The Black community has played a key role in Miami’s past, helping turn the city into the vibrant cultural metropolis it is today. The influence can be seen and felt in the people, culture, and even the city’s architecture.
Many notable Miami landmarks like Virginia Key Beach, Overtown, and Coconut Grove are a historical representation and symbolic link to our past and contribution to Black history in Miami.
- The city’s oldest inhabited neighborhood, Coconut Grove, was practically built in part to early Black Bahamian settlers’ influence.
- Miami’s Overtown was the epicenter of thriving Black wealth, culture, arts, and businesses. The historic Overtown neighborhood was known as both the Black Wall Street of Miami and Harlem of the South, frequented by legends like W.E.B. Du Bois, Sammy Davis Jr., Martin Luther King Jr., and Muhammad Ali.
- The same goes for its legendary Lyric Theater, whose stage was graced by musical icons like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and Nat King Cole.
Despite unwarranted setbacks, such as Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation and the destruction of Overtown’s entertainment district with the I-95 overpass, the Black community continued to be a force in the city, innovating and growing Miami’s collective culture.
In honor of Black History Month, here are 13 notable landmarks that have contributed to and played a role in preserving Miami’s Black history. So let’s take a look!
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13 Historic Landmarks Showcasing Miami’s Black History
1. Coconut Grove Neighborhood
Miami’s longest inhabited neighborhood, Coconut Grove, is a vibrant cultural community largely thanks to 19th-century Black settlers’ influence.
Even before Julia Tuttle, known as the “Mother of Miami” founded the city, Black fishermen from the Bahamas were known to frequent the Miami shoreline in hunt of turtles.
These Bahamians were some of the first foreign settlers to establish South Florida as their home, and were essential in Miami’s incorporation in 1896, as 162 of the 368 voters who signed the charter to form a new city were Black.
Afro Caribbean settlers were vital, with their knowledge of carpentry and trading skills. They arrived from the Bahamas to help build Miami’s first hotel, the Peacock Inn, in the area we now know as Peacock Park.
They settled and developed the Village West neighborhood in the Grove, built homes, set up businesses, and grew the Black community.
The influence of these settlers helped shape “The Grove’s” tropical island Bohemian vibe. Today, Bahamian influence on Coconut Grove can be seen in the bright colored wood-frame houses, coquina walls, front porches, stone chimneys, and churches that have turned this neighborhood into the lively area it is today.
2. Overtown Neighborhood: Miami’s Black Wall Street and Harlem of the South
At the turn of the 20th century, Henry Flagler didn’t just bring his railroad down the East Coast of Florida; he also brought the enslaved that built it. The workers were responsible for building the railroads, streets, hotels and improving transportation in the local area.
The northwest section of the city was the designated settlement area for the Black population, and where Overtown got its original name, “Colored Town.”
Despite the limitations, it was a place where the Black community could seek refuge from racism and discrimination. It did not prevent the community’s development as the neighborhood grew to become the epicenter of Black wealth in Miami.
Overtown became the Black community’s beating heart, thriving with Black-owned businesses including hotels, doctors’ offices, arts, and cultural venues.
Legends like Jackie Robinson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday stayed at the boutique hotels in Overtown because they weren’t allowed to stay in Miami Beach. The neighborhood soon became known as Miami’s Black Wallstreet and the Harlem of the South.
This all changed when the 1-95 highway was constructed, slicing the neighborhood in two, displacing over 40,000 Black families. The highway went over the community without any exits, hence why it is now known as Overtown.
Although Overtown has gone through years of neglect, a second renaissance is in the works with events like Overtown Folklife Friday and establishments like The Copper Door Bed & Breakfast and Red Rooster, bringing a resurgence to the neighborhood.
HistoryMiami Museum offers tours throughout South Florida that includes Overtown. Check out their tour calendar for availability.
3. Historic Lyric Theatre
Nestled in Overtown in the district once known as “Little Broadway,” the Lyric Theatre stands as a symbol for Black cultural, and economic influence.
Constructed by Geder Walker, a Black Georgian, the 390-seat theater was the primary entertainment source for Black people in “Colored Town.” The venue has showcased performances from Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Count Bassie, B.B. King, and countless more. It was the place where Blacks can gather and socialize utterly free from discrimination.
The Lyric Theater operated as a movie theater until 1959, then a church and shuttered shortly after. The Black Archives acquired it in 1988, it was then added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1989.
