Chronology of Overtown History
University of Miami Oral History Project
June 28, 1896
Miami is incorporated as a city. Forty one percent of those who vote to
incorporate are African-Americans. Among them are Silas Austin and Alex
Lightbourne, a foreign born Black Man who gives a rousing speech in
favor of incorporation at the incorporation meeting.
Old Washington School opens.
On Christmas Day, a fire burns down many buildings in white Miami.
Blacks are instrumental in the decision to move the county seat of Dade
County from Juno to Miami.
On November 12, another fire burns down much of white Miami. After this
date, higher standards are implemented regarding buildings in white
Miami, but the buildings in Colored Town continue to be made of would
and built close together – often becoming firetraps. Colored
Town remains deprived of other services, including paved streets,
sewage systems, and other infrastructure. As a result, the spread of
diseases and fires poses a great threat.
The Royal Palm Hotel is built, becoming one of the major tourist and
financial centers in early Miami.
Avenue D (later Miami Avenue) and 12th St. (later Flagler Street)
develop into Miami’s most important business streets. Blacks
are forbidden from operating businesses along these streets.
The U.S. Census shows 966 Blacks living in Miami, 727 of which are
foreign-born. These figures do not include Bahamian seasonal workers.
The Colored Board of Trade is founded.
The U.S. Census shows that 2,258 Blacks live in Miami.
Hardieville is closed down, due largely to the efforts of the Civic
League of Miami. The success of the CLM prompts Colored Town residents
to form their own organization, the Civic League of Colored Town. Among
the items in their agenda are the implementation of a curfew, the
removal of "immoral" women from the streets, and seeing that "good
women" were escorted at all times.
Richard Toomey opens the first African-American law practice in Miami.
Due to the spread of Blacks to the NW and S of Colored Town, Miami
residents attempt to legally impose segregation through Ordinance 199,
the Segregation or Color Line Ordinance. Although Ordinance 199 did not
pass, Morse Street (NW 20th Street) became an unofficial line
designating the Black part of town. Although this line did not prevent
the migration of Blacks from Colored Town, it did significantly slow
down this movement.
The Lyric Theater opens.
The United States enters WWI.
Blacks make up 32 percent of Miami’s population, but occupy
only 10 percent of its space.
Henry E.S. Reeves starts the Miami Times.
The Great Hurricane destroys much of Miami. Colored Town is among the
areas hardest hit, as is evidenced by the high concentration of relief
centers located within its boundaries. Blacks from as far as
Jacksonville come to Colored Town to assist in rebuilding the community.
Father John E. Culmer of Saint Agnes Episcopal Church becomes disturbed
over the tuberculosis deaths of several of his young parishioners. He
begins a crusade to improve conditions in his community, bringing his
concerns to the attention of the Greater Miami Negro Civic League and
volunteering to serve as chairman of the league’s
fact-finding committee. By the early 1930s, his crusade wins the
attention and support of the editor of the Miami Herald, who agrees to
publish a series of columns on the unhealthy conditions in Overtown.
Railroad hurt Colored Town? Before both used Ocean Beach, but
1930s, 40s, 50s
Colored Town’s Hey Day. N.W. 2nd Street, between 6th and 10th
streets, is considered Little Broadway, and many big name acts
(including white ones) frequent the neighborhood and perform there. The
Lyric, the Modern, and the Ritz theaters, the Mary Elizabeth Hotel with
its Flamingo Lounge, the Rockland Palace with its Della Robia, and the
St. John Hotel are among the cultural centers of the neighborhood.
During these years, it starts to be called Overtown by its residents.
The Miami Herald’s expose, inspired by Father
Culmer’s crusade, brings poor conditions in Miami to national
attention, and eventually President FDR himself sends officials from
the WPA to visit Colored Town. As a result, plans are made for
constructing one of the first federally funded public housing projects
in the nation – Liberty Square – which had all the
modern facilities and services that Overtown lacked.
The Royal Palm Hotel is torn down.
The area generally referred to as the Central Negro District (Colored
Town) has its name changed to Washington Heights.
Liberty City, a predominantly black community developed by Floyd Davis,
a white man, springs up near the Liberty Square Housing Project.
