Miami Beach was built on Black labor. When we visit the strip of hotels and beautiful beaches today, we seldom think of the roots of its development. Flagler built most of Florida and its tourist empire on the backs of slaves. As claimed by The Washington Post, he exploited
“two brutal labor systems … convict leasing and debt peonage. Created to preserve the white supremacist racial order … these systems targeted African Americans, stealing their labor and entrapping them in state-sanctioned forms of involuntary servitude.”
With the arrival of the railroad in Florida, Miami was incorporated in 1896, and so was Colored Town. In his book, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, Florida historian Marvin Dunn quotes Miami’s first Black radiologist and his perception of Black and white relations before Carl Fisher started developing Ocean Beach – today’s Miami Beach. Prior to incorporation, Miami was a small town where everyone knew each other, black and white alike. However, according to Dr. Samuel Hensdale Johnson, “Miami really became a hell-hole after the railroad arrived and Carl Fisher developed Miami Beach.”
During the early 1900s, the land previously populated by the Tequesta and Seminole Indians was unpopulated, and Jim Crow laws had not been enforced. By the 1920s, however, after Miami Beach was incorporated in 1915, segregation in South Florida was firmly established, and there were no beaches accessible to Black families.
From the mid-1920s to 1950s, Black people were not allowed to step foot in Miami Beach hotels, with the exception of hospitality industry workers. Even famous Black musicians such as Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday, who came to Miami to entertain white folks, had to stay in nearby Colored Town, where Miami’s Black community thrived.
As referenced in Miami New Times, it did not take white policymakers long to enact Ordinance 457, which required domestic workers, servants, and hotel workers to register with the city and carry “passes” in order to enter all-white neighborhoods, including Miami Beach and Coral Gables. Although Colored Town was a construct of segregation, it also offered a refuge where Black entertainers felt safe and played for free at the local nightclubs without being subjected to racism from whites.
In 1945, at least ten years before the onset of the Civil Rights Movement, the famous Haulover Wade-in drew the attention of Dade-county officials as they did not want a scene that would affect tourism. Seven Black members went into the all-white beach waters of Haulover Beach Park as a form of protest to highlight the injustices of segregation. The county’s response was not to allow Black and whites to congregate together as would have been the most logical and easiest solution. Instead, in August 1945, they opened Virginia Beach in Key Biscayne, the first and only beach for Blacks in South Florida. It closed its doors in 1982 because of lack of funding.
However, Historic Virginia Beach Park reopened its doors in 2008 and remains open today. While it offers sandy beaches and a beautiful stretch of crystal clear waters, it also serves as an important reminder of Miami’s history of racism and segregation.
Two highways not too far from Virginia Beach are also representative of callous decisions made for Black Miami communities without considering their well-being or input. In the 1950s and 1960s, the construction of I-95 and 395 fragmented Colored Town into four quadrants and inspired its current name, Overtown. There are efforts today to revitalize the community, preserve Historic Black Churches and other landmarks, including Dorsey House and Lyric Theater, as well as the construction of the nearby Rail Station and community projects such as Roots in City Garden Lotus House Women’s Shelter, and Overtown Youth Center.
Although Overtown has not yet returned to its former glory of the 1920s as the Harlem of the South, there is a thriving community trying to regain its power and beauty through its collective history. Structural violence and racism continue to plague marginalized communities with a history of disfranchisement.
For Miami, that history is rooted in slavery, segregation, and institutionalized racism, and its repercussions are still felt today in divided and segregated Miami neighborhoods. Segregation and discrimination were not limited to Blacks. Members of the Jewish community were also excluded from white neighborhoods until changes began to take place after World War II. With the influx of Cuban immigrants in the 1950s, a new kind of discrimination and racial divide ensued in Miami.
As a child and adolescent growing up between Miami and Caracas, my parents could only afford to take me to the beach. When we first migrated to Florida, we moved to North Miami, where my neighbors were Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Blacks; years later, I became aware I lived in a Black neighborhood. At one point, I lost my first opportunity to visit Disney World because my uncle did not dare cross the border into riot territory.
As a child, however, I was not aware of the great divide that existed amongst us. We religiously frequented Haulover Beach, or “La playa de los negros,” as we came to affectionately call our beach. While we could easily go to Sunny Isles, or cross the bridge into Bal Harbour, we preferred Haulover Park, where a sea of Black families visited every weekend.
Tucked away amongst the multitude of beachgoers was a stretch of isolated sand and water that no one seemed to be attracted to except for isolated loners like us. It was there, in the in-between, that we felt most at home. However, our quest for solitary beaches was not racist, but it was racially motivated. In fact, my parents sought lonely spots when we went to the “white beaches” in Hollywood, where we were not as welcomed in the 80s and 90s.
Little did I know as a child the history of Haulover Beach and the role it played as a precursor of the Civil Rights Movement.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Haulover remains a Black beach today, where Black beachgoers enjoy family time, where stereotypes are momentarily kept in check, where they feel safe.
The African diaspora’s relationship with water is a complicated one. Water played a significant role in the slave trade. The Middle Passage and slave trade, in fact, happened in open water and seaports. As Falene Nurse points outs, “the coastline holds trauma for the Black community. At the main ports of the slave trade, American waters claimed many Black lives … Then, segregation came to the nation’s shores.”
There are some Black communities actively reclaiming their connection to water today. In Florida, a Black women’s surf collective recently founded Texture Waves, an organization to raise visibility for Black and marginalized groups in surfing. Their recent project ROOTS, Nurse claims, is a nostalgic love letter about the hidden Black history of beach life, digitally curated by women of color who experience the sea as a safe space.”
Healing and change from transgenerational trauma can only take place as the mistakes of the past are acknowledged and rectified. Without recognizing the harm inflicted on Black Americans, there is no path forward.