• Gravity Magazine

Reconnecting with Black spaces in Miami: Overtown

Photo by Richard Johnson, circa Feb. 3, 1974. Source: University of Miami Library Special Collections

When you are living, working or going to school in Miami, it can be easy to exist in the present with no context of the past. With new people moving here everyday, new buildings being constructed and new ventures being pursued, it’s no surprise that many residents are oblivious to the deep Indigenious and Black history that Miami possesses.

One such marker of primary Black history in Miami is the city of Overtown. While you may have visited Overtown to get some wings at House of Wings or just passed through to get to Wynwood, the city used to have a burgeoning appeal of its own.

Known as “Colored Town” to the city’s majority population, Overtown was a large Black community, housing at least 40,000 people. In the early 1930s, many of Miami’s Black population lived in Overtown as racial zoning policies and Jim Crow laws left them with few choices. Early Overtown was also the foundation for how the future of Black Miami demographics would look: there was a strong diasporic community of American southerners and Caribbean immigrants from Cuba, Barbados, Haiti, Trinidad & Tobago, and Jamaica, all who arrived in Miami to work on the new railroad being built by oil tycoon, Henry Flagler.

Photo by Gleason Waite Romer. Source: University of Miami Library Special Collections.

Photo by Gleason Waite Romer. Source: University of Miami Library Special Collections.

The city was also aptly dubbed “Harlem of the South” for its extensive Black commercial and cultural centers. There were late night clubs, hotels, lounges, theatres and restaurants that locals and celebrities flocked to. At its heyday, it welcomed the most prominent Black artists and thinkers of the 1930s to 1950s. Jazz greats like Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr, Cab Calloway and Aretha Franklin would come to Overtown would perform at the Lyric Theater, and sleep at hotels after performing in the segregated clubs on Miami Beach. The iconic Lyric Theater and the nightlife it attracted earned the Miami spot the nickname “Little Broadway.” The theater, now renamed as the the Black Archives Historic Lyric Theater Cultural Arts Complex, was apart of a bigger cultural center in Overtown; Historic Overtown was also the only city with its own Black police precinct, courthouse, clerk and judge now known as the Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum.

Yet, the fabric of the historic city was wiped away after decades of urban renewal planning. The builday of a new express highway ripped right through the heart of Overtown and displaced thousands of residents and eviscerated their main business district. The expansion Interstate-95 (I-95) was apart of then-President Eisenhouer’s plan to remove blight in big cities. So when the idea landed on the desks of Miami leaders at the time, they had two ideas. The first was to have the highway extended to the Florida East Coast Railway corridor, east of Overtown. This idea was opposed by some because it provided issues for downtown businesses and the city’s chamber of commerce. The second idea, to have it run through Northwest Seventh Avenue and through the heart of Overtown, gained support and was implemented, much to the chagrin of the community’s residents. The act of building this way had intense racist effects as residents were provided with 6-8 week notices to leave with no help of relocation or sustainability. This Black removal proved to be detrimental to the community; there was now rampant crime and poverty and many residents spread to other communities like Liberty City, Brownsville and Richmond Heights.

I-95 section cutting through Overtown. Source: Transit Miami

Despite the continuing threat of gentrification and development, the spirit of Black renaissance still exists within the community. Upon visiting, there are a number of restaurants owned by Black residents that you can support such as Lil Greenhouse Grill, Jackson Soul Food, Red Rooster, and House of Wings. You can indulge in history at Lyric Theater that has open mic and comedy nights, or go to the Historic Black Police Precinct Courthouse and Museum, which is a tribute to the city of Miami’s first Black police. Let us all reconnect with the space that is Overtown.

Photo by Reginald C. Munnings. Source: Local Environment, Apr2014, Vol. 19 Issue 4, p384-401, 18p, 3 Color Photographs

REPORTER: Kay-Ann Henry.

THE CITY, Gravity Magazine, 2021.

8 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All