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Thanks to the leap year, we have one additional day to celebrate Black History Month with the last in a series of articles dedicated to this special celebration. In honor of Black History Month, here’s your crash course on a few historical and significant facts about Black Miami that you may not have been aware of.
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1. Fisher Island was once owned by a Black man
Fisher Island has been home to the likes of Oprah and Mel Gibson and is only accessible by ferry or boat, but most people don’t know that Fisher Island was originally first owned by a black man – real estate developer Dana A. Dorsey. He was South Florida’s first African-American millionaire and later sold the island in 1919 to Carl Fisher who was developing Miami Beach. Dorsey was the son of former slaves who moved from South Georgia to Miami in 1896 working as a carpenter for the Henry Flagler Florida East Coast Railroad. With only a fourth grade education, he purchased one parcel of land in Overtown, built a rental home on the land, reinvested the rental income to build and rent more as far north as Ft. Lauderdale, and later sold land to the City of Miami for a park for Blacks. Dorsey also owned Miami’s first black-owned hotel, Dorsey Hotel, and also owned the Negro Savings Bank.
2. Black people were part of Miami’s incorporation
Black people have always been a part of Miami’s history. Before Julia Tuttle and Henry Flagler, who were credited as the builders of Miami, Black people, mostly Bahamians, were already here as the first settlers. Black people were also critical to Miami’s incorporation in 1896 and were needed to sign the city’s charter in order to reach the number of male voters needed to form a new city. Of the 368 men who voted to incorporate Miami, 162 of them were Black. In fact, the first name on the city’s charter was Silas Austin, a Black man. Black people also mostly occupied Overtown and Coconut Grove, which is also the oldest inhabited neighborhood in Miami.
3. Overtown was Miami’s Black Wallstreet and the Harlem of the South
Overtown is going through its long awaited second renaissance after years of neglect and poverty, but was once a thriving cultural and arts scene and the epicenter of Black wealth in Miami. In its heyday in the early 1900’s and once known as Colored Town, Overtown hosted major entertainers who performed at Miami Beach but could not stay at those hotels. Entertainers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Nat King Cole would stay at boutique hotels in Overtown after their performances in addition to legends like Jackie Robinson and W.E.B. Du Bois. Overtown also had a bustling nightlife where these entertainers would often perform at venues like the Lyric Theater, Harlem Square Club, the Cotton Club, and more.
In addition to being a popular destination for entertainers, Overtown was also home to some of Miami’s thriving black businesses, which included a black-owned hotel, a pharmacist, doctors, dentists, hospitals, and many other successful Black businesses. All of that changed when the construction of I-95 and the railroad ripped through the heart of Overtown, dismantling the once thriving neighborhood and displacing its residents to parts north to Liberty City and other neighborhoods. As a result, many of the area’s businesses, shops, and restaurants were forced to close, and Overtown lost its luster and fell into deep poverty.
4. Virginia Key Beach was once a Black beach
Back when there was segregation, Black people were excluded from enjoying many of Miami’s amenities, including public beaches and swimming facilities. Out of defiance to the segregation, a few local Black leaders, including Judge Thomas, defiantly protested by going to the exclusively white Haulover Beach with the intention of getting arrested, but they weren’t. Instead, in response, local officials designated Virginia Key Beach as the exclusive public park for Black people on August 1, 1945. The beach became a popular social gathering spot, but was eventually closed in 1982. The beach was eventually re-opened to the public in 2008 and has regained in popularity as a great outdoor venue for major events and festivals.
5. Black people had their own police precinct
Miami got its first African-American police officers in 1944, but segregation restricted them from patrolling white neighborhoods. Shortly thereafter, the Black Police Precinct and Courthouse was created in Overtown so that Black officers could patrol the Black neighborhood and fight racial injustices. The police precinct only stayed open for 13 years and have since been converted into a museum in 2009.