By: Shayne Benowitz
On the northwest perimeter of Greater Miami and the Beaches, Liberty City is one of Miami’s most significant historically black neighborhoods. From as far back as the Great Depression, its identity has evolved as Civil Rights laws changed throughout the century, marked by the migration of both black and white citizens throughout the city.
At the turn of the century, Liberty City was a predominately white neighborhood located on the outskirts of the city. During this time Miami’s segregation laws restricted black citizens to Overtown—then called Colored Town—just northwest of Miami’s downtown core. Overtown was once known as the Harlem of the South with a thriving Little Broadway district. Popular nightclubs and performance halls, such as the Knight Beat and Lyric Theater hosted performances by Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. In fact, when these prominent African Americans performed at nightclubs in Miami Beach during that period, they were not allowed to stay overnight on the beach because of stringent segregation laws, and forced to return to Overtown.
The Migration to Liberty City
During the Great Depression, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Public Works Administration built the American South’s first public housing project in Miami’s Liberty City between 1934 and 1937. The housing project was created in response to the over-crowded and deteriorating conditions in Overtown due to the restrictive Jim Crow laws.
A migration of upwardly mobile, middle income African Americans from Overtown to Liberty City soon followed Liberty Square’s opening. During the 1940s and ‘50s Liberty Square was one of the most desirable apartment developments for African Americans to reside in. It was inhabited by the who’s who of Miami’s black community.
Still, racism and segregation persisted and blacks were forced to do their business, banking and shopping in Colored Town. That’s how the neighborhood eventually became known as Overtown. Instead of going to Colored Town, African Americans would say they were going “over town” to run errands and do business.
There was outrage from the white community in Liberty City and the adjacent white neighborhoods of Lemon City and Buena Vista. The creation of Liberty Square eventually resulted in white flight from the area to communities in South Miami. They also responded by erecting a seven-foot wall in the late 1930s along Northwest 12th Avenue from 62nd Street to 71st Street along Liberty Square separating the newly founded black community from the white neighborhood on its east side. Most of the wall was demolished during the 1950s. However, today remnants of it still remain and can be seen plainly separating Northwest 12th Avenue and Northwest 12th Parkway along Liberty Square. It’s a haunting reminder today of the Jim Crow era of the past.
I-95 and the Civil Rights Act
Two major developments of the 1960s had an enduring impact on Miami’s black population and the makeup of Liberty City. First, the construction of Interstate 95 cut straight through Overtown, fracturing the community and its population. As a result, much of the area’s low-income, elderly and welfare-dependent citizens migrated to Liberty City.
Additionally, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 afforded blacks more freedom than ever before. The affluent and middle income African American families who established Liberty City were now leaving in droves to more desirable communities in North Miami, like Miami Lakes and Miami Gardens.
This left Liberty City and Liberty Square in dire straits in the post-Civil Rights Act 1960s and ‘70s. With a majority low-income black population in a neighborhood seething with racial tension and inequality, violence and crime became prevalent. The Republican National Convention was held in Miami Beach in August of 1968 and race riots occurred in Liberty City.
One of the worst race riots in United States history broke out in Liberty City and Overtown in May of 1980 as a result of the acquittal of four Miami-Dade police officers in the death of 33-year-old African American Arthur McDuffie. The policemen pursued McDuffie in an eight-minute high-speed chase, which resulted in his capture and eventual death at the hands of the officers due to head injuries.
Silver Linings and Bright Futures
While Liberty City has seen bleak moments throughout the 20th century, a number of high-profile athletes, musicians and celebrities have come from the neighborhood, perhaps most notably rapper Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew. Today, he’s a pop culture icon and also pens an often politically-charged column for Miami New Times.
Pilot Barrington Irving also hails from Liberty City and is a graduate of Miami Northwestern High School. He is the youngest person and first African-American to fly solo around the world, and has gone onto found Experience Aviation, a local non-profit dedicated to empowering at risk youth to pursue aviation and other science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. Other celebrities from Liberty City include rappers Trina and Trick Daddy and NFL players Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson and Willis McGahee.
For anyone interested in Miami’s unique black history over the last decade, Liberty City plays a significant role, and much of that history began with the Liberty Square housing project. It’s a place to honor how far we’ve come as a nation and also to be reminded of how recent the struggle for Civil Rights truly was.
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