Neighborhood Transformation

Neighborhood Transformation
Overtown
Miami-Hearld Neighborhood Guide

2/4/02 - Leslie Casimir

Born out of racism, Overtown has a heart-wrenching history filled with a rich spirit that refuses to die. Hidden between Downtown Miami and the civic center, Overtown was once Black Miami's showcase, centerpiece, and mecca: a self-sustaining community filled with an entertainment district, shops, groceries, law offices -- even a hospital.

Now it is one of Dade's poorest communities, buried beneath Interstate 95. These days, the majority of people who live there are those who have very few choices. Rent is cheap and public and subsidized housing is available. Many of the homes and businesses are gone, bulldozed when interstates 95 and 395 dissected the community.

Overtown owes its birth to railroad magnate Henry Flagler, who rolled into town, connecting South Florida to the rest of country. Many blacks, who provided labor to Flagler, headed to Miami. The city of Miami platted the land west of the railroad tracks, designating it a place where blacks could live. They called it Colored Town and life flourished there. The churches were -- and still are -- the center for civic and social life in the black community.

Overtown was home to many of Miami's successful black families. William A. Chapman Sr., a prominent black physician, lived and worked there. His house at Northwest Third Avenue and 11th Street is now used by Miami-Dade County Public Schools as a research center. There's Dana Albert Dorsey, Miami's first black millionaire, who made his fortune buying land. A replica of his home was rebuilt several years ago at its original location at 250 NW Ninth St. by the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation, an organization that is pushing to revive the once-thriving entertainment district of Overtown. During its heyday -- during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s -- black musicians and artists hung out in Overtown after performances on then-segregated Miami Beach.

Still standing is Greater Bethel AME Church, 245 NW Eighth St., one of the few remaining examples of Mediterranean Revival Architectural style in Overtown. Its congregation was born in 1896.

In 1998, there has been a push, fueled by some of Miami's black lawmakers, to restore Overtown by investing in the community with economic development projects. The Miami City Commission recently voted to revitalize the neighborhood's historic district, for example.

And a small business community grows. There's longtime People's Barbecue, 360 NW Eighth St. The family business has been serving up savory ribs with a special barbecue sauce for 38 years.