By Douglas C. Lyons
I remember my grandfather, James H. Lark, a religious industrious man who believed in both God and the ownership of land. He was very passionate about both.
An evangelist who became a Mennonite bishop and a proud property owner, buying land was tantamount to success, particularly for a Negro making his way amid mid-20th century American when racial segregation was a way of life.
N.D.B. Connolly’s book, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida is an eye-opening exploration of the value of being a property owner and how black landowners in Miami survived — and often thrived — even as blacks in general suffered under the harsh laws and norms that made them second-class citizens.
From the inception of Miami’s Colored Town, to the 1960s when racial segregation of Jim Crow gave way to another challenging time for black Miamians — the arrival of Cuban immigrants to South Florida, Connolly methodically examines how black landowners navigated the turbulence of Magic City as it went from wood to concrete, glass and steel.
Connolly’s work is scholarly and objective. Any traces of heroism of black strivers prospering against the white power structure are immediately dashed by the reality of the enduring bond of owning property. That bond often trumped efforts to improve civil rights and black living conditions.
Whether you were black or white, property owners ruled, especially in a state where development is second nature.
Black landowners did well, often as slumlords but still as valued members of the black elite. White landowners did better, particularly those who exploited black tenants who were forced to live in inferior housing. Yet, whenever threatened by government regulation or civic minded individuals seeking to wipe out the slums, black and white property owners stuck together for mutual benefit.
To truly understand the history of the Sunshine State, it’s essential to know the value of land, the rights of property owners and their impact on Florida’s communities. The same can be said for civil rights movement in South Florida and the inequities facing the region’s black and white residents today. Connolly’s book excels in addressing those topics.
Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of blackinfla.com.