By: Shayne Benowitz
When it comes to the history of Miami, there are a few pioneering names that might sound familiar, thanks to landmarks named for them, such as Collins Avenue, Fisher Island, Lummus Park and Julia Tuttle Causeway. Another one of those names is Henry Flagler of the Henry Flagler Railroad. An oil tycoon and railroad magnate, Flagler’s vision and finances were responsible for South Florida’s highways and byways, the railroad that eventually connected the Florida Keys to Miami’s mainland and the city’s first glittering resorts. The community of Overtown was established at the turn of the 20th century, just northwest of downtown Miami’s core, and it predates the city’s incorporation in 1896. This is because Overtown was the community, established by Flagler, to house black laborers who worked on his projects.
The Birth, Rise & Fall of Overtown
The once thriving community has seen its share of highs and lows. It was initially known as Colored Town because of the African diaspora that came together there from the American South, the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and Barbados to find work and community. Its cultural nexus was akin to the Harlem Renaissance. In the 1920s and 30s, the area was once nicknamed “Little Broadway,” thanks to world-class entertainment at the Lyric Theatre, Knight Beat and other clubs with such acts as Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Josephine Baker all gracing the stage.
In fact, when these performers had gigs at nightclubs on Miami Beach, they stayed in Overtown because of segregation laws practiced at hotels. In Overtown, the Mary Elizabeth Hotel, owned by medical doctor W.B. Sawyer, was the fashionable place to stay. Over the years, such distinguished African Americans as intellectual W.E.B. Dubois, author Zora Neale Hurston and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall stayed there. The Sir John Hotel was another hot spot with a nightclub and pool scene to rival any on Miami Beach. The greats like Nat King Cole and Lena Horne stayed and performed there. Such sporting celebrities as boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis and baseball player Jackie Robinson were also known to have visited the bustling neighborhood.
In the 1960s, things took a sharp turn with the construction of two major highways through the center of town. This construction and urban renewal led to the demolition of more than 20,000 homes in the community. Coupled with the backlash to Civil Rights legislation, in the years to follow, Overtown became a bleak and dangerous place to live and visit. The geographical fracturing of the community resulted in a residential population that dwindled from 50,000 to less than 10,000 over the decades. Plagued with race riots, drug problems and poverty, Overtown has long been poised for a rebirth. Much of the progress is thanks to the works of the Black Archives History & Research Foundation.
Neighborhood Revitalization & The Black Archives
Founded in 1977 by Dr. Dorothy Jenkins, an archivist and historian, the mission of the Black Archives is to preserve the documentary and photographic history of black South Florida and Miami, as well as to enrich the present and protect the future through the revitalization of Overtown. Its extensive archives include manuscript, typescript, print, machine readable, electronic media, photographs, microform, artwork and film. For the professional or amateur researcher or historian, the archives are open to the public by appointment. There’s also an extensive inventory of searchable material available online through their website.
The Black Archives is also leading the way in the final renovations of the historic Lyric Theatre, with the addition of a Welcome Center Complex, as well as the development of the Overtown Folklife Village. Today, a visit to Overtown would be centered around this village, running along NW 3rd Avenue and the surrounding areas. With the mural art of Purvis Young and crosswalks painted in colorful designs, Gibson Park offers a safe community green space and playground near the Frederick Douglas Elementary School and the Culmer/Overtown Public Library branch.
If you’re in the area a meal at Jackson’s Soul Food is a must. Established in 1946, it’s one of the oldest restaurants for authentic soul food with a cross section of American South and Caribbean flavors. Other dining options include People’s Bar-B-Que, Jerry & Joe’s Pizza and Moore’s Grocery & Bakery. Popular shopping destinations include Moselle’s Boutique, Remix Apparel and a variety of barbershops. You’ll also be charmed by historic churches, such as Historic Mount Zion Baptist Church and St. John Baptist Church.
This revived neighborhood also plays host to a variety of events planned by the Black Archives, as well as other organizations, like the Overtown Music Project. Many of these events pay homage to the jazz, blues and orchestral history of the neighborhood while looking forward at the future of this important Miami community.
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