Overtown Rising—Land&People

In 1976 Dr. Dorothy Fields was working as a librarian in an all-white elementary school in Miami, Florida. While gathering research for a display to commemorate the nation's bicentennial, she discovered that the school library held absolutely nothing on the history of black people in Miami. When she called the county's main public library to tap into its collection, she was told no such information was on file. The librarian on the other end of the phone surmised that "black people didn't care enough about their history to write it down," Dr. Fields recalls.

To Dr. Fields, whose family has lived in the Overtown section of Miami since 1903, the fact that so little was on record about Miami's black history was testimony not to lack of interest but to the legacy of Jim Crow segregation in the old South. And there was plenty of black history to record and remember. Her mother's siblings hadn't been allowed to attend school in Miami; that was Miami's black history. Ward's Rooming House, still standing and recently restored, was where out-of-town blacks had to stay because hotels in Miami were for whites only; that was Miami's black history. The Lyric Theater, built in 1913 as a silent movie theater, then converted to a vaudeville playhouse and later to a showcase for leading black artists, had long been a mainstay of community life, and a huge part of Miami's black history, too.

To remedy the neglect of Miami's African-American heritage, in 1977 Dr. Fields established the Black Archives, History, and Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc. It became her mission to educate the residents of Miami-Dade County about the meaningful contribution of blacks to life in south Florida and in so doing help document and preserve the history of the black experience in Overtown.

The Place "Over Town"

Overtown lies well within the city limits, yet as an African-American neighborhood it has been isolated, cut off in ways physical and psychological from the rest of Miami. Freeways slice through the heart of Overtown. The tracks of the Miami Metrorail run overhead. The Miami River, a 5.5-mile-long natural boundary that divides the city, also has served to separate the city's diverse ethnic neighborhoods. Yet, as John Hope Franklin–a famed scholar, historian, and author of From Slavery to Freedom–once wrote, "The history of Miami is incomplete without the history of Overtown."

When Miami was incorporated as a city in 1896, Henry Flagler was extending his Florida East Coast Railroad southward from West Palm Beach. The workers Flagler brought in to build his railroad were primarily black. And since blacks were restricted by law and by custom from living in white communities, Flagler needed a place to house them. The land just over the tracks but still within the city's limits became the set-aside Colored Town. Blacks who had come from other parts of the South as well the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, and other Caribbean islands to build the railroad, service the hotels, clean the streets, and do a wide variety of skilled and unskilled work, set up shop and house in Colored Town. Eventually the community would come to lie just "over town" from downtown–once there was a downtown. Hence the name. According to the Florida census taken in 1915, Overtown's blacks made up a third of Miami's population, and the value of their real estate and personal property was estimated at nearly a million dollars.

Overtown was a thriving community, as were many black districts born out of similar circumstance and necessity. Here you could find artisans, laborers, and longshoremen; doctors, lawyers, teachers, and shopkeepers; restaurants, hotels, and theaters. The list of famous visitors to Overtown reads like a Who's Who of black celebrity: poet Langston Hughes, singer Paul Robeson, and writer Zora Neale Hurston. Blacks from Coconut Grove to the south and Lemon City to the north and all over Dade County would come all the way to Overtown to shop, to dine in the many restaurants, or to be entertained in the many venues along Overtown's Little Broadway, including the renowned Lyric Theater. Blacks and whites alike would come to see the shows and listen to the music of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong in the 1930s and '40s; B. B. King, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin in the '50s and '60s.

By the end of World War II, big changes were being planned for Overtown. "They started talking about a 'highway in the sky,"' Dr. Fields, then a schoolgirl, recalls. And although Interstate 95 wouldn't come through for another 15 years or so, people began to move away.

Since the mid-1960s, what's left of Overtown has found itself on difficult times. Since segregation ended and blacks have been allowed to live elsewhere, the kind of drift familiar to many inner cities has commenced. Overtown's population dwindled from more than 40,000 residents to fewer than 8,000 today. Boarded-up windows attest to the abandonment; vacant lots are overgrown with weeds and strewn with trash. There are more empty storefronts than those open for business.

