Trolleys travel through local black history

About two dozen people crowded inside what was the roll-call room at the City of Miami Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum in Overtown Saturday for a journey through time.

It wasn’t too long ago, when the precinct was still open, that some of the first black police officers similarly crowded inside this room as their white supervisors took attendance.

At the time, black patrolmen were not allowed to go to the bathroom to change into their uniform but had to change in the roll-call room in front of their colleagues.

“They tried to degrade them and put them down,” said Dr. Thomas K. Pinder, president of the museum. “But they (the black officers) stood tall.”

This was just one of the many stories that attendees of Saturday’s Black Heritage Cultural Experience Tours heard.

This February — Black History Month — several organizations have collaborated to organize bus tours that take residents through the areas where Miami’s rich black history unfolded.

“I live here and I walk past these places every day, and I didn’t know anything about this area,” said Overtown-resident Freda Glover, 37.

The tours start at the Ward Rooming House, one of the first bed and breakfasts in the area that catered to snowbirds who came to Overtown when the neighborhood had its heyday. In the 1960s, the streets were dotted with vibrant jazz venues, restaurants, hotels, movie theatres and clubs.

Music spilled onto the sidewalk from venues that hosted jazz stars like Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

That’s the Overtown Wayne Clark, 64, remembers.

“I’d come down with my mom or with whoever would let me come,” said Clark, who at the time was a teenager living on Opa-locka. “Just the colorfulness of it all. The smells from the restaurants. The nightlife. You would have all these characters on the sidewalk.”

Even though all that is gone, Clark took his teenage grandson on a Black Heritage Cultural Experience Tour to give him a glimpse of what the area used to be like.

“I had no idea that these places are here,” said 13-year-old Jordan Oliver of Miami Gardens. “It’s cool how there was a Harlem in Miami.”

The tours also highlight more painful parts of black history in Miami.

The City of Miami Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum was one of the first black precincts of its kind in the nation. Equipped with a jail and a courthouse, it was built in 1950 after the community asked the city commission to help them deal with the violence in their neighborhoods.

The commission's solution: Pick five community members to serve as patrolmen instead of policemen since black people were not allowed to be officers at the time.

"They gave them a badge, and they gave them a gun," said Pinder.

But no training. Yet, thanks to these five patrolmen's efforts, violence in the neighborhoods decreased by half.

Historic photographs from newspaper archives hang on the pastel green-colored walls inside the building. One shows a Miami police motorcade for a fallen officer – two of the motorcade’s members are dressed in Ku Klux Klan attire.

"That was the attitude in 1925," said Pinder.

Another shows Robert B. Ingram, one of the first black officers to patrol the "whites only" part of town. He is standing on Flagler Street, which was heavily segregated at the time. White passersby look at him, their faces portraying their astonishment of seeing a black police officer in downtown Miami.

Years later, Ingram went on to hold various public-service posts, including Opa-locka police chief, South Miami City Manager, Opa-locka mayor and county school board commissioner.

The tours, to be held every Saturday, are separated into two loops. One goes through Overtown, Liberty City and Little Haiti, and the other focuses on the West Grove. The buses stop at a Little Haiti Cultural Center photography exhibit, Shades of Black II: Colorization of the Americas, and pass by significant sites, including the Overtown home of millionaire D.A. Dorsey, the West Grove Bahamian cemetery, and the Mount Zion Baptist Church, which was nearly demolished when the expressway was built.

The tours are not only a way to showcase black history -- but also a way to bring awareness into the community's revival, such as the re-opening of the renovated Lyric Theater.

"There's a lot of potential in this area," said Glover, who works for a small-business incubator in Overtown.

For Phyllis Bellinger, 49, bringing her daughter, Ashley, to the tour was a way to show –instead of teach – the history to the teen.

“Children don’t realize they have a rich black heritage,” said Bellinger, of Coconut Grove. “It is up to them to continue it. There’s a history of being productive members of society and through this, they can be determined to be productive as well.”