By Paul S. George
As Jim Crow was sweeping the South in the 1890s, Miami, a tiny settlement straddling its namesake river, was radically transformed with the entry of Henry M. Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway in 1896. By July of that year, Miami had incorporated as a city, an event made possible by a large African American vote. Soon after, Blacks were consigned to Colored Town, a segregated quarter of the new city by restrictive clauses in land deeds, consigning them to its northwest quadrant. They were also disenfranchised by the White Democratic Primary, which excluded Blacks from participating in that party’s primaries, the only meaningful contests in the Solid Democratic South.
Colored Town was a cramped quarter, stretching from the railroad tracks west to Northwest Seventh Avenue and from Northwest Sixth Street to Eleventh Street (today, it extends north to Twentieth Street). The quarter’s rising population was bereft of those necessities and amenities, be they parks, paved streets, hospitals, and even a high school (till 1927), found in other parts of the city. Yet, it developed a bustling black business community, a variety of entertainment, clubs and lodges, and numerous churches. Colored Town also contained a rich population mix of Bahamian, Jamaican and Haitian Blacks.
Colored Town continued to grow throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. By the 1950s, the community, now known as Overtown, was at its apex, with numerous entertainment offerings, busy entrepreneurs, and rising numbers of tourists.
The 1960s, however, saw a rapid decline in its fortunes as the construction of I-95 and the massive I-395 cloverleaf displaced thousands of its residents, while urban renewal gutted not only another portion of the residential section but parts of the business and entertainment areas as well. The next fifty years marked the nadir of Overtown as its population contracted, its businesses and entertainment offerings disappeared, and new investment dried up.
In recent years, however, Overtown has experienced a sharp upswing, amid the explosive growth and gentrification of Miami’s center city, with new investment, both private and public. Accordingly, new apartment complexes, restaurants, and cultural facilities have appeared. New retail outlets are close behind. A new day is here for this historic community.