OK, I know what you’re thinking. Miami? The blackest city in America? Ha! Not with all that “tiki tiki music” that everyone automatically hears once there’s any scene showcasing the 3-0-5 in movies, music videos and TV shows. But hear me out. Miami is actually the blackest city in America and I’m here to school you. Let’s get to it.
First of all, the wonderful paradise that we know as Miami would literally not be a thing without black people. I’m not even exaggerating. Many of the very first settlers of Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood in the mid-1880s were Bahamian immigrants. These black pioneers were particularly crucial to Miami’s beginning because they were knowledgeable about the tropical food and plants in the area. Soon after, Miami would become an official city. When it came time to incorporate in 1896, 368 men signed the charter for Miami to become legitimately recognized by the state of Florida. And 162 of those men were black. In fact, the first name on the charter is Silas Austin, a black man. Blacks and whites have lived together, side-by-side, in Miami without major incident until present day.
Decades earlier, following the Civil War, the Black Codes were passed. Black Codes were restrictive laws created following the abolishment of slavery to restrict the rights of black people and ensure that they’d still be available as a cheap source of labor. That, followed by Jim Crow laws, served to disenfranchise blacks throughout the South, which, of course, included Miami. Eventually, black Miamians were relocated (read: forced to move) to Colored Town. Yup, that’s the actual name.
The area now known as Historic Overtown was literally called Colored Town in the early 1900s (a little on the nose if you ask me). Colored Town was the epicenter of black culture in Miami and featured thriving businesses, cultural delights and world-class entertainment. Some of the most notable locations for grand displays of black joy could be found in Miami at places such as Georgette’s Tea Room, Harlem Square Club, Lyric Theater, the Mary Elizabeth Hotel, and more.
Colored Town was even known as Miami’s Black Wall Street and the Harlem of the South. In fact, black entertainers such as Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and many others frequented Miami. These greats would perform in Miami Beach for the white masses; however, they weren’t allowed to actually stay on the beach because, racism. So folks would head over the town to Overtown. Sadly, this once bustling metropolis was devastated with the construction of Interstate 95, which runs right through the neighborhood. But! In true black fashion, Historic Overtown is undergoing a renaissance. Try as they might, they can’t keep us down.
Of course, I can’t talk about Miami’s black history without mentioning the ’80s and the ’90s. December 1979, a young black man named Arthur McDuffie was beaten to death by four white police officers. When those same four officers were all acquitted on May 17 1980, the Liberty City neighborhood in Miami burned for three days straight. People poured out into the streets in protest. By the end of it, 18 people were killed, 400 people were injured, and Liberty City was left in ruins. The McDuffie riot served as a starting point for other riots in the decade.
The late ’80s and early ’90s in Miami were also a time of mass immigration. While many people know the story of Cubans seeking exile in Miami, their Haitian counterparts seeking political asylum were not met with the same open arms. While Haitian people had been immigrating to Miami as early as the 1800s, almost 40,000 people fled the island nation by the early ’90s to escape political turmoil. Called the Haitian Boat People, (we’ve really gotta work on our naming skills, Miami) many of these migrants died at sea or were forced to return to Haiti. Many Haitian refugees who were able to make Miami their new home settled in what is now known as Little Haiti, one of the blackest neighborhoods in Miami today, full of colorful art, community, and Haitian culture. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say: Shout out to my people!
Can you hear that? It’s Miami’s music scene. Jams in the Magic City are an eclectic mix of sounds inspired by the motherland. Hip-hop, reggae, kompa, soca, zouk, and more. Some of your auntie’s favorite jams wouldn’t be a thing without Miami. Aretha Franklin, that’s right the Queen of Soul, scored some of her greatest hits in Miami. 2 Live Crew (shout out to Uncle Luke) brought Miami bass to the world and became champions of free speech. That brings us to Trick Daddy and Trina. Yes, they’re currently living it up on Love & Hip Hop Miami but they are pioneers in the rap scene in their own right. Oh, and that “tiki tiki music” I mentioned earlier? Actually black AF. The foundation of salsa music is rooted in African tradition. And let’s not forget that one of the best people to ever do it was Afro-Cubana Queen of Salsa Celia Cruz.
A wise woman once said, “I got beans, greens, potatoes, tomatoes—YOU NAME IT!” While everyone thinks she was just preaching a Sunday morning service, she was really talking about Miami’s black food scene. Because we’ve got alladat and more. What she didn’t mention since she ran out of breath is that we also got: roti, jerk, griot, sancocho, and this list goes on and on. Whether you’re looking for delicious soul food or an authentic Caribbean meal, you can find it at places like longtime staple Jackson’s Soul Food or mom and pop spots throughout the city. And outside of Haiti, where else are you going to find the largest concentration of black folk eating a hearty pumpkin soup on Jan. 1 to celebrate the day they overturned their masters with a resounding: F*CK OUTTA HERE? That’s right. Miami. And if that’s not black AF, I don’t know what is.
Miami has played a vital role throughout some of black history’s most important events. You want notable figures? We’ve got it.
Barry Jenkins: He brought us Moonlight, a poignant display of life as a young black man discovering himself and his sexuality in a way we’ve never seen before. And he’s also the genius behind If Beale Street Could Talk, a cinematic masterpiece that’s had everybody ugly crying beside strangers across the country. And yes, he’s from Miami. You’re welcome.
Muhammad Ali: Ferdie “the Fight Doctor” Pacheco said it perfectly: Cassius Clay was born in Louisville, Ky. Muhammad Ali was born in Miami.
Andrew Gillum: He might not have won the Florida governorship (I may or may not still be salty about this), but he’s def not going anywhere anytime soon. We can’t wait to see what this Miami native does next.
Rick Ross: The Teflon Don is Miami all day. He’ll make you forget that you’re sitting in your cubicle as you listen to misogynistic rhymes to a catchy beat. (Is this too shady? lol)
Some other Miami notables: D.A. Dorsey (Google him), Laila Ali, Sam Cooke, Jo Marie Peyton, Sidney Poitier, Flo Rida, City Girls, Betty Wright, Pretty Ricky, Astronaut Captain Winston E. Scott,
Me, and the list goes on and on and on.
(Pitbull gets an honorable mention because he was black before 2010.)
I could give you one unique black Miami fact, but like a true Haitian woman, I’m gonna give you two servings. First up: Whitney Houston performed her iconic rendition of “I Will Always Love You,” from The Bodyguard at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach. How ironic is it that one of the greatest musical performances of all time happened in Miami? And by none other than a black woman?
And finally, Miami was your fave’s fave. During the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was filled with undeniable stress. One way that he was able to decompress was by frequently visiting my lovely city. A preferred destination for him while he was in Miami was the historic Hampton House. So much so, that he even had a preferred room that allowed for discreet exits from the people who would flock to him. Most important about Dr. King’s time in Miami? He delivered the very first version of his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech there. That’s right. Without Miami, we’d all still be sleep.
So there you have it. Miami is indeed the blackest city in America. Miami’s blackness is vast, multifaceted and nuanced. It reminds us that blackness is not a monolith no matter how people try to classify us. Epi dasset.