Overtown Walking Tour

QUOTE
“Rewind to the 1950s. Imagine a Little Broadway district northwest of Downtown Miami, glittering with the bright lights of nightclubs and music halls. Headlining names included James Brown, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald. Sitting at tables in the audience, enjoying dinner and drinks, were sports heroes Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. From the theaters to the street corners, the echoes of doo-wop, blues, jazz and soul floated across the neighborhood.” Shayne Benowitz on miamiandbeaches.com

ACCESS
The simplest and most economical way to access is Overtown is by the Metrorail station Historic Overtown/Lyric Theater at 100 NW 6 Street.

DESCRIPTION
Overtown is one of the oldest and most culturally significant neighborhoods in Miami-Dade County. Not only was Overtown a thriving music and entertainment center from the 1930s to the 1960s, but the it was also the core of the Civil Rights movement in Miami. Overtown is a neighborhood of great historical and cultural significance, home to emblematic figures such as Miami artist, Purvis Young.

HISTORY
When the City of Miami was incorporated on 28 July 1896, 181 of the 424 eligible voters of Dade County were black, and 162 of the 368 voters present were black. As the legal minimum for a settlement to be considered a city rather than a town was 300, it is a fact that the City of Miami would not have been incorporated if not for the support of black voters. According to the account of Isidor Cohen, a prominent merchant at the time, the most powerful speech in favor of incorporation was delivered by Alex Lightburn— a black man. In a further demonstration of the central role people of color occupy in the history of Miami, the first registered citizen of Miami was a Silas Austin, a man of Bahamian origin.

In spite of records indicating blacks occupied the land that is now Miami as early as 1783, in spite of Modern Miami being built largely by black hands (both Flagler’s railroad and Royal Palm Hotel), in spite of Miami nourishing itself from the fruit of black agricultural labor, and in spite of the incorporation of Miami remaining but an idea without black votes, the black community was not welcome in most parts of Miami.

Historian Paul George describes how “Residential segregation, the cornerstone of racial separation, was from the beginning the rule in Miami. Restrictive clauses in land deeds prohibited the sale of land to blacks except in the section called Colored Town, in Miami’s northwest sector.”

Blacks were restricted to live in either Cocoanut Grove south of the Miami River (now known as Coconut Grove) or the newly established Central Negro District/Colored Town (northwest of the center of 1896 Miami). In an era of segregation and rampant racism, whites popularly referred to Colored Town as Darkie Town.

Historian Marvin Dunn recounts how “Central Negro District” became “Overtown”:

“Officially the area commonly called Colored Town was first referred to as the Central Negro District. In 1937 the name was changed to Washington Heights. But by the late stage of the heyday, black people most often referred to the area as Overtown. According to Ann Marie Adker, who lived in the area all of her life, it may have been because one had to go “over” downtown to get to Colored Town from Coconut Grove. “Years ago when you would see people catching the jitney, like from Coconut Grove up here, they would say, ‘I’m going over town.’” Dunn, Marvin. Black Miami in the Twentieth Century (Florida History and Culture) (p. 151). University Press of Florida. Kindle Edition.

Overtown quickly became a thriving cultural, business, and entertainment district. Churches and theatres existed and thrived within blocks of one another. Two churches were founded in 1896 and the Lyric Theatre was built in 1913. Such was the reputation of the area that Avenue G (Second Avenue) became known as Miami’s Little Broadway, The Strip, or the Great Black Way.

As a result of Jim Crow laws, black musicians could perform in Downtown Miami or in Miami Beach but could not spend the night there. As a result performers would often play a second show in Overtown, and these grew in reputation. Everyone (white and black) wanted to attend the Overtown performances. Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Count Basie, and Aretha Franklin were just a few of the performers who played in Overtown. Muhammad Ali, Joe Lewis, and other famous athletes also visited, often staying in the Hampton House in Brownsville.

Overtown became the central organizing center for Civil Rights in Miami. Whether it was the organization of an action against segregation, a voting initiative, or the delivery of a speech, Civil Rights history unfolded in Overtown. Churches often served as the ground zero, hosting such figures as Malcolm X, Andrew Young, and Martin Luther King.

Pineda, John, “Overtown Nearly Destroyed by Interstate 95 Construction, 23 August 1967” The Sunshine Stroll: Music and Politics on the Florida Chitlin’ Circuit, 1935-1970, accessed October 12, 2021, https://cbcrenshaw.omeka.net/items/show/23.

Three separate historical events have severely impacted Historic Overtown. The Great Hurricane of 1926 ravaged the neighborhood, leading to the building of brick and masonry structures. In the 1960s, the neighborhood was split straight down the middle into separate quadrants by the construction of two expressways, I-95 and I-395. Properties that were once home to families and community gatherings were razed to the ground or became uninhabitable due to noise and pollution. On the photo above, Mount Zion is in the lower left and Greater Bethel just below the half way line on the left. The third transformative event is the contemporaneous rapid gentrification and high rise development of Historic Overtown. People, schools, community centers, and businesses are being displaced by condominiums. Unfortunately, very few structures in Overtown have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Despite this latest challenge, Overtown remains a thriving, dynamic, and welcoming neighborhood with a unique character. History comes alive on the streets and in the churches of Overtown.