The oldest legitimate theater in Miami, the glory is still not lost. Rehabilitated and restored, the theatre reopened in 2000. These days you can catch regular live performances ranging from jazz concerts to comedy shows (pre-pandemic, of course!).
The Historic Lyric Theater is located at 819 NW 2nd Ave, Miami, FL 33136
4. The Saltwater Railroad & Cape Florida Lighthouse
Bill Baggs State Park is known for its beautiful surroundings, but not many know its historical significance as the “Saltwater Railroad,” the freedom trail for the enslaved escaping to the Bahamas.
The Saltwater Railroad was a migration route that began in 1821 when Florida transferred from Spain to U.S. rule. The change effectively terminated Spanish rights, which had allowed many Blacks to be free in Florida, permitting slavery under U.S. law.
Many Black residents knowing their right to freedom were gone under American rule, decided to flee via the southern underground route. The route ran from Florida to the nearby Bahamas for the enslaved seeking refuge in British controlled free Black communities.
Many people embarked on this journey at Cape Florida, the tip of the popular beach park, Bill Baggs State Park. The journey over the water was dangerous and unpredictable, and success wasn’t guaranteed. They risked not only the dark and turbulent sea but also getting caught by ruthless slave catchers.
The Saltwater Railroad flourished up until 1825. The Cape Florida Lighthouse was built, providing light for sailors at night, and became a barrier for the enslaved to escape.
Now only a historical marker marks the site as an official National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. The lighthouse is still standing today and is the oldest standing structure in Miami-Dade.
The Cape Florida Lighthouse is located at 1200 South Crandon Blvd, Key Biscayne, FL 33149
5. Historic Virginia Key Beach Park
During the segregation era, Black people were prevented from enjoying Miami’s amenities – including public beaches.
Local black leaders started a protest on the exclusively white Haulover Beach, expecting to get arrested out of resistance. However, officials responded by designating Virginia Key Beach (accessible by boat only at the time) as an exclusive outdoor recreation area for Black people in 1945.
The beach became a popular gathering place for the Black community but was closed in 1982, only to reopen in 2008. Today, Virginia Key beach is once again a favored outdoor venue, even playing host to Ultra Fest music festival in 2019.
Historic Virginia Key Beach is located at 4020 Virginia Beach Dr, Miami, FL 33149
6. Historic Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum
The Miami police department first started hiring Black and African-American police officers in 1944; it would be another six years later before the officers and judges were given what is now the Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum building to operate.
The officers weren’t allowed to patrol white neighborhoods, and the courthouse had an African-American judge for Black people only.
Interestingly, the first African-American officers patrolled on bicycles and foot, as they had no cars, no radio contact, or headquarters. This did not discourage them as they transported criminals by walking or on bicycle handlebars.
Today, the Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum hold historical mementos from the era. You can join a tour, and in some instances, get a firsthand account by former members of the force themselves.
The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm, and admission is $10 per person. The Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum located at 480 NW 11th St, Miami, FL 33136.
7. Georgette’s Tea Room
Georgette’s Tea Room, which opened in the 1940s, was an important meeting place for Miami’s Black community. Opened by Georgette Scott Campbell, the Tea Room was a guest house that also provided dining services. A meeting point for black entertainers and activists, Georgette’s Tea Room was a hub for the Black community and even hosted famous performers like Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole.
Black entertainers in the 1940s and 50s frequently stayed at the Georgette’s Tea Room after their performances, as they were restricted from staying in hotels on the beach, including those that invited them to perform.
8. Historic Hampton House
During Jim Crow segregation laws of the 1960s, Hampton House was a “Negro Motorist Green Book” establishment, meaning a known safe space for Black travelers. With a restaurant, swimming pool, jazz lounge, and host to many influential personalities, it was a popular hangout, and go-to hotspot dubbed the “first luxury hotel for Negros in the South.”
Well-known personalities such as Muhammed Ali, Martin Luther King, Jim Brown, and Sammie Davis Jr. regularly visited and socialized at the Hampton House. You’ll find images of both King and Muhammed Ali swimming in the Hampton House pool.
It is rumored Dr. King rehearsed a version of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech here before taking action in Washington, 1963.
Muhammed Ali, then Cassius Clay, even celebrated his 1964 victory as “The Greatest of All Time” with friends including Malcolm X at the Hampton House, the night referenced in the movie, “One Night in Miami.” Watch it here with a Prime free trial.
