By: Shayne Benowitz
Historic Overtown's Black Archives History & Research Foundation
One of Miami’s first developers was oil tycoon and railroad magnate Henry Flagler. At the turn of the 20th century, he went about building the city’s first highways, luxury resorts and eventually the Overseas Railroad connecting the Florida Keys to mainland Miami. Before the City of Miami was incorporated in 1896, Overtown was a community just northwest of downtown that housed the black laborers who worked on Flagler’s projects.
Overtown has had its ups and downs over the last century. Once the thriving Little Broadway of the South in the 1930s through the 50s, it met decline in the 1960s due to the construction of two major highways through the center of the neighborhood. Today, under the tutelage of the Black Archives History & Research Foundation, Overtown’s rich history is being remembered and the neighborhood is being revitalized.
The Birth, Rise & Fall of Overtown
When blacks from the South, the Bahamas, Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean first came to Overtown at the turn of the century to work for Flagler, the neighborhood was first called Colored Town. During its heyday, it was akin to the Harlem Renaissance when the area was nicknamed Little Broadway. Overtown was a place where stars like Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Josephine Baker not only performed, but also spent the night because of segregation laws in Miami. Unable to stay the night in Miami Beach after a gig, they went “over town” to their hotels and that’s how the neighborhood’s name came to be.
Their talents fostered such world-class entertainment venues in Overtown as the Lyric Theater, Knight Beat and other clubs. The Mary Elizabeth Hotel, owned by medical doctor W.B. Sawyer, was the fashionable place to stay. Over the years, distinguished African American intellectuals stayed there, including W.E.B. Dubois, author Zora Neale Hurston and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. 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 sports celebrities as Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson were all visitors of the bustling neighborhood.
In the 1960s, things took a sharp turn when the construction of two major highways tore through the center of town. It led to the demolition of more than 20,000 homes. Overtown became a bleak and dangerous place to live and visit, plagued by race riots, drug problems and poverty. The fracturing of the community resulted in a residential population that dwindled from 50,000 to less than 10,000.
But Overtown has long been poised for a rebirth and much of the progress today is thanks to the work of the Black Archives History & Research Foundation.
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 purchased the Lyric Theater and led the way in its restoration and designation on the National Registry of Historic Places. It reopened in 2014 with the addition of a Welcome Center Complex and art gallery. The Black Archives also helped developed the Overtown Folklife Village, which runs along NW 3rd Avenue. Here, you’ll find Gibson Park, surrounded by the mural art of Purvis Young with crosswalks painted in colorful designs. It’s a safe community green space and playground near the Frederick Douglas Elementary School and the Culmer/Overtown Public Library branch.
Established in 1946, Jackson’s Soul Food is one of the oldest restaurants in Overtown and a cornerstone of the community. This is where visiting dignitaries eat when they’re in the neighborhood, including Vice President Joe Biden. Other popular restaurants include People’s Bar-B-Que, Jerry & Joe’s Pizza and Moore’s Grocery & Bakery. Overtown’s historic churches are also thriving today, including Historic Mount Zion Baptist Church and St. John Baptist Church.
The Black Archives host to a variety of events and concerts in Overtown throughout the year, many of them paying homage to the musical history of the neighborhood while also looking forward to the future of this significant Miami community.
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