OVERTOWN WALKING LECTURE
This walk will be limited to the sites in close proximity to the Overtown Metrorail Station, which is the area covered by the Miami in Miami class. There are other places of historical importance in Overtown that individuals are encouraged to explore.

LYRIC THEATRE

Please visit the The Black Archives Historic Lyric Theatre official website.

Here is what I like to do—Stand in front to the main entrance of the Lyric Theatre on NW 2nd Ave. Imagine it’s the late 1940s, right after WW2. Play Cab Calloway or Billie Holiday on my phone. Look up and down Little Broadway and imagine that the Lyric is just one of many venues hosting shows. People, cars, lights, sounds, food—a thriving cultural hub of Miami. This was Miami’s Little Broadway, also known as The Strip or the Great Black Way.

Watch Overtown’s Musical Heyday: a Miami Herald Short Documentary

The Lyric Theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places. Here is how the National Park Service describes its historical relevance:

“The Lyric Theater exemplifies an era in the history of Overtown that was characterized by flourishing entertainment. The Lyric Theater is located on N. W. 2nd Avenue, a street known as “Little Broadway” during the 1930s and 1940s because the large number of clubs located there presented such stars as Marion Anderson, Bessie Smith, Hazel Scott, and Nat “King” Cole. None of the other theater buildings located along “Little Broadway” remain. Lyric Theater thus serves as a surviving testament to this important period of Overtown’s history. Shortly after its completion, the Lyric Theater was described as “possibly the most beautiful and costly playhouse owned by colored people in all the Southland.” The Lyric Theater was built for Gedar Walker, a wealthy black businessman who was “rated among the most substantial citizens of the county.”? It featured black theatrical troupes as they traveled across the country. The building also served the Overtown community in other ways, including its use for political meetings, concerts, dramas, boxing, rallies, beauty pageants, and club activities. The Lyric Theater constitutes an excellent example of Masonry Vernacular architecture and is one one of the more elaborate buildings remaining in Overtown.”

The Lyric Theatre is an active venue today. The schedule of events is here.

National Register of Historic Places Lyric Theatre
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/77841507

GREATER BETHEL AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH
Please visit the Greater Bethel AME Church official website.

Greater Bethel is the oldest black church in Miami. Before the City of Miami was incorporated, Alex Lightburn founded the Bethel Church on 12 March 1896. Initially, the congregation met in a small house and then a larger wooden structure. This wooden structure was destroyed in the Great Hurricane 0f 1926. The church community then began to build the Mediterranean Revival structure we see today. It was begun in 1928 and completed in 1943, entirely paid for by the congregation. Greater Bethel AME Church is on the National Register of Historic Places. The congregation is currently led by Reverend Willie N. Barnes, Jr.

Alberta Godfrey of Greater Bethel speaks with students of the FIU Honors College in 2021

Martin Luther King spoke at Greater Bethel on 12 February 1958 at the SCLC Crusade for Citizenship. The aim of the evening was to register new voters and maintain access to the polls. Dr. King’s words remain as relevant in the 21st century as they were in the 20th. “If a tragic global crisis is to be avoided, if America is to meet the challenge of our atomic age — then millions of our people, Negro and white, must be given the right freely to participate in the political life of our nation. If democracy is to win its rightful place throughout the world, millions of people, Negro and white, must stand before the world as examples of democracy in action, not as voteless victims of the denial and corruption of our heritage.”
Read the speech transcript here.

On the same property at the main church is the historical home of Alex Lightburn. In addition to being a founder of Greater Bethel, Lightburn was an instrumental figure in the incorporation of the City of Miami on 28 July 1896.

National Register of Historic Places Greater Bethel
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/77841338

DORSEY HOUSE

This 1914 structure was the home of Dana A. Dorsey, Miami’s first black millionaire. The following is a short Biography of Dorsey from the FIU Libraries, which are home to the Dana A. Dorsey Collection. The Dorsey House is now a museum owned and operated by the Black Archives.

“Dana A. Dorsey (1872-1940) was the first African-American millionaire in Miami. He and his wife Rebecca acquired extensive real estate holdings in the newly incorporated city and built sold and leased property to many of Miami early black residents. They developed extensive financial dealings with the founders of early Miami, among them Mary McCleod Bethune and the Brickell family.