Now a museum, you can visit the restored Hampton House, and learn about the history-making personalities that frequented it.
The Historic Hampton House located at 4240 NW 27th Avenue, Miami, FL
9. Historic Ward Rooming House
In Overtown, you’ll find the former safe house for Black and indigenous people during the segregation era, now known as Ward Rooming House. The building was fully integrated into Overtown’s epicenter of social life and played a vital role in providing a safe place for Miami’s Black community.
Now a part of the National Register of Historic Places, it has been transformed into a gallery featuring elite Black, African American, and Afro Caribbean artists, including Maya Angelou’s personal collection, Elizabeth Catlett’s sculptures, and artwork and Phillip Shung’s photography.
Visit the Ward Rooming House website for more information on upcoming events, ongoing and varied exhibitions take place here.
The Historic Ward Rooming House is located at 249 NW 9th St, Miami, FL 33136
10. Liberty Square
Liberty Square was the first public housing project established for Blacks in Florida because of overcrowding in Overtown. Following Liberty Square’s opening, many middle-income Black families began moving from Overtown to Liberty City, then a predominantly white neighborhood. Despite outrage from the white residents, the area became a popular apartment development for African Americans throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
Though most of the white community fled the area, they erected a seven-foot-tall wall to further segregate Liberty Square’s growing Black community on the west side of northwest 12th avenue from white inhabitants on the east side.
A few years later, the wall was demolished, though parts remain until this day as a dark reminder of the racism and segregation in Miami not too long ago.
Remnants of the Liberty Square wall can be found along NW 12th Avenue from 62nd to 67th streets.
11. Evergreen Memorial Park Cemetery
Owned by the Miami Times’ Reeves family, Evergreen Memorial Park Cemetery is a historic African American cemetery in Brownsville. One of only two cemeteries in the area where blacks could be buried with dignity (as opposed to the very back of white cemeteries), Evergreen Memorial Park is a resting place for prominent members of Miami’s Black community.
Designated a historic site in 1991, it is a tribute to the past, reminding us that there was a time when blacks and whites were segregated even in death.
12. Brownsville Neighborhood
Before the 1940s, there was a limited number of places in Miami where Black people could own their property and build a home for their loved ones. Brownsville (formerly known as Browns Subdivision) was one of these places.
In the late 1940s, Black people started to move into Brownsville to achieve their dream of owning their own house. However, the racist groups would often storm through the area to intimidate Blacks residents.
The neighborhood became an important landmark in Miami’s Black history for its civil rights stands and the fruitless efforts fighting for justice and equality.
13. Florida Memorial University
A private university founded in 1879, Florida Memorial University is the only historically black college in South Florida. Racial tensions in the school were high, and after shots were fired into the school a few years after its opening, staff members fled to Jacksonville to hold classes in a church basement. The college relocated to its present site in 1968, after various relocations and reformations.
The institution is not just known for academics. It is where brothers John Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson composed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1900, which became the Negro anthem.
The culturally diverse university is still open and welcoming students today from all races, religions, and ethnicities.
Map – Black History in Miami Landmarks
More Resources for Black History in Miami
If you are interested in learning more about Miami’s Black history, check out these resources:
- “The Black Miami” short film providing great insight into Miami’s Black experience from the city’s incorporation to the modern-day. Watch it here with a Prime free trial.
- Black Miami in the Twentieth Century book by Marvin Dunn
- The Struggle for Black Freedom in Miami: Civil Rights and America’s Tourist Paradise, 1896-1968 book by Chanelle Nyree Rose
- Before the Pioneers: Indians, Settlers, Slaves, and the Founding of Miami book by Andrew K. Frank
- Key Biscayne: A History of Miami’s Tropical Island and the Cape Florida Lighthouse book by Joan Gill Blank
Black, Afro Caribbean, and African American people have always been a part of Miami’s history, from the first Bahamian settlers to modern-day political leaders and entertainers.
From theatre venues to thriving neighborhoods, teahouses to safe houses and even courthouses, these historic landmarks are more than just buildings. They are standing tributes to Miami’s Black community and offer a glimpse into the city’s cultural past.
Through these historic Miami landmarks, we can explore the city’s Black history and learn about the rich, vibrant culture and significant influence of Miami’s Black community.