The 2016 national Black History Month theme is, “Hallowed grounds: Sites of African American Memories.” The theme brings attention to the centennial celebration of the National Park Service and the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom that are part of America’s hallowed grounds.
Locally, the heritage and traditions of black people are found in numerous sites throughout Miami-Dade County. Near and far, they provide tangible evidence that black people are an important part of the community’s past, present, and future.
The sites provide opportunities for parents and teachers to actively participate with youths in learning community history. Locals planning family and class reunions have the opportunity to “see Miami like a tourist,” as they prepare for visiting relatives and friends.
If you wish to learn about local history, explore the community on a self-guided tour. Begin with the sites below and watch for additional information in the media during the coming weeks.
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▪ Churches: From Florida City to Overtown, more than 25 black church congregations are 100 years old or older.
▪ Cape Florida Lighthouse, located in Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, 1200 S. Crandon Blvd., Key Biscayne: In 1513, the area was named Cape of Florida by Ponce de Leon when he led the first Spanish expedition to Florida. The historic lighthouse is the oldest standing structure in Miami-Dade County. It was the site where many black Seminoles and escaped black slaves sought passage to the Bahamas when Florida was transferred from Spain to the United States in 1821. Those who could afford passage bargained with the “Wreckers” from the Bahamas, while others used Seminole dugout canoes to escape. One of the white assistant lighthouse keepers, John Thompson, had a black servant, former slave Aaron Carter. Guided tours of the lighthouse and lighthouse keeper’s cottage are given twice daily, Thursdays through Mondays. Visitors go to swim, picnic, fish, camp, canoe and explore nature trails. For hours and cost: www.floridastateparks.org/park/Cape-Florida or call 305.361-5811.
▪ Virginia Key Beach Park, located on Key Biscayne, 4020 Virginia Beach Dr.: Before the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, segregated customs and Jim Crow laws prohibited black people from swimming in waters at public beaches. For several years, black leaders lobbied for local access to those beaches but their requests were ignored.
At that time, blacks who wanted to swim and enjoy the beach had to drive to special areas in Dania or Pompano Beach. Miami’s Negro Ministerial Alliance contacted a black lawyer, L. E. Thomas, to assist them in acquiring a beach. (Thomas later became Miami’s first black judge.) Through their efforts the Virginia Key officially opened August 1, 1945, and was only accessible by boat until 1947. Visited by Caribbean, South American and Cuban immigrants, it became a favorite gathering place and sacred site for religious ceremonies. Eventually, the beach closed. Years later, the Miami Commission established the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust. The Trust’s heroic efforts reopened the beach to the entire community. Swimming, picnics, the mini-train, and carrousel are available with special events throughout the year. For hours and costs, visit www.virginiakeybeachpark.net or call305.960-4600.
▪ Richmond Heights is located in Southwest Miami-Dade County: One of the first and largest private housing developments built exclusively for black veterans of World War II. A white couple, Frank and Mary Martin, founded and platted the subdivision for black veterans seeking home ownership. It became a haven for professional black residents. Newly arriving professionals often located there. For several decades, living in “The Heights” was a status symbol. Although the homes were typically CBS buildings with two bedrooms and one bath, the Miami News referred to the area as “the Negroes’ Shangri-la.” In May 2014, Richmond Heights’ 65th anniversary and monument dedication was attended by several generations of decedents of the original residents. One family, Jessica Garrett Modkins and her mother, Patricia Harper Garrett, co-authored the book, Miami’s Richmond Heights.
▪ Black Police Precinct & Courthouse Museum, 480 NW 11th St.: During the era of Jim Crow and racial segregation, black police officers were only allowed to patrol Miami’s Colored Town, the Central Negro District, now known as Overtown. The black precinct was the headquarters and municipal court where black defendants were tried usually before a black judge. Now a museum, an educational and entertaining historic tour is available to individuals and groups. Rental spaces for weddings and film locations can be arranged. For hours and costs, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 305-329-2513.
▪ Lyric Theater / Black Archives Historic Lyric Theater Complex, 819 NW Second Ave.: The Lyric is the oldest legitimate theater remaining in Miami. It was built in 1913 by a black businessman, Geder Walker. Saved from demolition, it is one of six building in Overtown listed by the U. S. Interior Department’s National Register of Historic Places. The Black Archives Foundation acquired the building in 1988. This building is the lone survivor of the district known as “Little Broadway,” which flourished in Overtown for almost 50 years serving as a vaudeville and movie venue. Restored and expanded, the theater’s charming scale and plush, cushioned roomy seats guarantee audiences an intimate and inviting experience. Upcoming events include: Lyric Live All Stars, ticket information- www.lyricliveallstars.evenbrite.com; 19th annual Melton Mustafa Jazz Festival, ticket information: www.eventbrite.com/e/19th-annual-melton-mustafa-jazz-festival-at-the-historic-lyric-theater-tickets-20284758258 or call 786.708-4610.
▪ Folklife Friday, Northwest Ninth Street and Second Avenue on the Ninth Street Pedestrian Mall: New Washington Heights Community Development Corporation and the Southeast Overtown Park West CRA present this economic street festival the first of every month in the Historic Overtown Folklife Village. Live music, dancing, entertainment, food, clothing, and fun begin the weekend. Free parking is available in the lot east of the Lyric Theater on Northwest Eighth Street. For more information or to become a vendor, call 786-534-7887.
▪ Murals by Addonis Parker: An American fine arts painter and muralist, Parker uses his craft to reach youths and his presence to inspire them. One art project he recently conducted, sponsored by the Miami Children’s Initiative and One United Bank, included 21 inner-city youth apprentices from nine local high schools. Throughout Miami-Dade County, murals painted on historic sites by Parker and other artists can be reminders of the bygone era and encouragement for planning the future.
Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to email@example.com.
For more information visit www.asalh100.org.