Black history in Miami plays a central role in the story of this magical city. From the early Bahamian settlers to the jazz icons of the early twentieth century to the pioneers of the Jim Crow era, the generations who came before us help shaped Miami into the diverse and dynamic city it is today. The influence can be seen and felt in the people, culture, and even the city’s architecture.
To fully appreciate the layered history, it is worth uncovering the story behind the Miami neighborhoods and landmarks that have played a pivotal role in Miami’s Black history.
Embark on a journey through Miami’s vibrant history with our comprehensive guide featuring 15 notable landmarks that have contributed to preserving Black history in Miami and helped turn the city into today’s vibrant cultural metropolis.
Miami Black History: Did You Know?
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 has always been a force in the city, innovating and growing Miami’s collective culture. Here are a few key points over the years:
- Black Bahamian settlers played a key role in building the city’s oldest inhabited neighborhood, Coconut Grove.
- 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 legendary Lyric Theater was graced by musical icons like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and Nat King Cole.
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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” is a short film that provides great insight into Miami’s Black experience from the city’s incorporation to the modern-day. Watch it here with a free Prime 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
Historic Landmarks Showcasing Black History in Miami
From theater venues to safe houses, thriving neighborhoods, and even a courthouse, let’s look at 15 notable landmarks that have played a role in Miami’s Black history.
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 the hunt for turtles.
These Bahamians were some of the first foreign settlers to establish South Florida as their home. They 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.
With the history in mind, take a DIY tour of Coconut Grove to explore the hidden gems to unique treasures of one of Miami’s best neighborhoods.
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, and 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, and 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 establishments like Lil Greenhouse Grill and Red Rooster bringing a resurgence to the neighborhood.
HistoryMiami Museum offers tours throughout South Florida that include Overtown. Check out their tour calendar for availability.
Historic Lyric Theatre
Nestled in Overtown in the district once known as “Little Broadway,” the Lyric Theatre stands as a symbol of 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 could 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.
The Historic Lyric Theater is located at 819 NW 2nd Ave, Miami, FL 33136
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. To their surprise, 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 until it closed in 1982, only to reopen in 2008. Today, Virginia Key beach is once again one of the best beaches in Miami, even hosting popular events like Ultra Music Festival.
Historic Virginia Key Beach is located at 4020 Virginia Beach Dr, Miami, FL 33149
Prompted by the overcrowding in Overtown, Liberty Square was the first public housing project established for Blacks in Florida.
Following Liberty Square’s opening, many middle-income Black families began moving from Overtown to Liberty City, which was 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, a seven-foot-tall wall was erected 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.
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 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 stop though as they transported criminals on foot or 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 from former members of the force themselves.
The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm, and admission prices ranges from $5 to $10 per person. Free admission for children ages 6 and under.
The Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum is located at 480 NW 11th St, Miami, FL 33136.
The Saltwater Railroad & Cape Florida Lighthouse
Bill Baggs State Park is known for its beautiful surroundings, but few 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.
Knowing their right to freedom was gone under American rule, many Black residents decided to flee via the Southern underground route. The route ran from Florida to the nearby Bahamas and allowed the enslaved to find refuge in British-controlled free Black communities in the islands.
Many 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 when the Cape Florida Lighthouse was built, which provided light for sailors at night and became a barrier for the enslaved to escape.
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 county.
The Cape Florida Lighthouse is located at 1200 South Crandon Blvd, Key Biscayne, FL 33149
Historic Hampton House
During the time of Jim Crow segregation laws in the 1960s, Hampton House was a “Negro Motorist Green Book” establishment, meaning that it was 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 pictures of King and Muhammed Ali swimming in the Hampton House pool that will give you a sense of the spirit of the time.
It is rumored Dr. King rehearsed a version of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech here before taking action in Washington in 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.”
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
Dana A. Dorsey House
Dana A. Dorsey was the first African American millionaire in Miami. This visionary entrepreneur, philanthropist, and pioneer made significant contributions to the growth and development of the city. Not only did he create affordable housing in Overtown (then known as Colored Town), but he founded Miami’s first Black-owned bank and donated the land for Dorsey Park, a recreational space for the Black community, and the first black library, Dorsey Library. To honor his contributions, his home in Overtown has been lovingly preserved.
Fun Fact: Miami Daily Metropolis’ headline “Negro Buys 1/3 of the Keys To Erect A Colored Resort” was the talk of the day when Dorsey bought Fisher Island in Miami Beach. While he dreamed of creating a Black resort, ongoing challenges made it impossible, and he ended up selling it.
This story is a small part of the fascinating history of Fisher Island. To see why this island is so highly coveted, we’d highly recommend reading up on the island and then taking the Miami Skyline 90-minute cruise of South Beach Millionaire Homes & Venetian Islands, which will show you how this gorgeous island looks today.
Booker T. Washington Senior High School
This seemingly ordinary high school in Overtown holds great historical significance as Miami’s first public high school for Black students. Students came from as far as West Palm Beach and Key West to attend.
Before the school’s opening, Black children were expected to start working full-time after finishing eighth grade. However, the idea of offering the opportunity for a continued education was hotly debated at the time. Despite the opposition, Black parents, who were often employed as laborers and washwomen, advocated for the opportunity for their children to continue their education.
After opening in 1926, it remained an all-Black high school until 1966.
Booker T. Washington Senior High School is located at 1200 NW 6th Ave, Miami, FL 33136
E.W.F Stirrup House
E.W.F. Stirrup was an influential labor leader and politician in Miami’s Bahamian community. He founded the first taxi cab union for Bahamian drivers in Miami in 1943. He served on the Miami City Council for over 30 years, advocating for labor rights and the city’s working-class citizens.
Known as the “Father of Labor” in Miami’s Bahamian community, Stirrup’s activism and political career helped shape the city’s labor movement and workers’ rights.
Today, you can stay in the beautiful Coconut Grove house that Stirrup built with his own two hands.
E.W.F Stirrup House is located at 3242 Charles Ave, Miami, FL 33133
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, artwork, and Phillip Shung’s photography.
Visit the Ward Rooming House website for information on upcoming events, ongoing and varied exhibitions.
The Historic Ward Rooming House is located at 249 NW 9th St, Miami, FL 33136
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. They were restricted from staying in hotels on the beach, including those that invited them to perform.
While the property is undergoing renovations and not offering tours, you can pass by 2540 NW 51st Street to see the space.
Before the 1940s, there were 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, racist groups often storm through the area to intimidate Black 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.
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.
Florida Memorial University is located at 15800 NW 42nd Ave, Miami Gardens, FL 33054
Black History in Miami: Final Thoughts
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 thriving neighborhoods to teahouses and safe houses, 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.
DIY Miami History Tour of Black Landmarks
To explore the fascinating history of Black pioneers and community leaders, plan a DIY history tour of Miami. As you take in the rich history, be sure to add these Must-Try Black-Owned Restaurants in Miami to your itinerary.
Looking for more unique things to do in Miami? To dive into the culture of the city, check out our 101 Things to Do in Miami: Your Ultimate Miami Bucket List.