H. T. Smith, Jr., a prominent local activist and attorney who was born in Overtown, still remembers when Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), Lena Horne, and Malcolm X ("who called himself Malcolm Red when I was a boy") all came through Overtown. "It was the only place blacks could stay in those days." Overtown was a fine community then, he says. And he believes it could be again.

Smith's family is one of those that left Overtown. He now lives in Spring Garden, one neighborhood away. But he is among those who believes in Overtown and thinks the community is owed a fighting chance. In 1995, Smith joined three other community leaders–Hank Adorno, Dean Colson, and Leonard Abess–to raise $4 million to build a youth center in Overtown. He then worked with the Trust for Public Land to promote a countywide, $200 million bond measure dedicated to parks and recreation. The 1996 Safe Neighborhood Parks Act of Miami-Dade County succeeded at the polls, bringing needed funding for new parks and recreation and youth programs to Overtown, and with it a heightened awareness of the importance of public spaces in the larger vision for bringing Overtown back to life.

That vision includes a greenway connecting Overtown and other communities along the river to one another and to Biscayne Bay, at the river's terminus. According to Lavinia Freeman, program manager for TPL's Miami River and Overtown initiatives, plans are now under way for a pedestrian plaza and pathway through Overtown, linking the community to the Miami River Greenway–public spaces that, it is hoped, will attract businesses, restaurants, and tourists to the river.

Bringing New Life to the River

The Miami River is a working river. It provides thousands of jobs and contributes some $4 billion to the Florida economy, largely from trade to the Caribbean and Latin America. But unlike other cities–Cincinnati, Chattanooga, and San Antonio, for instance–that have made their riverfronts into gathering places for social life and events, Miami has until now turned its back to the river. The city's hotels, restaurants, and businesses literally were built facing away from the river. But things are changing.

"The river now has a champion," says Lavinia Freeman. The state-created Miami River Commission is charged with coordinating 36 different agencies, each having jurisdiction over some aspect of the river. In 1998 the commission asked TPL to study how the riverfront might best be transformed to enhance the quality of city life. The plan, which was recently adopted by city and county commissioners, calls for a greenway along the river with parks, open spaces, cafes, shops, and recreational and cultural events to reflect the diverse communities along the river's banks.

"We held more than a hundred meetings with stakeholders," Freeman says, "including the Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, the shipping industry, homeowners, property owners, business owners, and political and civic leaders from riverside communities like Overtown. They all participated in creating a shared vision for the river. There was overwhelming enthusiasm for the greenway project."

TPL was invited to submit a grant proposal to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which likewise found the project worthy. Hodding Carter III, director of the Knight Foundation, sees the greenway as part of a much bigger picture for neighborhood redevelopment, one that includes attracting housing, jobs, and commercial investment. "The proposed greenway will serve a great public purpose," Carter says. "It will connect people with jobs, provide access to parks and recreational opportunities, and bring new investment to poor neighborhoods. It helps the people who are already there."

To that end, TPL, the Knight Foundation, others in the foundation community, and civic leaders have banded together to breathe new life into Overtown and adjacent communities and into the Miami River itself. The Knight Foundation committed $2.5 million for the development of the Little Havana and Overtown sections of the greenway. More than $7 million has been raised so far.

The route of the promised greenway passes the historic Lyric Theater, which after years of neglect was reopened in 2000, thanks to the vision and hard work of Overtown community leaders like Dr. Dorothy Fields. Fields, whose relatives were denied schooling in Miami, likes to talk about her own daughter, a Fulbright-Hayes scholar who recently received her Ph.D. in history from the University of Pennsylvania. "It's important to know our history," Fields insists. "That way we can see how far we've come."

Eddy L. Harris is a member of TPL's Stegner Circle of writers, artists, and other leading thinkers whose work explores the relationship of people and land. He is the author of four works of nonfiction, most notably Mississippi Solo and Still Life in Harlem. He claims to be a fine fisherman.