Community Voices

Black in Time: Tunnel boring machine named for Miami’s first black millionaire

Essay winner MAST student Jordan Feldman (center), his parents with descendants of D.A. Dorsey, including grandchildren (Dana Dorsey Chapman-Lewis, Dorsey’s granddaughter), great grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren.
Essay winner MAST student Jordan Feldman (center), his parents with descendants of D.A. Dorsey, including grandchildren (Dana Dorsey Chapman-Lewis, Dorsey’s granddaughter), great grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

Nearly 100 years after D.A. (Dana Albert) Dorsey — Miami’s first black millionaire — purchased and sold Fisher Island, the $72 million tunnel boring machine used to link the island with Virginia Key has been named to honor him.

The project design began late January 2014 with construction starting in July 2014. The name Dorsey was placed on the machine before the project started.

From April 2015 to February 2016, 24 hours a day, five days a week (plus a shift on Saturday) the machine drilled and blasted through sand and hard rock creating a tunnel with new pipe under Norris Cut between Fisher Island and the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department’s Central District Wastewater Treatment Plant on Virginia Key in the city of Miami.

The Dorsey tunnel boring machine (TBM) reached its destination, Fisher Island, on Feb. 25. At the breaking out ceremony, guests had the opportunity to see the result of the 5,300 feet of tunneling. The tunnel’s diameter is 8.5 feet. The machine fulfilled its purpose, to build the tunnel that would carry the 60-inch force main from Virginia Key to Fisher Island.

Representatives from the water department, Nicholson Construction and Design Criteria Professional-AECOM joined members of D.A. Dorsey’s family and other guests, to look down approximately 65 feet at the name Dorsey on the tunnel boring machine.

Tunnels are new to Miami. To date, there are only two. The first TBM used to create the Port Miami tunnel was named Harriet. Selected by a Girl Scout troop it honors Harriet Tubman. She risked her freedom in the 1850s to lead hundreds of other enslaved black people along the routes of the Underground Railroad network through 14 northern states, and to Canada.

For the second naming, the water department reached out to Miami-Dade County’s 13 STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) schools and invited students to suggest a name supported with an essay. Submissions were received from eight schools: American Senior, Coral Reef Senior, Maritime & Science Technology (MAST) Academy, Miami Central Senior, Miami Coral Park Senior, Miami Lakes Educational Center, Miami Sunset Senior and North Miami Senior.

Seven names were received. “Dorsey” was chosen due to his contributions to South Florida and particularly his connection to Fisher Island. The winning essay was written by MAST Academy student Jordan Feldman.

Locally, Dorsey’s name has been recognized for many decades. Banner headlines, page one of the Miami Daily Metropolis published May 1, 1918, announced, “ Island Opposite Miami Sold For Colored Resort: Negro Buys Two-Third of Key and Plans to Erect Hotel, Bathing Pavilion and Make Other Improvements.”

D.A. Dorsey (1872-1940) had only a fourth-grade education he became one of South Florida’s pioneer black entrepreneurs. In 1919, Dorsey sold the island to automotive pioneer, Carl Fisher, a white entrepreneur who was developing Miami Beach.

According to the Fisher Island Club website, Carl Fisher traded the island with William Kissam Vanderbilt II, a white yachtsman, in return for a yacht. Today it is one of the wealthiest and most exclusive residential enclaves in the area.

By contrast, Dorsey, born to former slaves, migrated to South Florida from Quitman, Georgia, at the end of the 19th century, settling in Miami during the Jim Crow era. Then, black people and white people where segregated by custom and law in every phase of life. The terms “Negroes” and “colored people” were assigned. In recent times black people choose to be called African American or black or to identify themselves by their country of origin.

No matter the name, there were race-restrictive covenants in property deeds prohibiting black people from buying or renting property in areas where white people lived.

In 2013, at the University of Florida’s annual Wolf Family lecture, law scholar Carol M. Rose discussed racially restrictive covenants. She is the Gordon Bradford Tweedy Professor Emeritus of Law and Organization and professional lecturer at Yale Law School.

In an article highlighting the lecture on FlaLawOnline, Rose is quoted: “Up until the 1940s it was not uncommon for property deeds to include clauses that restricted the sale of property to whites only. In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled against these racially restrictive covenants, and the practice was outlawed in 1968 by the Fair Housing Act.”

The irony is this, although restrictive clauses in deeds prohibited black people’s access to property there came a time when their resources were needed. According to Rose, “The pool of potential white buyers dried up. The only feasible buyers were minority members. This resulted in kind of an odd alliance between the white sellers and the black buyers: both of them wanted to get rid of restrictive covenants.”

Perhaps “the odd alliance” is the reason Dorsey was “allowed” to purchase Fisher Island. According to the Metropolis, Dorsey “planned to form a company for the development of the tract as a high class colored resort and subdivision, with a hotel, cottages for well — to do men of his own race and boats to convey them back and forth between the mainland and the island so there will be no conflict of the races in the project.” Dorsey sold Fisher Island before developing it.

In Jacksonville, his contemporary, A.L. (Abraham Lincoln) Lewis (1865-1947), founder of the African American Industrial Benefit Insurance Company bought oceanfront property on Amelia Island. He established American Beach, a resort for his employees and other blacks.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Dorsey continued acquiring real estate throughout Dade County and elsewhere. His portfolio also included several neighborhood stores, hotel, bank, and the Dorsey Oil Corp. He gained respect from whites and blacks in the community. Appointed chairman of the colored schools trustee board, a library, school, park, and house listed on the National Register of Historic Places all bear his name.

The Dorsey tunnel boring machine on Fisher Island continues his legacy.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to djf@bellsouth.net.

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