneteenth, which is commonly celebrated among African Americans, especially in southern states, marking the end of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865.

Within a few months, some of the rooms on the first floor will be transformed into small museums honoring Ali and King. The top floors will be turned into office space for local businesses.

But it will take something special to bring back that soul. One answer might be Umi Selah’s studio Smoke Signals, which he hopes will become a part of the Hampton House in the coming months.

Selah is already a cornerstone of the city’s young African-American community, as is the recording studio he runs out of his home with his girlfriend Aja Monet. The goal of the Smoke Signals studio is to create music that is civically engaged. Hampton House’s history as a space where black politicians, artists, and thought leaders gathered and collaborated makes it the perfect new home. He hopes to bring programming to the Hampton House, making it a refuge the way it was at another time when the black community felt under siege.

“This is a place really rooted in the history of Miami, this is a place where luminaries came. If you’re any type of spiritual or believe in the history or the energy of places, it’s got it,” Selah said. “We’re envisioning it representing what it used to represent for people in the past, for a new generation in Miami.”