Miami’s Overtown: A Celebrated Past

Overtown Homes Early 20th CenturyFormer homes at Goodbread and 17th and 18th Streets. Photo Courtesy: HistoryMiami

Miami’s Overtown neighborhood survives as a significant reminder of early Black settlement in South Florida. When the City of Miami was incorporated in 1896 the Black settlers and immigrants, from Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, and other countries, were segregated in a Black’s-only community. This area, now northwest of downtown Miami, was located across Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad tracks and became known as “Colored Town.”

Black workers of the bustling hotel and railroad industries in the new city lived in the ramshackle homes of Colored Town. Despite these conditions, as early as 1904 Colored Town (later known as Overtown) welcomed businesses to the area including convenience stores, a medical doctor, and other community facilities. It was a vibrant community that attracted whites, Blacks, and tourists from all over. It became the center of Black entertainment. After Black entertainers performed on Miami Beach, they headed to Overtown for late night shows and stayed at one of iconic hotels. The legendary Mary Elizabeth Hotel and its neighbor the Sir John Hotel were popular venues for rhythm and blues and jazz performances.  Sammy Davis Jr., Cab Calloway, Redd Foxx, Nat “King” Cole, Josephine Baker, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald were some of the key entertainers that performed on the long-gone “Little Broadway” strip on Second Avenue. The only surviving building from that district is the historic Lyric Theater—an elaborate 400-seat theater built in 1913 in the style of masonry vernacular like many of the residential and public buildings in Overtown. The theater, built, owned and operated by Geder Walker, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.

Zebra Lounge-Mary Elizabeth HotelZebra Lounge in the Mary Elizabeth Hotel. Photo Courtesy: William B. Sawyer, Jr. (Black Miami in the Twentieth Century)

Josephine Baker & Joe Luis-Sir John HotelSinger/actress Josephine Baker with boxer Joe Luis with friends inside Knightbeat Club at the Sir John Hotel. Photo Courtesy: The Black Archives History & Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc.

Overtown also attracted intellectual icons such as United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and authors W. E. B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston. Civil Rights era local leaders, such as Ophthalmologist Dr. J.O. Brown, hosted forums at one of the many public meeting places.  

Arturo Gifilippi & Muhammed Ali-Sir John HotelArturo di Filippi, founder of the Florida Grand Opera, with Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) at the Sir John Hotel. Di Filippi wanted Ali to perform in a production of Aida. Photo Courtesy: John Pineda, Miiami Herald File

But Overtown’s riveting scene would forever change as construction of the Interstate 95 expressway in the early 1960s cut through the heart of the community. The expressway demolished many residential homes and businesses and forced thousands of residents to relocate. Since then, the community has experienced failed attempts at urban renewal, a high crime rate, and an abundance of rundown buildings. In recent years efforts have been made to preserve and restore Overtown’s surviving historic sites, including the Carver Hotel at NW 9th Street and NW 3rd Avenue and the 1925 Ward Rooming House at 249 NW 9th Street. Other historic structures include Mt. Zion Baptist Church, built between 1928 and 1941 and located on NW 9th Street and NW 3rd Avenue, and the Greater Bethel A.M.E. Church built between 1927 and 1943 and located at 245 NW 8th Street. The Ward building and both churches are examples of Mediterranean Revival architecture.

Overview of I-395 1967Overview of I-395 looking east in Miami, August 23, 1967. Photo Courtesy: John Pineda, Miiami Herald File

The focal point for this rebirth of Overtown has been the renovation of the historic Lyric Theater and the efforts by historian Dr. Dorothy Fields, who is founder of The Black Archives, History & Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc., located at the Lyric Theater. Dr. Fields and The Black Archives launched a campaign to revitalize Overtown’s art and cultural scene with the development of the Historic Overtown Folklife Village. This two-block area is a retail, cultural, and entertainment district that aims to save the community’s legacy in South Florida.

Lyric Theater OvertownLyric Theater

-Marvin Aguilar

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