Miami's black history, in 10 stunning vintage photos


Miami is a young city, but its entire history is defined by black citizens. In the early 1900s, African Americans and immigrants from the Bahamas made up 40% of the population. Cultural landmarks and industries were built on their labor. But as the city rose to prominence over the next century, they didn’t get share all the rewards. Once-vibrant neighborhoods like Overtown and Brownsville saw economic decline. In 1980, riots over the police-related death of a black man caused 18 deaths and 600 arrests.

Today, many say conditions are getting better for black Miamians, but it’s all relative. “Things had been so bad for so long that now that we’ve reached a relative stasis, it seems far better,” the late Joe Oglesby, once the highest-ranking news executive at the Herald, said in 2010.

In honor of black history month, and courtesy of HistoryMiami Museum, here are some great old photos of Miami’s black history. All of them are available for purchase here.

1890: Gathering at the boat house

Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood was the first black settlement in southern Florida, settled by Bahamians in the 1880s. Caribbean immigrants brought important skills to the young city, and they knew the local foods and plants better than Northerners. This photo likely depicts workers on the estate of Ralph Munroe, a yacht designer from New York who lived on the upper floor of the boat house seen below before his estate was completed in 1891.

1950: Billie Holiday serenades the tea room

Georgette’s Tea Room in Brownsville was a popular meeting place and guest house in the 1940s and 1950s, when black entertainers were welcome to perform in Miami Beach but not to stay overnight. Here, Billie Holiday entertains a group of teachers.

1954: Dancing on Grand Avenue

For decades after its founding, Coconut Grove thrived with black-owned businesses. But Grand Avenue, like Brownsville, suffered an economic decline after World War II, when new apartment buildings and white residents pushed out black-owned businesses.

1962: Pool party at the Sir John Hotel

Overtown, near downtown Miami, was another vibrant black neighborhood in the 20th century. Sammy Davis Jr., Aretha Franklin, and Ella Fitzgerald performed in the area. And the Sir John Hotel—which no longer stands—had a pool scene to rival any in Miami Beach.

1967: Checking in at the Hampton House

The Hampton House Motel in Brownsville was a hub of activity in the 1960s. Martin Luther King met with civil-rights leaders and held press conferences there. (He also swam in the pool). It was also a popular site for wedding receptions and beauty pageants. Today it has been restored as a museum.

1967: Muhammad Ali hits the gym

This photo was taken at Miami Beach’s 5th Street Gym, which is famous for producing a run of champion boxers beginning in the 1950s. “Cassius Clay was born in Louisville. Muhammad Ali was born in Miami,” his cornerman Ferdie Pacheco once said.

1976: Celia Cruz performs at a nightclub

Cruz, seen here with her husband Pedro Knight, was an Afro-Cuban entertainer who became an icon of the Miami salsa scene. The most popular Latina artist of the 20th century, Cruz was laid in state at downtown Miami’s Freedom Tower when she died in 2003.

1980: Garth Reeves inspects the morning edition

Reeves (left) was born in the Bahamas and came to Miami as an infant. In 1970, he took over from his father as publisher and chief executive of theTimes, now the largest black newspaper in the South.

1985: T. Willard Fair tries to oust the mayor

Fair, the CEO of the Urban League of Greater Miami, led a fight for equal employment in the 1980s. “If you were black, you could not work east of Biscayne Boulevard. That was the unwritten code. We changed that,” he once wrote. In 1985, he led an unsuccessful effort to recall Mayor Maurice Ferrer after Ferrer fired a black city manager.

Adam Auriemma edits the Justice section at Fusion.

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