Although many blacks from Overtown and Lemon City are hesitant to move
to the distant community, Alfonso Kelly, a black salesman hired by
Davis, manages to sell a significant number of lots to Miami blacks.
Home inspections start. Officials begin coming to black homes and
dictating that electrical standards had to be met, as well as demanding
property for the building of sidewalks. This Urban Renewal begins to
take its toll on the population of Overtown as many move out.
The Coconut Festival, which coincided with the Orange Bowl Parade,
becomes the Orange Blossom Classic.
Rev. Edward T. Graham, pastor of Overtown’s Mt. Zion Baptist
Church, emerges as one of Miami’s major Civil
A plan to have the Miami Expressway routed along the Florida East Coast
Railway corridor into downtown Miami is conceived. This plan would have
little impact on housing in nearby Overtown.
The 1955 plans for the expressway construction are scrapped, and a new
plan prepared for the Florida State road Department shifted the route
to the west and directly through Overtown. Despite community
objections, the new route is accepted by the road department and
supported by various downtown Miami officials and groups like the
Chamber of Commerce. Specifically, the Florida East Coast Railway
right-of-way was rejected, as the plan state, in order to provide
"ample room for the future expansion of the central business district
in a westerly direction."
Desegregation and its effect on Colored Town business.
The construction of I-95 and I-35 rips through the center of Overtown,
wiping out massive amounts of housing as well as Overtown’s
main business district – the business and cultural heart of
black Miami. The population drops from about 40,000 to about 10,000.
Today, parking lots for the Miami Arena stretch along 2nd Avenue where
the Rockland Palace and the Cotton Club once stood.
Police brutality and the failure of the Dade County business community
in helping blacks, despite promises to do so, creates increasing
tension in Black Miami, and more passive Civil rights leaders begin to
decline in influence.
During the Republican National Convention, which convened in Miami
Beach to nominate Richard M. Nixon for the presidency, Miami branches
of some black political groups, such as CORE and the Black Panthers,
organized political rallies in the black community. The restive crowds,
which had gathered close to 62nd Street and 17th Ave., started pelting
passing police cars with rocks. Hours later, the crowd attacked a
passing car with a "George Wallace for President" bumper sticker, and
the incident gradually developed into a full-scale riot.
Rotten Meat Riot takes place in Brownsville.
Rev. Graham is appointed to the Miami City Commission.
Rev. Graham is elected to the Metro Commission in his own right.
An investigation led by Assistant State Attorney Martin Francis Dardis
implicates Graham and several other metro commissioners in an alleged
Rev. Graham is found guilty of accepting zoning bribes and is forced to
resign from the commission. He is the first of several black leaders to
be discredited in the 1970s and 80s (Brownsville’s Neal Adams
and Coconut Grove’s Dr. Johnny Jones would both suffer
similar fates in 1979). Many Miami blacks perceived these incidents as
the product of racial discrimination.
The State Supreme Court overturns the conviction against Rev. Graham,
and the city drops the charges against him, but his reputation is
Arthur McDuffie, an unarmed motorcyclist, is beat to death at North
Miami Avenue and Thirty-eighth Street by as many as a dozen white Miami
Upon the acquittal of McDuffie’s killers, full-scale riots
erupt in Miami’s black communities.
Luis Alvarez and Luis Cruz, two uniformed Hispanic police officers, are
involved in shooting Nevel Johnson Jr. without provocation at an
Overtown pool room/video arcade. The incident sparks a full-scale riot.
Several hundred blacks set fire to police cruisers, loot several
stores, and trapped the two officers inside the video arcade. Alvarez
is charged with culpable negligence and recklessness, and faced a
maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a ten-thousand-dollar fine if
convicted. Ultimately, Alvarez is found not guilty. The verdict sparks
another series of riots in Overtown and Liberty City,
Miami City commissioners approve a $460,000 settlement with the family
of Nevel Johnson Jr.
Rev. Graham dies in relative obscurity.
While on call in Overtown, Police officer William Lozano shoots Clement
Anthony Lloyd as the young man rides towards him on a motorcycle,
killing him and his passenger, Allan Blanchard. The incident sparks a
major riot, which lasts for four days and spreads into Liberty City and
Coconut Grove. Lozano is found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to
7 years in prison.
Lozano wins an appeal and is acquitted of the murders of Lloyd and