This historic house is paying tribute to one of Miami’s black pioneers

If you’ve driven through Overtown on Northwest Third Avenue you’ve probably seen D.A. Dorsey’s name on a sign for the street named after him. Or maybe you’re familiar with the park or technical school named in his honor. You might even know that he was Miami’s first black millionaire.

But there’s a lot more to know about the man who was a major player in Miami in the early 20th century. And the Black Archives are looking to spotlight that history through the place Dorsey called home – the historic Dorsey House in Overtown.

The building dates back to the 1920s and has seen its share of uses, struggles, and renovations over the decades that have followed. The historic building is now open to the public as a museum so we spoke with Kamila Pritchett, operations/programming manager for the Black Archives, about the house and about Dorsey’s legacy in Miami.

THE HOUSE

The earliest records of the home go back to 1922, and it was built in the Bahamian style that was popular in Coconut Grove. The house would eventually be inherited by Dorsey’s daughter after Dorsey, and his wife Rebecca, died in 1940. Kamila said the records are a little vague on what Dorsey’s daughter did with the home other than building a new carport in the 1950s.

By the 1970s it had gotten into bad shape and so the board of the newly formed Black Archives stepped in and, according to Kamila they, “identified that this house was on their radar as something that needed to be protected.”

By 1989 it had been added to the National Register of Historic Places but in that same year it was also condemned for being in such rough shape.

By 1995 the home had been torn down and rebuilt to the original specs. After that it was used as a rotating office space, and a boutique store before it was forced to close…again.

The most recent closing was in 2013 because of roof damage that made the house “uninhabitable.” But thanks to a $150,000 grant from Miami’s Omni community redevelopment agency, private donations, and a Give Miami Day campaign — the building is back in business.

DORSEY’S FORTUNE

Dorsey was a major player in Miami’s nascent business world in the 1920s, particularly in the city’s black community.

When he first got to Miami from Georgia, he grew fruits in the Coconut Grove area. But he eventually worked as a realtor, a notary and owned several businesses. Dorsey ran the Imperial Department Store, and the Dorsey Hotel — which was also located in Overtown.

And Dorsey wasn’t the only affluent black person in those days. His contemporaries actually  inspired one of his most ambitious goals, a real estate project which ultimately never panned out.

THE RESORT THAT WASN’T

Fisher Island, the most affluent ZIP code in Miami, could have been a very different place — with a different namesake — if Dorsey’s plans had come together.

Dorsey initially purchased the island land from Herman Walker in 1918. And he wanted to build a luxury resort for other wealthy black business people and leaders on that land. But word of mouth and red tape stopped the plan before it really started.

“As soon as this information became public there was so much discord around it, and problems created, and hold ups with different permitting and zoning that he just sold the island,” Kamila said.

The idea of building the resort became too much of a financial strain so he sold the land to Carl Fisher’s realty company and the rest is history.

WHEN YOU CAN VISIT THE HOUSE

The museum in the historic home opened earlier this month and features rooms dedicated to the history of the house and Dorsey’s family. The home also has rooms that will rotate different exhibitions — currently the art of Overtown native Purvis Young, and a history of the Miami Times newspaper, are on display.

The house is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. And you can find more info on the Black Archives website.