Purvis Young Mural in Miami's Overtown
By: Dr. Dorothy Jenkins Fields
Miami’s historic Black neighborhoods reflect a blend of the ancestry of the Caribbean West Indies, West Africa and the Old South. Although sometimes in the midst of urban blight, important historic sites and impressive new buildings speak to the presence of Black people in Miami-Dade County for more than a century.
With the Lyric Theater and churches as anchors — some as old as the City of Miami — people go about their daily lives in these special neighborhoods that have endured, enjoying “Mostly Sunny Days.”
Black men who stood for incorporation of the City of Miami built this community across the railroad tracks in 1896. Known then as “Colored Town,” Overtown grew and developed into a vibrant community anchored by churches and retail and entertainment establishments.
Over the years, Overtown lost its magic to desegregation and urban renewal, and many buildings fell into disrepair. Today, public and private partnerships are helping develop an “in-town” residential community with affordable housing adjacent to Downtown Miami.
The Black Archives History & Research Foundation of South Florida provided the research to place six Overtown buildings on the National Register of Historic Places and other sites designated by the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County.
Check out these 18 historic sites in Overtown:
The Historic Overtown Folklife Village
Northwest 2nd and 3rd avenues between 8th and 10th streets
Traditionally Overtown’s cultural and entertainment area, the State of Florida designated it the
Overtown Main Street Community. Its redevelopment includes a mixed-use marketplace with a retail component that is focused on the arts and humanities of the Harlem Renaissance, the Caribbean and West Africa. The African-themed Ninth Street Pedestrian Mall opens up to the adjacent Lyric Theater, creating a year-round destination for various events including family and class reunions and festivals.
2. The Ninth Street Pedestrian Mall Northwest 9th Street and 2nd Avenue
The mall was dedicated in December 1994 during the Summit of the Americas celebrations. It was designed by artist Gary Moore, who featured vibrant variations in color resembling African Kente cloth patterns. The mall presents a luscious landscape and ornate street fixtures. It is located next to The Black Archives Historic Lyric Theater Welcome Center Complex and is often alive with community festivals and celebrations that continue to make the Historic Overtown Folklife Village an exciting place to visit.
3. The Purvis Young Murals Northwest 11th Street and 3rd Avenue on the Metrorail Overpass
The murals are replications of Purvis Young’s art, honoring the internationally celebrated artist. Purvis Young (1943-2010) was a self-taught artist who lived in the severely blighted Goodbread
Alley area, and painted thousands of art pieces and murals as a form of social expression reflecting the changes and trials of his Overtown community. He used the very fabric of Overtown, such as discarded plywood boards, metals and debris, as materials for his paintings.
4. The Black Archives Historic Lyric Theater and Welcome Center Complex 819 NW 2nd Ave.
Built in 1913 by Black businessman Geder Walker, the theater showcased stage and film performances, gospel, jazz, vaudeville and literary arts of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1999 the theater was restored as Overtown’s premier performance facility, and in 2005 it was expanded to include a welcome center, concession stands and dressing rooms. The third phase of the expansion is scheduled to be completed in 2012. The expansion will house The Black Archives’ research center, repository and headquarters. It will also increase the theater’s stage capacity in order to include rigging and more backstage theater support, a gift shop and exhibition hall.
5. New Providence Lodge #365 941 NW 3rd Ave.
Built in 1947, it is the second oldest masonic temple in Miami-Dade County. Like many of the
original structures in Colored Town/Overtown, the temple was built by its members who would meet in the evenings after work to help with construction. Lodge #365 became officially recognized in 1917, many years after its members petitioned the Grand Lodge of the State of Florida in 1901 to establish a Lodge in Colored Town/Overtown.
6. International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local #1416 Union Hall, 816 NW 2nd Ave.
The ILA received its charter in 1936. This building is the headquarters for longshore laborers who load and unload ships from all over the world and handle cruise ships with high passenger counts. The building housed the A. Phillip Randolph Institute and hosted other events for members and the Overtown neighborhood.
