My Miami story begins in the late 1940s with my birth at Christian Hospital in Overtown. Six years later, my identical twin brothers were born at Mount Sinai Hospital. Things do change. The twins have always called me “Doll.” They couldn’t pronounce my name. Since I had so many dolls, that name made sense.
I can remember when a milkman would deliver milk to your home. Before my time, an iceman delivered ice for the ice box (refrigerator). Recently, my 10-year-old grandson asked me, “Grandma, what is a telephone?” He knows phone, but he was clueless about a telephone!
Unlike my two daughters’ experience growing up in Miami, all four of my grandparents were alive until my maternal grandfather passed away in 1959. I even knew one great-grandparent. My maternal grandfather, Amaziah Melvin Cohen was one of the 162 black men who stood for the incorporation of the city of Miami on July 28, 1896. There were less than 500 white men in Miami, so Henry Flagler “used” his black railroad workers to fill the gap. Shortly thereafter, they were disenfranchised. Not even Julia Tuttle, who founded the city, could be an incorporator. Women did not get the right to vote until 1920.
My grandfather, A.M. Cohen, was born in Sumter County, South Carolina. Black men traveled south through Indian territory in search of the work — building a railroad. Many of them walked to get here! I call this a reverse migration, blacks traveling to the South, rather than north or to the Midwest (Chicago, Detroit, etc.) or west to California, as they did during the Great Migration (1915-70).
My fondest memory of my grandfather was riding around with him. I let him know that there was a Royal Castle hamburger joint just around the next corner. I loved Royal Castle hamburgers and he made sure I got as many as I wanted.
My maternal grandmother, Mamie Evans, arrived in Miami by horse and buggy from Americus, Georgia, at the age of 8. Her mother, Missouri Evans, sent Mamie to Miami with the family of Parker Henderson. He was Miami’s seventh mayor. However, Missouri made it very clear that Mamie was coming to be educated and not become a live-in maid.
When the railroad building ended, A.M. Cohen worked at the Henderson Lumber Company. He and Mamie were married in 1910 and had 15 children — 10 boys and five girls. Mamie never got educated but she made sure their children did. Their professions included police officer, truant officer, school principal, librarian, dentist, beautician, barber, architect, nurse, veteran, businesswoman and minister.
Before my grandfather became a minister, he ran several ventures. He operated a jitney service from Colored Town (Overtown) to Homestead employing 20 people. He also had a gospel radio show and brought gospel singers from out of town to sing at the church — including Mahalia Jackson. However, my grandfather’s life work was the ministry. He was the highly respected bishop of the Miami Temple Church of God in Christ (C.O.G.I.C.) of Eastern Florida.
Overtown’s black entrepreneurs were plentiful. There were skilled tradesmen, medical professionals, barbers, beauticians, cleaners, and even Negro Improvement Associations. Florence Gaskins, a businesswoman, came from Jacksonville. Dana Albert Dorsey, Miami’s first black millionaire, was born in Quitman, Georgia. Kelsey Leroy Pharr, a mortician and an appointed consul for the Republic of Liberia, West Africa, was born in Chester, South Carolina.
My paternal grandparents lived on Charles Avenue in Coconut Grove, two doors down from Mariah Brown’s historic home. Since 1925 their home has been in my family and is still owned by my family. My paternal grandmother arrived in 1911 from Governor’s Harbor, Eleuthra, Bahamas. My paternal grandfather arrived in 1916 from Orlando. My great-grandmother, Zilpha Petty, came to live with them. I remember Great-grandma Petty because she sat by the kitchen door and would reach out to grab you when you walked by her. I would scream and run from her.
Getting back to my story, my parents, Eddie Birmingham Bunyan Jr. and Florence Cohen Bunyan, were the biggest influence in my life. Both graduated from Florida A&M College (now University). My father spent his entire working career with Dade County Public Schools and my mother was a smart and zany businesswoman.
When my parents talked to their children, we listened and we followed their advice with few complaints and no rebellion. All three of us still live in South Florida. As an adult, I have lived in Atlanta, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. However, I chose to come back to Miami in 1974. I truly love this city and the incredibly diverse people. My unfulfilled wish is to see Black Miami truly be a genuine part of Miami’s economic mainstream.
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About Miami Stories: This project is a partnership between HistoryMiami, Miami Herald Media Co., WLRN and Michael Weiser, chairman of the National Conference on Citizenship.