By Paul S. George
Today’s Little Haiti stretches from Northeast/Northwest 54th Street to Northwest/Northeast 71st Street; from Biscayne Boulevard west to I-95. Before there was Little Haiti, however, there was, in this same footprint and beyond it, Lemon City, which was by 1895, the most populous community on the southeast Florida mainland.
Historian Thelma Peters, who authored a history of Lemon City, wrote that its name may have been inspired by some old lemon trees on the property of John Saunders. The Bahamian born, Saunders acquired in 1889, under the federal Homestead Act of 1862, 148 acres of Bayfront from which Lemon City developed. By then, a rising farming community claimed, in Lemon Avenue, today’s Northeast 61st Street, a main street that looked out over Biscayne Bay, where a deep-water channel allowed for the entry of vessels.
Lemon City grew in different directions as other homesteaders acquired land. Many of its residents were white and Black Bahamians. By the 20th century, farming gave way to other endeavors, and Lemon City, with its railroad station, school, library, light industry sector near the railroad tracks and a rising retail sector along Northeast Second Avenue, was annexed to the City of Miami. The community experienced sharp demographic changes in the second half of the century, as white flight opened the neighborhood to Haitian refugees, whose numbers rose sharply in the late 1970s and thereafter, filling out the settlement to its present borders.
By then, the neighborhood was called Little Haiti, a name given it by Viter Juste, a Haitian businessman and community leader. The presence of many industrious people embracing opportunities long denied them in their earlier home brought great energy to this rising immigrant community. Lemon City’s downtown was soon hosting a variety of small Haitian owned businesses, including restaurants; a beautiful Caribbean marketplace opened in the late 1900s, and, more recently, the picturesque Notre d’Haiti Catholic Church, built largely through the support of the community, and a stunning performing art center grace the neighborhood. A place for beginning over again, Little Haiti continues to hold out hope for many people chasing the American Dream of economic opportunity and political freedom.