Which black Miami pioneers helped shape Liberty City? Here are some names to know

We’ve spent the past few weeks digging into some notable and historic spots in and around Liberty City in Miami. And that exploration led us to ask you, our readers, what questions you had about the neighborhood and its history. After taking in those submissions, and having you all vote on the winning question, we’ve narrowed it down to this:

“What’s a list of famous black locals that helped shape the city?”

We spoke with Miami historian Marvin Dunn and looked into a few different archives to find the answer to reader Lexa’s question.

The initial pioneers

  • James E. Scott: Scott was the first administrator of the Liberty Square projects, a major housing development better known over the years as the Pork ‘n’ Beans. He began managing the building in 1935, and in 1939 he established a co-op in the neighborhood where members paid a few dollars to contribute to running a local shop and a credit union.
  • John Culmer: Culmer was born in the Bahamas and made his way to Miami, where he became a major figure in the Episcopalian church and served as the first black priest elected to the church’s general convention. His impact in Liberty City was shown through his efforts to highlight poor housing conditions in the area in the 1930s — specifically around sanitation — which spurred the federal dollars that contributed to the development of Liberty Square.
  • Alonzo “Pop” Kelly: Pop was the first true realtor in Liberty City after he was hired by a white man, Floyd Davis, to help sell lots in the neighborhood. Dunn said that as black families moved from Overtown (then “Colored Town”), they went through Kelly to get land for their homes and businesses.
  • Kelsey L. Pharr: He made his impact through the morbid business of running Miami’s first black-owned cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery (just outside the neighborhood in Brownsville). The graveyard was the primary place where black families were buried. Pharr was also a founder of the Colored Board of Trade.
  • The Sharpe family: Horace Sharpe was a pioneering farmer in the Lemon City area before Liberty City began developing, and his family eventually settled in the area. His daughter Isabelle Sharpe Blue was one of the first  principals in schools around Miami, like George Washington Carver Elementary.

Leaders in later years

After the earliest days of the neighborhood, Liberty City became the home for black residents who were pushed out of Overtown by the expansion of Interstate 95. That growing population led the area to get more representation, and women like M. Athalie Range made historic strides to fight for the residents in the area.

Range served as the PTA president for Liberty City Elementary and advocated for better resources for the school’s students. She took that activism to city hall and served as a commissioner from 1966 to 1971.

Sports and art stars

In the 20th and 21st century, a lot of the notable names from the neighborhood have been stars in music, film, and sports. The Academy-Award winning film “Moonlight” was set in the neighborhood and created by Miami natives Barry Jenkins and Tarell McCraney.

The neighborhood’s Pop Warner football team — the Liberty City Warriors — was featured in a Starz series last year, and the neighborhood is home to numerous athletes who made it to NFL stardom, like Antonio Brown, T.Y. Hilton, Chad Johnson, Teddy Bridgewater, and many more.

And rappers like Trina, Trick Daddy, and Luther “Uncle Luke” Campbell all rep for Liberty City.

Thanks again to Lexa for posing the question and to all of you who wrote in with questions of your own. Stay tuned as we explore other South Florida neighborhoods this year.