Since present-day Miami is nearly 70 percent Hispanic, the significant contributions of Black Miamians are often overlooked. Many don’t know Black people played an integral role in Miami’s founding and continue to make crucial contributions to the city’s culture.
Here are five things you may not know about Black history and culture in Miami.
1. Enslaved Black people fled to Florida to find freedom when the state was under Spanish rule.
From the 1600s to the early 1800s, Black people who escaped slavery fled to Florida, where they could live in freedom if they converted to Catholicism. According to a book titled, “The Battle Of Negro Fort,” in Florida, the formerly enslaved had rights, including the ability to marry, purchase property, purchase their freedom, etc.
Interracial marriage was legal and mixed children could inherit property. No one was born into slavery. That changed after the War of 1812 after Florida was given to the British.
2. Miami was home to the Saltwater Railroad, a path to the Bahamas for freedom.
In Miami, those who escaped slavery used the “Saltwater Railroad” to flee to the Bahamas for freedom until 1825. The Cape Florida Lighthouse was built to prevent people from making the journey.
3. Black Bahamians helped build the City of Miami.
Before Julia Tuttle and other white settlers credited with founding Miami ever stepped foot on the soil, Black Bahamians traveled back and forth to Miami. They eventually settled and helped build the city, making them among the city’s first pioneers.
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Upon arrival, many Bahamians worked on Henry Flagler’s railroad and settled down to make thriving communities out of nothing in historic areas like Coconut Grove and Overtown.
4. Over one-third of the men to sign the City of Miami charter were Black.
The City Of Miami would not exist without Black people. Over one-third of the incorporators who signed the charter to incorporate Miami in 1896 were Black men.
According to the Miami Herald, 162 Black men, which constituted 44 percent of the incorporation signees, were Black.
“We made Miami,” Dorothy Fields, the founder of The Black Archives, told the Herald. “Those first 50 years, without the Black laborers, we would not have had Miami moving forward and certainly not what we have now. Not enough credit is given to the laborers.”
5. Historic Overtown was Miami’s Black Wall Street.
Known as Little Broadway, Colored Town or the Harlem of the South, the historic Black community of Overtown has existed as long as Miami itself. It is the second oldest community in the city after Coconut Grove and was a vibrant center of Black life.
During the Jim Crow era, Black entertainers could perform on Miami Beach but not sleep there, so they found refuge in Overtown. Black leaders and intellectuals also frequented the neighborhood when they came to Miami.
Among prominent visitors to Overtown were W.E.B DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Jackie Robinson, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and others.
There was also homegrown talent like the talented duo Sam & Dave behind legendary songs like “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin.’”
In the 1950s, urban renewal led to the I-95 highway being built through Overtown, leading to the community’s rapid decline. It was much like the second iteration of Black Wall Street – whose resilient residents rebuilt to make it even more prosperous after the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921. Many other prosperous Black communities around the country also suffered the same fate.
6. A Black Cemetery, the final resting place of 523 people, was rediscovered in Miami in 2009.
According to an article in the South Florida Times, “The Lemon City Cemetery was first re-discovered in April 2009, when workers from Carlisle Development and Biscayne Housing Group found human remains at a construction site for an affordable housing development.”
The cemetery was the final resting place of 523 Black people, including City of Miami pioneers, incorporators and more. It had been paved over and forgotten about.
Dr. Enid Pinckney and other activists worked tirelessly to get the property designated as a historical site. On Nov. 3, 2009, after a genealogist uncovered evidence of the cemetery’s existence, they got their wish.
Today, a monument with the names of the 523 once-forgotten souls stands at the site. The human remains that were discovered were also reinterred.
The cemetery is located near Northwest 71st street and Northwest 3rd Avenue.
7. Fisher Island was owned by a Black man.
Dana Albert Dorsey, known affectionately as D.A. Dorsey, was Miami’s first Black millionaire and one of the first Black millionaires in the overall south.
He once owned Fisher Island, which is now one of the wealthiest zip codes in the world.
The home he lived in still stands today.