Born in Quitman, Georgia and the son of former slaves Dorsey (1872-1940) was a self taught man who with only a fourth grade education became a highly influential businessman, realtor, banker, and philanthropist. His business involvement in the Miami area began around 1896 when working as a carpenter for Henry M. Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad he recognized the need to provide housing for black workers. By purchasing land, constructing rental housing and reinvesting the income to build more, he was able to extend his holdings as far north as Ft. Lauderdale. During the area of segregation Dana A. Dorsey was one of the pioneer land owners in the Liberty City Development. He and his wife sold land on Northwest 17th Street and First Avenue to the City of Miami for a park for African-Americans which is still enjoyed today. Dorsey Hotel, the first black owned hotel in Miami, and the Negro Savings Bank were his properties. Dorsey was a firm believer in education and he donated large tracts of land for black schools. He sold to Dade County Public Schools for one penny the property on which Dorsey High School was eventually built. The Dorsey Memorial Library, opened on August 13, 1941, was built on land he donated shortly before his death. The flags were lowered to half-staff all over Miami when Dana A. Dorsey died in 1940.” https://specialcollections.fiu.edu/collections/explore-collections/dana-dorsey-collection

National Register of Historic Places Dorsey House
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/77841513

WARD ROOMING HOUSE

Please visit Ward Rooming House official website by Hampton Art Lovers

“Named after builders Shaddrack and Victoria Ward, the Historic Ward Rooming House, located at 249 NW 9th St., was built in 1925 to accommodate Black and Native Americans who traveled to Miami. Designated a historic site by the city, the building has been renovated and repurposed as an art gallery, now showcasing Black art curated by Christopher Norwood, founder of Hampton Art Lovers.” – Miami Times

The Ward Rooming House is an active exhibition space with rotating special exhibitions.

MOUNT ZION MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH

Mount Zion MIssionary Baptist Church was founded in 1896 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. “The Mount Zion Baptist Church building is a large two-story masonry structure executed in a Mediterranean Revival architectural style. Construction of the church began in 1928 according to plans provided by the architect William Arthur Bennet. with the main sanctuary of the church completed in 1941.” -NRHP

Mount Zion served a core role in the religious and civic life of the Overtown community. Linda Rogers was born and raised near Mount Zion and recalls how the pastor’s home served as place of reunion. She recalls visits by Martin Luther King, Andrew Young, and Elijah Muhammad.

Perhaps no structure in Overtown best exemplifies the destructive nature of the building of I-95. When standing just south of the structure, it is shocking to see how close the I-95 ramp is to the place of worship. Enter Mount Zion, and you can hear the automobiles while sitting in the nave. According to Rogers, the building of the highway and gentrification have caused a decline in the numbers of the congregation from 2,000 to 250.

Linda Rogers of Mount Zion meets with students of the FIU Honors College in 2021

National Register of Historic Places Mount Zion
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/77841503

JACKSON SOUL FOOD

Please visit the Jackson Soul Food official webpage.

One can never know a neighborhood without discovering the culinary culture of the place. In Overtown, the place for me is Jackson Soul Food, an Overtown institution since 1946, when Jessie and Demas Jackson opened Mama’s Cafe. Current Jackson Soul Food CEO Shirlene Jackson Ingraham has continued the family legacy. Try the Ox Tail, the Shrimp and Grits, the Smothered Pork Chops.

PURVIS YOUNG’S MIAMI
The perfect way to complete an Overtown visit is to see Miami as portrayed by the one of the greatest Miami artists, Purvis Young. Young lived in Overtown and depicted the the history of Miami in large and small paintings and artist’s books.

Although not in Overtown, one of Young’s best works is just a Metrorail ride away. Above the entrance of the Northside Metrorail Station is a mural representing the construction of the Miami Metrorail. The tracks are visible throughout the work and the elevated rails on the upper right. Central to the work, however, is Young’s depiction of the people of Miami building and living in Miami.

“I ain’t got time to criticize the system too much. But I paint what I see.” – Purvis Young

REFERENCES/EXTERNAL LINKS

Benowitz, Shayne on Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau
https://www.miamiandbeaches.com/things-to-do/art-and-culture/venues/tour-historic-overtown-s-lyric-theater

Dunn, Marvin. Black Miami in the Twentieth Century (Florida History and Culture). University Press of Florida. https://upf.com/book.asp?id=9780813062983 or find it on Amazon

FIU Libraries Dana A. Dorsey Collection

George, Paul S. “Colored Town: Miami’s Black Community, 1896-1930.” The Florida Historical Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 4, Florida Historical Society, 1978, pp. 432–47, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30150329.

Greater Bethel AME Church website

National Register of Historic Places Dorsey House
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/77841513

National Register of Historic Places Greater Bethel
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/77841338

National Register of Historic Places Lyric Theatre
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/77841507

National Register of Historic Places Mount Zion
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/77841503

The Official Travel and Tourism Site of Greater Miami & Miami Beach
https://www.miamiandbeaches.com/

EDITORS AND LAST UPDATE
Stephanie Sepúlveda & John William Bailly  12 October 2021
COPYRIGHT © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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