are many shades of black in Miami: ethnic shades, economic shades, religious
shades, and political shades, among others. There is, therefore, no such thing
as the black community of Dade County; there are many black communities in Dade
County. Indeed, we comprise groups with quite different historical experiences,
priorities, and perceptions. Now, after more than a century on Biscayne Bay,
blacks in Dade County face a watershed. In the search for answers to what lies
ahead, a look back might be helpful-perhaps even inspiring.
Four historical events brought black people to Miami. The first,
in the early 1880s, was the collapse of the Bahamian economy, which forced thousands
of black workers to leave their homeland in search of employment. Some came to
the Florida Keys, particularly to Key West. By the 1890s, the migration had extended
north up the chain of islands to Biscayne Bay. There the emigrants found seasonal
work on the scattered, white-owned farms that existed in the area before the
city of Miami was established in 1896. A few settled permanently in a small farming
community called Lemon City, north of the Miami River. By the early 1890s many
had also settled in Coconut Grove, which maintains a distinctly Bahamian flavor
The second historical event that brought blacks to Miami was
the Great Freeze which struck the southeastern United States, particularly Florida,
in the winter of 1894-1895. Temperatures plunged to fourteen degrees in Jacksonville
for four days. Virtually all crops north of Lake Worth were destroyed; the Florida
citrus industry, then in its infancy, was decimated. In the aftermath of the
freeze, thousands of white farmers and black field workers headed south from
north and central Florida and from southern states such as Georgia and South
Carolina, hoping to capitalize on the expansion of agriculture in Florida. By
the turn of the century, thousands of blacks had settled in Miami and in small
farming communities to the south, such as South Miami, Goulds, Homestead, and
The third historical event was the arrival of Henry M. Flagler's
Florida East Coast Railroad at Biscayne Bay in July 1896. This railroad had been
chiefly responsible for the expansion of agriculture and tourism in Florida as
far south as West Palm Beach by the time of the Great Freeze Of 1894-95. Flagler
had no definite plans to extend his system further south, but the urging of a
white woman named Julia Tuttle (later recognized as the mother of Miami) caused
Flagler to agree to bring the railroad to the bay in 1896. The city of Miami
was established in that year. The building of the railroad and the city required
hard physical labor, and thousands of blacks were glad to get the work. Thus,
Miami has been populated by a significant number of blacks from it's very beginning.
Indeed, when the vote to establish the city of Miami was taken, 162 of the 367
voters were black.
The fourth and most recent factor influencing the presence
of blacks in Dade County has been the economic and political turmoil in Haiti
and Cuba. This unrest has resulted in the arrival of untold numbers of immigrants,
legal and otherwise, in south Florida since the 1970s. Many of these newcomers
Massive immigration has caused some African Americans to feel
increasingly isolated and angry because they believe the immigrants from Haiti
and Cuba have displaced them in the job market. Many blacks also feel that immigration
has negatively impacted public facilities such as hospitals, and schools. Consequently,
among the African American, Cuban and Haitian communities, there exists a low-level
tension and strong competition for dwindling public resources.
Ethnic tensions in Miami extend beyond the immigration issue.
Like most big cities, Miami, has not solved it's policing problem. The result
has been a decade of deadly race rits, which have shaken the city to it's core
and earned Miami the title of the most ethnically divided city in America. Today,
multiethnic black Miami has slowly climbed into the mainstream with help from
many people in the white and Hispanic communities. From the city's earliest days.
there were whites who spoke out against injustices committed upon blacks; whites
were a key element in Miami's civil rights struggle. More recently, Hispanics
have begun to offer blacks access to the opportunities created by the phenomenal
growth of the Latino community.