MAXWELL:  Miami’s black heritage

1/15/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg



By Marvin Dunn

University Press of Florida

Reviewed by BILL MAXWELL

Marvin Dunn’s book Black Miami in the Twentieth Century is must reading for anyone interested in the rich history of African-Americans in South Florida. Dunn, an associate professor of psychology at Florida International University in Miami, is the first author to trace the history of blacks and their contributions to the Magic City.

In easy prose, Dunn chronicles the first 100 years of Miami’s history, detailing the horrors, drudgery, courage and triumphs of the city’s huge black population. Few modern readers know that when Miami was founded in 1896, 162 of its 367 voters were black.

This large number and the city’s continued popularity among blacks can be attributed to four historical factors.

The first, in the early 1880s, was the ruin of the Bahamian economy, forcing thousands of workers to migrate to the Florida Keys and later to Dade County. Many of these new immigrants settled on white-owned farms, and others moved to the area that came be known as Lemon City. A handful moved to Coconut Grove.

The Great Freeze in the winter of 1894-1895 that destroyed crops in the southeastern United States also attracted thousands of blacks to South Florida and Miami. They settled in the small towns of Florida City, South Miami, Homestead and Goulds.

The third historical catalyst was the arrival of Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad to Biscayne Bay in 1896. The event, a real phenomenon, changed the face of Miami forever. It provided hundreds of jobs for African-Americans, made agricultural transport easier and ushered in a tourist industry that also would provide jobs.

And, most recently, in the 1970s and since, violence and poverty in Haiti and Cuba have forced many blacks to Miami.

Using primary sources, firsthand accounts and more than 100 photographs, Dunn demonstrates that Miami’s black population has never been a monolith and shows the development of “Little Broadway” along Second Avenue and the rise of Liberty City and Overtown. The photographs, mostly black and whites from the Miami Herald, paint a picture of generations of achievement and turmoil.

One early photo, taken in the 1890s, for example, shows Mariah Brown, the first Bahamian to work at the famous Peacock Inn. Later, a photograph depicts a strategy session conducted by Martin Luther King. Some of the most painful photos illustrate the deadly riots of the 1980s, when Arthur McDuffie, Clement Lloyd and Alan Blanchard died at the hands of white police officers. Other photos show the swollen bodies of Haitian immigrants that had washed ashore.

Some of Dunn’s best appears in the chapters devoted to the civil rights movement. Here, he presents a roster of brave women and men risking death in order to get the right to vote, enter public facilities and attend decent public schools.

Dunn deftly guides the reader through the days when when Ku Klux Klan mounted a campaign to bar blacks from the voting booth. On Page 194, where he describes Klan activity, a photo of a dummy hanging by the neck from a light post offers a frightening warning to would-be black voters. The dummy, a twisted figure of a black, wears a T-shirt with the words “This Nigger Voted.”

Unfortunately, Dunn had the burden of giving the reader a lineup of black rogues and scoundrels, such as City Commissioner Miller Dawkins, who went to jail for accepting a bribe, and Johnny Jones, the first black superintendent of the Dade County Public School System, who went to prison for the infamous “gold plumbing caper.”

The final chapter is an exhaustive account, complete with statistics and charts, of the current health of Miami’s many black neighborhoods. Dunn demonstrates that a sagging economy and the city’s rapidly shifting demographics have left many areas virtually isolated. Although the “Epilogue” uses terms that are hopeful, the reader is left with the harsh realization that black Miami will continue to struggle into the next century.

Bill Maxwell is a Times columnist.