Coral Gables

Group journeys back to ‘a painful time’ in Miami’s history

Historian Seth Bramson shows off a sign that was in the waiting room of a Florida East Coast Railway station during the Jim Crow era.
Historian Seth Bramson shows off a sign that was in the waiting room of a Florida East Coast Railway station during the Jim Crow era. Miami Herald Staff

Restricted Clientele. Gentile Owned and Operated. A Clientele that’s “Your Sort.”

These phrases all appeared on colorful brochures advertising Miami Beach hotels back in the 1930s and early 1940s — a time when black people and Jews were restricted from staying in certain places.

On Sunday, historian Seth Bramson took members of the Miami Pioneers and Natives of Dade on a journey back to a “painful time in history,” when Jim Crow laws existed and Jews were prohibited from certain places in Miami Beach and surrounding areas.

“People have to understand how terrible segregation and restricted-clientele days were,” he said. “For many people, it is only through illustrations that they begin to understand how shameful this mistreatment of black people and Jews was.”

The history lesson helped fulfill part of the club’s mission, which is to celebrate and preserve local history.

“It’s important for our younger members, especially, to understand where the city was and how far we have come,” said past president Suzette Pope, who has been in Miami since 1948. “It is still shocking to see how bad it was.”

Bramson’s talk began with when Miami got its start: July 28, 1896.

At that time, there were about 540 people living in Miami, and in order to incorporate there had to be a certain number of people in favor of it. Bramson said that of the nearly 340 in-favor votes, about 200 of them came from black people.

What is now known as Overtown changed names a couple of times during the days of segregation. A photo from either 1906 or 1908 called the area Darky Town. It was then called Colored Town until it was changed to Overtown in the 1940s.

“The black people who would be coming from the Beach on the trolleys or jitneys and would say, ‘I am going Over Town,” he said.

As a southern state, Florida, by law, was segregated. Blacks were not permitted to stay at white hotels or eat in restaurants or visit country clubs.

Using memorabilia from his extensive archive, Bramson showed off brochures, pictures and a sign that said “Colored” from the Florida East Coast Railway waiting room.

Many of those who attended were in their 80s and 90s and were either born in Miami or spent most of their lives there.

Jack Diamond, who was raised on the Beach, said he lived through the days of segregation and anti-Semitism. He challenged Bramson, saying he remembers seeing signs up at hotels that read “Restricted Clientele.” But Bramson said there is no photographic evidence of such signs — just brochures.

“Most of the restrictions came in couched phraseology,” he called it. “They said it without really saying it.”

While the climate began to change in Miami and Miami Beach in the late 1950s and early ’60s, it wasn’t until 1964 when segregation ended that those phrases were no longer allowed on brochures, he said.

While most of those who attended were Miami natives belonging to the club, a few came to learn more about South Florida’s history.

Tour guide Robert Michon said he gets a lot of younger Jewish people taking the tour and wanted some new information to weave into his presentation.

“Miami Beach has a very interesting history,” he said. “I try to learn whatever I can.”

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