Inside this unassuming building in the heart of Overtown, the history of Miami’s pioneering black police officers unfolds.
Jail cells where the first black patrolmen locked up drunks and gamblers. The courtroom where Miami’s first black judge donned his robes. A bust of Officer John Milledge, shot dead outside a football game in 1946, the first African-American cop to die on duty.
But the history comes alive every Tuesday, when retired Miami Lt. Archie McKay, a spry 90 years old, greets visitors to the Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum.
On a dare, he recalls, McKay joined the Miami police department in 1954 and was thrown on the streets with no real training. Mostly, he was not allowed to arrest whites. When McKay finally worked as an investigator alongside his white counterparts, they refused to call him “detective.”
“I’m history relating to what actually happened,” said McKay, who retired from policing in 1974. “It makes me feel good I can tell the story and be a living legend.”
As Miami celebrates Black History Month in February, the museum underscores the lessons of the city’s racially divided past — and the legacy of tension with law enforcement that still plays out today. And this month’s celebration also underscores something else.
With scant visitors, no money for advertising and a volunteer staff, the museum at 480 NW 11th St. is barely scraping by.
“We get about 6,000 to 9,000 visitors a year,” said Thomas K. Pinder, the museum’s director. “We’d love to double it. What people tell us is, ‘We didn’t know you were there.’ Our problem is getting the word out.”
The precinct’s roots are in 1940s Miami, which, like the rest of the South, was segregated. During and after World War II, the city’s black population surged to more than 40,000.
Responding to pressure from African-American leaders, Miami hired its first five black police officers in 1944 — their “training” and deployment kept a secret from the general public for fear of backlash from whites.
Patrolling by foot and bicycle, the small force swept through some areas of Liberty City, Coconut Grove and the main hub, Overtown, known then as “Colored Town.” There was no station — black patrolmen met in shops and homes. Some swore their oaths in a barber shop.
Back then, Overtown was far from the impoverished neighborhood that it is today. Theaters, restaurants, nightclubs — the neighborhood just north and west of downtown Miami thrived.
Finally in May 1950, the police precinct and courthouse opened, the first of its kind in the South.
Upstairs, the first African-American judge, Lawson Thomas, took the bench — on his first day, he was presented flowers and a gavel and then presided over 55 cases, mostly moonshiners, gamblers and street brawlers.
In its first year, the “Negro Municipal Court” handled 6,374 cases, collecting more than $60,000 in fines.
Limitations were many. Few trials boasted attorneys — officers normally acted as prosecutors, the judge as the jurist and the defense attorney.
The court could not hear cases of blacks accused of crimes against whites.
Downstairs, scores of policemen worked inside the station, which boasted jail cells and other offices.
And the African-American cops could not attend Dade’s police academy. “The training I received was on-the-job training,” McKay recalled. “There was no schooling … we took it upon ourselves to train ourselves. We got into the books and studied the city ordinances, state ordinances.”
McKay, a former U.S. Army soldier, left his job as a butcher in a Jewish deli to join the force. It was a somewhat conflicted decision. Like many young men in Overtown, his relationship with white officers had always been tense — one officer, while looking for a fugitive, actually cracked a lion tamer-type whip at him as McKay sat on his porch.
When he donned the uniform, not everyone in his neighborhood was happy.
“There was some that would call you an ‘Uncle Tom,’ ‘snitch,’ ‘working for the white man,’ ” McKay said. “But overall, the acceptance was well received.”
Mostly, McKay was part of the patrol force that cracked down on street gamblers, drunks and people involved in domestic disturbances.
He could not arrest whites for misdemeanors — his instructions were to detain, then call a white cop. The only way McKay could arrest a white person was if he personally witnessed a felony, something that never happened.
“It was frustrating. I had a badge and gun too,” McKay said.
McKay was eventually moved to the main headquarters, where he was partnered with white detectives to solve an array of street crimes. McKay eventually became a robbery investigator, relying on contacts and sources built up over his years of working the streets.
As the civil-rights movement took hold, the city finally closed the precinct in 1964. The black officers moved to the main police station just a few miles away. One of those early officers, Clarence Dixon, would become Miami’s first black police chief between 1985 and 1988.
As crime and drugs wreaked havoc in Miami’s inner cities over the years, the building fell derelict.
During his childhood, Miami Police Maj. Delrish Moss played at a nearby park and saw the building regularly.
“I had no idea what it was then,” said Moss, who joined the department in 1987. “When I found out its history, all of a sudden it meant a whole lot more to me.”
For years, retired black officers pushed city leaders to make the nondescript building a museum. Finally in April 2005, the city announced plans to build a museum there.
But it took four years — and more than $1 million from the county, state and the Miami Retired Police Officers Community Benevolent Association — before the museum opened its doors in 2009.
Despite the underwhelming numbers of visitors, the museum remains a hidden gem. Blown-up newspaper stories chronicling the decades line the walls. Black-and-white photos show the courthouse’s opening, the officers in roll call. A bicycle used to patrol Liberty City stands guard.
A classroom is used for after-school programs — and last week Miami police officers from the central district held their roll call there.
But McKay remains the featured attraction.
“He means a lot to us. We treat him like he’s our star,” Pinder said. “We love him. Not only does he bring an accurate story, but he brings a lot of joy to that museum.”
If you go
The Black Police Precinct Courthouse and Museum, 480 NW 11th St., is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is $10 per person. Call 305-329-2513 or firstname.lastname@example.org.