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Miami Black History: 1940s to 1960s

This month, we’re taking a look at some of the significant people, places and events in the course of Miami’s black history with the help of Mandy Baca, author of The Sizzling History of Miami Cuisine: Cortaditos, Stone Crabs & Empanadas and Discovering Vintage MiamiMidcentury Miami was a tumultuous time, a period when Miami’s black culture was both important and ascendant, while the black community went to war, experienced racism and fought for civil rights.

Georgette’s Tea Room and The Mary Elizabeth Hotel

As noted in my book, The Sizzling History of Miami Cuisine: Cortaditos, Stone Crabs and Empandas, a popular icon of the 1940s in Overtown was Georgette’s Tea Room, housed in a thirteen-room building that also served as a hotel. Georgette’s was the place for the affluent black community to meet. Billie Holiday was known to frequent the spot, along with Nat King Cole and Bessie Smith. Located in Brownsville and owned by Georgette Scott Campbell, the hotel offered accommodations to many of the black entertainers who frequently came to perform at many of the beach’s hotels. Segregation did not allow for them to stay in hotels on the beach, but Overtown provided a refuge and became a nexus of black culture. The Mary Elizabeth Hotel, also in Overtown, offered accommodations to prominent performers of the time. Count Basie and Jackie Robinson were noted to stay at the hotel. One of the fancier hotels in the area, it was closed down after desegregation, and the historic landmark was eventually demolished, destroying a historic landmark in Miami’s history.

As a city of the South, Miami was heavily segregated and a hotbed for racial inequality. Two of the most discriminatory downtown locations were McCrory’s and the soda fountain at Woolworths. A June 28, 1959 Miami Herald story reported that fifty members of the Congress of Racial Equality waited three and half hours without being served at the Woolworth counter. On the upside, because of desegregation, African American performers no longer had to trek to Overtown for lodging after performances. The Booker Terrace Motel, another popular locale of the era located in Brownsville, continued its importance into the 1960s, as it was the location for many of Martin Luther King’s press conferences. (It is said that he stayed in Room 51.) Another famous guest of the hotel was boxer Muhammad Ali.

School desegregation

There was heavy pushback against the suits fighting to end segregation in Florida schools in 1955. In fact, the Dade County School Board outright ignored it. But, it wasn’t just the school board that opposed desegregation. Many parents chose not to send their children to desegregated schools and transferred them.

One important example highlighted during those years was the case of Orchard Villa Elementary School. In a suit against the Dade County School Board, black students were finally admitted into the school in 1959, bringing many changes to the once white-only school. In the fall, fewer than a dozen white students were enrolled and by Christmas, it was an all-black school.

There were hundreds, if not thousands of student shuffles between 1955 and 1960. Dade County School officially did not officially declare the area’s schools desegregated until 1963.

Muhammad Ali

“I want everyone to bear witness, I am the greatest.” Shortly after turning 22 years old on February 25, 1964, Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, defeated Sonny Liston in pro boxing’s heavyweight championship at the Miami Beach Convention Center. He was famously known around town for hanging out in Overtown and training at South Beach’s 5th Street Gym. The gym was previously located on 5th and Washington, but now can be found on 14th and Alton. The gym’s owners have preserved many historical tidbits from those years, and it’s worth a visit.

Jumbo’s Restaurant

Jumbo’s was a rare establishment in Liberty City that survived not only the plight of the restaurant industry, but racial and political battles in a rough neighborhood. Most notably, in 1966, it was the first establishment to open its doors to blacks and in 1967, the first to hire blacks. It wasn’t easy, but Bobby Flam, the restaurant’s passionate owner, persevered, and the crowds kept coming for its Southern flavors and hospitality. In 2008, the restaurant received a James Beard award in the American Classics Restaurant category. After 59 years in operation, the restaurant closed it doors in summer 2014.

2/14: Black Freedom Opening Party

Come out for the opening party of Yeelen Gallery’s Black Freedom exhibit.  Meet more Miamians shaping our future and check out works by Jerome Soimaud. Open Bar and Tunes provided by DJ Bre, Saturday Feb 14th, 2015 from 9 p.m.-2 a.m.

RSVP: [email protected]

 

By Mandy Baca
Mandy Baca is a Miami native and freelance writer, who is obsessed with her city. She is also the author of The Sizzling History of Miami Cuisine: Cortaditos, Stone Crabs and Empanadas, Discovering Vintage Miami, and the upcoming Cuban Cuisine from South Florida.