Eminent Domain Used for Urban Removal in Miami

“Officers began combing the four blocks between NW 46th and 48th streets, from NW 12th to 14th avenues, knocking on doors. In a frenzied two hours, during which the rains began falling heavily, officers carried out a court-ordered writ of possession, legally authorizing the execution of eminent domain… By 1:p.m., officers had forcibly evicted thirty-five families from their homes, casting them and their property out into the storm. To minimize water damage to their possessions, kids, expectant mothers, unemployed men and old folk struggled to move couches, dressers and other furniture under mango and avocado trees.”

Source: A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida by N.D.B. Connolly The University of Chicago Press, 2014, p. 147

A Father’s Advice on Race

“Perhaps realizing the substance of his legacy, William [Sawyer] did not pass without giving his son Bill, principal heir to his fortune, a last important lesson. ‘When my daddy was dying,’ the younger Sawyer recalled, ‘ he had me come in and gave me a long talk. He said, ‘Bill, try to be careful as you can with your developments and your monies and stuff like that because you are a nigger, and I want you to know that for the foreseeable future you are going to be a nigger.’

For a long time, Bill concluded, ‘I found that to be true.’

Sources: Bill Sawyer, Interviewed by Stephanie Wanza, August 25, 1997, 3, 59, Tell the Story Collection BA; and A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida, by N.D.B. Connolly The University of Chicago Press, 2014, p. 165

Another Must Read for Any Serious Fan of Florida’s Black History

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.

Chicago Had Nothing on Miami’s “Black Artillery”

Chicago politics has nothing on Florida’s. Seriously!

One of America’s earliest “black political machines” dates back to the 1896 incorporation of Miami. Back then, white business interests used black voters to help pass coveted development projects, and no one took better advantage of the process than Florida’s famed uber-developer, Henry Flagler.

A one-time foreman for Flagler named John Sewell turned a cadre of his black workers into a potent, ready-made voting bloc. Dubbed the “black artillery,” Sewell’s men would often vote en masse to ensure city votes went the right way.

Sewell took care of his “votes.” He went so far as to keep his men up to date on their poll taxes, and he made sure his men met the state’s property requirements to take advantage of any special “freeholder” elections.

“I had about one hundred of my negroes registered and qualified to vote, and held them in reserve for emergencies,” Sewell said.

It must have worked. Sewell went on to become one of Miami’s early mayors.

Source: A World More Concrete: Real Estate and The Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida  by N.D.B. Connolly The University of Chicago Press, 2014 p. 20; and John Sewell, Memoirs and History of Miami, Florida (Miami: Franklin Press, 1938 p. 134

Anniversary of a Miami Riot


“On January 16, 1989, after ceremonies commemorating the birth of the late Martin Luther King Jr., violence again engulfed Miami. That evening a police officer shot and killed a young black motorcyclist being pursued for speeding; and a passenger on the motorcycle was fatally injured when the machine collided with an automobile. The bloodshed, arson and looting that followed almost immediately continued for several consecutive nights in Overtown and adjacent Liberty City.”

Source: Some Kind of Paradise: A Chronicle of Man and the Land in Florida  by Mark Darr  University of Florida Press 1988 p. 349

New Deal Housing Not Exactly a Good Deal for Black Property Owners


“As in other corners of the country, the Miami Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) was responsible for drafting “Security Maps,” which, through property appraisal, determined which communities represented safe investments for FHA financing and other types of lending. HOLC staffers gave every neighborhood in South Florida a letter grade and accompanying color: ‘A’ neighborhoods were coded green, ‘B’ neighborhoods blue, ‘C’  yellow, and ‘D’ red. Each grade of color reflected a range of factors … Far from simply reflecting racial truths, government housing officials created them.”

Source: A World More Concrete: Real Estate and The Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida by N.D.B. Connolly The University of Chicago Press 2014 pages 94-99

Is Miami a Good Place to Be Black?

downtown_miami_skyline_may_2011“Back in 1982, when the Economist reported that ‘Miami is not a good city in which to be black,’ the local Chamber of Commerce reacted with anger and amazement. But the truth is that Florida, including Miami, seldom if ever has been a good place to be black.”

Source: City of the Future  by T.D. Allman University Press of Florida, 1987 p. 144

Photo Credit: Dan Christensen

A Checkers Speech and A Chance to Get Ahead

In 1908, William B. Sawyer arrived in Miami. A physician who became a wealthy landlord, a hotel owner and a crusader against tuberculosis in South Florida, Sawyer often offered sage advice over one of his favorite pastimes — checkers.the_childrens_museum_of_indianapolis_-_checkers

“In his more quiet moments, Sawyer enjoyed passing the time playing checkers with other men on the front porch of his doctor’s office in Colored Town. Between jumps, according to observers many years later, Sawyer would encourage his friends and neighbors to pool their money, buy land and “become taxpayers.” Sawyer likely explained how owning property allowed colored people to vote in “freeholder” elections. The names of new black deed holders were also printed in the newspaper every year, serving as public recognition of the Negro’s economic discipline.”

Sources: A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida  by N.D.B. Connolly The University of Chicago Press 2014 p. 30; and South Florida’s Black Business Pioneers Paved Way for Others, Miami Herald Jan. 31, 2000

Photo Credit: Black Market

When Shotgun Shacks Were the Norm in South Florida


“In 1947, wooden shotgun shacks still made up nearly 80 percent of all the homes in [Miami’s] Colored Town. Other kinds of wood construction continued to house black folk through Dade, Broward and Monroe counties.”

Source: A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Making of Jim Crow South Florida by N.D.B. Connolly  University of Chicago Press, 2014 p. 168