Neighborhood Transformation
Neighborhood Transformation

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Miami Herald - 8-30-12

The Brownsville neighborhood in central Miami-Dade has a rich history stretching back to World War I.

Special to The Miami Herald

Brownsville was farmland back in the 1910s, when it was settled by a white man named W.L. Brown. Shortly after World War II, black people started moving in, amid strong opposition from the predominantly white community.

The neighborhood first appeared on a county plat map in 1916, when Brown registered the two-square-mile patch of land as "Brown Subdivision." It later became known as Brownsville and locals simply call it "Brown Sub." It stretches from Northwest 54th Street to the north, 32nd Avenue to the west, 41st Street to the south, and 27th Avenue to the east.

By 1941, there were fewer than 100 families living in Brownsville. The wilderness and farm country remained virtually unchanged for 50 years, until World War II ended, and demand for area housing spiked.

In the late 1940s, despite white opposition, blacks started to move into the all-white section of Brownsville, and the resultant white flight caused the area to be virtually all black by the mid-1960s," writes Marvin Dunn, who chronicled the change in his book Black Miami in the Twentieth Century.

Dunn wrote only a few paragraphs in Black Miami about Brownsville but cited the concept of homeownership as a cornerstone of the community along with the creation of the Brownsville Improvement Association to foster local projects and activities. Improvements for what was described as a "Model City" included organizing a booster club for the middle school and creating better recreation facilities in area parks.

The most celebrated events took place at Georgette’s Tea Room, which drew celebrities like Billie Holiday during the 50’s who were not permitted to stay at the Miami Beach hotels where they performed.

The tea room’s owner, Georgette Campbell, who came to Brownsville from New York, entertained the social and political elite at the two-story house which still stands at 2540 NW 51st St.

The transition from the 50s to the 60s saw more blacks move into Brownsville, as many chose the tree-adorned streets and spacious yards over increased congestion in Overtown, known then as Colored Town, a few miles to the south.

Brownsville was the only place where a black man could purchase a reasonably-priced home on a construction worker’s salary, Otis Crawford told the Miami Herald in 1983. Crawford, like many of his neighbors, bought his home in the early 60s.

Excerpts from a 1965 Urban Renewal Plan show that city and county officials and community leaders sought to create a strong, stable residential neighborhood in Brownsville that included reducing population and dwelling unit densities. The plan encouraged redevelopment of the "highest possible caliber" for moderate and low-income families.

But these plans of an American Dream for many black families crashed along the rocks of civil unrest, racism and fear of the late 60s.

"Dade County’s Negro ghettos are spreading," wrote Juanita Greene, a reporter for the Miami Herald in a 1967 exposé called The Negro and Housing. "The growth is fastest in the Northwest – moving at a pace of about a block and a half a week."

Greene wrote that the core Brownsville ghetto boundary had been breached. From the inside, blacks yearned for a better life. From the outside, the white community was gripped with fear that the slums would "explode" as they had done by 1967 in 37 U.S. cities. This was best illustrated by what took place at a dirt bank that divided a black and white neighborhood near what is now the Earlington Heights Metrorail station.

"There was a hill around 41st Street known as the war zone, where blacks fought whites," said former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Neal Adams, in a 1982 Miami News story. "The whites had guns and the blacks had slingshots."

Amid the strife, Brownsville’s 20,000 residents held high expectations and yearned for self-sufficiency, with plans to build and manage their own factories and houses and even devise their own welfare system.

"Eventually Brownsville could become a municipality with its own taxation, police force, water, garbage collection, and other things that come under city governments," Gwendolyn Cherry, an attorney, told The Miami Herald in 1968.

Cherry was the director of the Economic Opportunity Program, a local poverty program that sought federal funds to carry out social programs in Brownsville.

Meanwhile, residents were excited to learn that 5½ acres were being cleared near Northwest 19th Avenue and 60th Street to build decent public housing units with laundry hookups and a playground. The public housing project was named after prominent Brownsville civil rights advocate Annie M. Coleman.

