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Legacies of Overtown

When Naomi Rolle talks about her childhood home in Overtown, tears fall from her eyes.

Her father, Jerod Hastings Rolle, and his mother — her grandmother — constructed the cozy peach-colored home with swirling concrete pillars in the 1920s.

“It was beautiful,” she said. “It was one of the only houses built with concrete and stucco. The other homes around us were made out of wood.”

Rolle, who now lives in Liberty City, is among thousands who were forced out of their homes in the 1960s to make room for Interstate 95 and later, Interstate 395. Today, a concrete beam that holds up I-95 stands where Rolle’s front yard used to be. Her home was razed to make room for the highway.

“I get choked up every time I talk about it, just like my dad used to get choked up,” said Rolle, 70. “In 1965 they ran him out of that house.”

For those who called Overtown home, theirs is a story of remembrance and loss.

They fondly recall the glory days of Overtown, then a segregated neighborhood of Miami called the Central Negro District or Colored Town. Bahamian musicians marched down Fifth Place on Friday nights playing a spicy blend of Calypso. Teenagers flirted over jukebox sessions at neighborhood restaurants. On summer afternoons black children from as far as Key West splashed in the Dixie Pool.

Renowned theaters and popular night clubs dotted Northwest Second and Third Avenues, known as the Harlem of the South. Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Louie Armstrong and other top entertainers jammed after shows in Miami Beach. African Americans who performed on Miami Beach could not sleep or dine in the hotels that hosted their shows.

On Sundays, families dressed in their finest walked to churches like St. Agnes Episcopal Church, St. John Baptist Church and the Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest black church in Overtown, established in 1896, shortly after the city of Miami’s founding.

Then, I-95 came.

Businesses shuttered and families moved to different parts of Miami-Dade; few stayed behind. Many relocated to Richmond Heights, Brownsville, Allapattah , Liberty City and parts of North Dade.

But they never forgot home. They are Towners for life.

“We are rooted in that community because our folks built Miami,” said Agnes Rolle Morton, Naomi Rolle’s older sister.

Their father was a Bahamian migrant construction worker who traveled from the Bahamas to work on construction jobs. He was part of a crew that helped clear dense thickets to build Biscayne Boulevard. He later moved into the neighborhood, where he earned a reputation as a skilled foreman and masterful trombone player.

His children say he never recovered from losing his home, even when he died on Jan. 6, 1980.

“He died depressed,” said Naomi Rolle. “He never understood why they had to take his house. He never got over it.”

Former residents say the unequal treatment of blacks at the time contributed to their uprooting. Despite their objections, their voices were not heard.

“I’m angry because it didn’t have to happen,” said Morton Rolle, 74. “There were several plans on the drawing board and we didn’t have the political support to fight for that.”

A second option along the Florida East Coast railroad was considered, but rejected amid objections from downtown business interests, according to local historian Marvin Dunn’s book, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century.

“When white folks said you had to move, you had to find somewhere to move to. And so we looked for houses,” said Dorothy Graham, 97, whose family left Overtown and settled in Liberty City.

Graham said the families did not receive any moving costs from the government to offset their expenses. Some former Overtown residents still visit the neighborhood. A group of Booker T. Washington Senior High alumni meet once a month at Jackson’s Soul Food, reminiscing over bowls of boiled fish and grits. Booker T., built in 1926 , served as a cultural hub as well as school. When performers visited Overtown, the school’s auditorium doubled as a concert hall.

The trip down memory lane can be emotional.

“When you go over there now, and see how the place you have fond memories of no longer exists and to see the condition it’s in now, it makes you sad,” said General “Hoss” White, 70.

Recently, White took a walk through Overtown. He pointed to an empty lot on Northwest Third Avenue that once housed the Modern Theater. A vacant swath beneath the I-95 overpass was once a popular strip mall with shoe stores and clothing boutiques.

“I try to educate people and tell them, ‘Overtown to us, Overtown was a mecca.’ What you see now is not what we grew up with,” he said.

Today, mostly low-income renters call the neighborhood home. Overtown has struggled with high crime and high unemployment rates, though efforts by the city and nonprofits groups have sought to stem some of those issues.

When White reaches the area where he grew up — around Fifth Place between 18th and 19th Streets — he sees apartment buildings and the highway overhead.

The neighborhood he grew up in?

“It doesn’t exist,” he said. “Excuse me if I’m getting a little teary eyed. We may not be able to come back to show our grandchildren what used to be because it’s no longer here. But people still need to what was Overtown was.”