7. The Ward Rooming House 249 NW 9th St.
This symbol of Colored Town/Overtown’s lively, tight-knit community was built in 1925. The rooming house was owned by Shaddrack “Shaddy” and Victoria Ward. It was a resting place for both Blacks and Seminole Indians, who were banned from staying in lodges and hotels in Downtown Miami. Seminole Indians who came to the city to barter and sell goods would take rest on the porch and enjoy a glass of Victoria’s sweet tea before making the long journey back to the Everglades on the Tamiami Trail. The rooming house is now a historic landmark, and it is owned and operated by the City of Miami’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) as an artists’ residence and gallery.
8. D.A. Dorsey House 250 NW 9th St.
Built for his bride in 1915 by the area’s first black millionaire, real estate magnate D.A. Dorsey, the Dorsey House boasted electricity throughout. Now it is a rental property owned by the Black Archives.
9. Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church 245 NW 8th St.
Founded in March 1896, several months before the city was incorporated, it is one of the oldest churches in Miami. The first structure was simple, with a dirt floor. The present edifice is in Mediterranean style. Its scale, façade and stained-glass windows make it one of the most imposing structures in Overtown.
10. Historic Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church 301 NW 9th St.
Founded on September 18, 1896, D.A. Dorsey served as one of the founders of Historic Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church. It was one of the first meeting places for the Boy and Girl Scouts, as well as for Dr. Martin Luther King and others involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
11. Historic St. Agnes Episcopal Church 1750 NW 3rd Ave.
Organized in 1898 by a group of mostly Black Bahamian Anglicans searching for a place to worship, it has served the religious and humanitarian needs of Miami’s Black community for more than 100 years. Built in the 1940s, the church is an eclectic blend of architectural styles, including elements of Gothic Revival and Mission.
12. A.M. Cohen Temple 1747 NW 3rd Ave.
A.M. Cohen, a Black native of South Carolina who relocated to Miami to work on the railroad, organized the church in 1918. He stood for the incorporation of the City of Miami. His descendants continue his service.
13. Chapman House 1200 NW 6th Ave.
Built in 1923 by Dr. William A. Chapman, Miami’s first Black medical doctor hired by the State of Florida, this Colonial-style residence now houses Miami-Dade County Public School programs.
14. Booker T. Washington Senior High School 1200 NW 6th Ave.
The original masonry building opened in 1927 and was the first public school in South Florida to provide recognized 12th grade education for Black children. It was integrated in 1966 and became a middle school. The original building was torn down and a new school designed by Robert Bradford Browne was constructed, preserving the original entrance. In 2001, Booker T. Washington once again became a senior high school.
15. The Overtown Youth Center 450 NW 14th St.
This colorful, modern community facility is fully equipped with a gym, recreation center and computer lab. Built by businessman Martin Margulies, the center’s programming is provided by former Miami Heat star Alonzo Mourning’s foundation. and others involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
16. Black Police Precinct & Courthouse Museum 1009 NW 5th Ave.
In the 1940s, during segregation, Black police officers were only allowed to patrol the Central Negro District, now known as Overtown. The Black Police Precinct & Courthouse Museum building was the headquarters for the Black patrols and the municipal court where Black defendants were tried, usually before a Black judge. Now the building is a museum.
17. St. John’s Baptist Church — The New St. John Institutional Missionary Baptist Church 1328 NW 3rd Ave.
This popular church was organized by a small group at the turn of the 20th century. In 1940, the congregation built the existing structure. A rare example of the Art Deco Moderne architectural style with Gothic massing, it was designed by McKissack.
18. City of Miami Cemetery 1800 NE 2nd Ave.
The City of Miami purchased the 11-acre cemetery tract in June 1897. Whites were buried in the eastern portion and Blacks in a section to the west. The graves of local Black leaders at the City of Miami Cemetery include: Rev. Theodore Gibson, NAACP leader and community activist, and the City of Miami’s first Black commissioner; Judge L.E. Thomas, the first Black judge; and A.C. Lightburn, one of the Black incorporators of the City of Miami. Local white leaders include Julia Tuttle, Miami’s founder, as well as many pioneer families. Also of note are graves from the Spanish-American War and Miami’s 1899 yellow fever epidemic.
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