Construction of the Annie Coleman projects was hastened after a 1967 Miami Herald report showed tenants living in squalid conditions including human filth, exposed electrical wires and broken doors in Overtown.

The Miami Housing Authority helped find places for people to live as part of the area’s urban renewal program. But any goodwill built during this time vanished as soon as Brownsville neighbors caught wind that the man responsible for helping the poor find public housing in the area owned slums condemned as unfit for human habitation.

Martin Fine, chairman of the Miami Housing Authority, told the Miami Herald in 1968 that he engaged in his own "private urban renewal" program because of his long-range plan to improve the neighborhood. Nine of the properties that Fine bought were found to be structurally unsafe and later condemned.

But this tension came to a head in the 70s when a local hero of the working class, Joseph Caleb, was ambushed and shot dead. Caleb was the head of the predominantly black Laborers International of North America, Local 478.

The Miami Herald reported that more than 4,000 mourners walked past Caleb’s casket at the local union hall, making it one of Brownsville’s best-attended funerals.

A few years later, Caleb was honored with a multi-acre community center that bears his name. It houses a library, courthouse, motor vehicles department and the office of Miami-Dade County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson.

Brownsville locals found another place to escape to where they could let it all hang out.

"We all hung out at the tree to play spades, chess and barbecue," said Renita Holmes, 52, a Brownsville community activist who started hanging out there when she turned 14. "So we all flocked to the tree like birds."

"The Tree" is actually a row of ficus trees on a 1½-acre lot at 3737 NW 46th St. Residents sometimes said "The Tree" to refer to the whole lot, which included a bar, and a package store that sold liquor that was usually consumed on site.

Holmes said that neighbors felt safe at The Tree and she remembers seeing the band Tree Top play there in the 70’s – a name inspired by the location.

Though it became one of the most popular underground hangouts in Miami’s history, the tree was virtually unknown to outsiders.

A broken sign at the vacant brick building that leads to The Tree reads "The Treehouse" — the name of the old bar. In the front was a package store that sold liquor that was usually consumed on site.

"We couldn’t cross Northwest 32nd Avenue," said Foyea Fisher, 67, a retired government employee who frequented the tree. "Blacks weren’t allowed to go to certain areas."

Fisher described much of the area as farms and dirt roads especially in Amos Town, or the area that is now Northwest 24th Avenue and 50th Street.

The man who developed that parcel was named Theodore Amos.

Today The Tree is closed and fenced off, but many residents have moved a few blocks to the east to hang out across from the cemetery.

The final resting place for early Brownsville area settlers was Lincoln Memorial Cemetery at 3001 NW 46th St. In 1975, the city commemorated Miami black pioneers at the site that included D.A. Dorsey, Miami’s first black millionaire; Rev. John Culmer, rector of the historical St. Agnes Episcopal Church in Overtown; and Dr. William Sawyer, the county’s first black physician.

"We’re struggling to do the best we can to serve the community," said Jessica Williams, 38, a caretaker and niece of Lincoln’s owner, Elyn Johnson, 83.

Built in 1924, Lincoln today houses more than 1,500 above-ground tombs, according to Williams. Most are stacked so close that you need to walk over tombs to reach a loved one. For example, one must scurry over several tombs to reach the tomb of Henry Reeves, who founded the largest black-owned newspaper in the south, the Miami Times. Since 1923, the newspaper has served as a voice of Miami’s black community.

"I have two relatives buried here but have no idea where they’re at," said Renita Holmes, as she pieced together a broken nameplate for a member of the Bethel family.

Many plots are covered with waist-high weeds and have been damaged by the elements and neglect. But the worst destruction has come from man, Williams said.

"They broke into two more graves last week looking for bones," said Williams, as most of the graves are above ground making them easy to pry open. "These are our ancestors and this is our history."

"If we don’t tend to it who will?"

The Miami-Dade Public Library System’s Florida Room and the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida contributed to the research of this article.