There’s more to Miami than Art Deco. Well before candy pop designs swept the Miami Beaches, there were predecessors who made the way including real-estate mogul D.A. Dorsey who worked with the likes of Henry Flagler, and Carl Fisher and many others. There’s also the Lyric Theater, 400-seat theater located at 819 Northwest 2nd Ave. Miami, which served served as a symbol of black economic influence. Miami is more than meets the eye.
Take a look at these historical institutions where black and Caribbean people played an integral role in making Miami and South Florida what it is today.
D.A. Dorsey House
250 N.W. 9th Street. Miami, Florida 33142
This modest Frame Vernacular residence was home to one of Miami’s most prominent black businessmen and philanthropists. Dana A. Dorsey helped organize South Florida’s first black bank and amassed a real estate empire while developing Overtown, the center of Miami’s historic African-American community. The Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc. reconstructed this building in 1995. The house was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.
Dorsey came to the Miami area of South Florida around 1896. He worked as a carpenter for the Henry Flagler Florida East Coast Railroad. During that time he recognized the need to provide housing for black workers. He purchased one parcel of land at a time, in Overtown. He designed and constructed one rental house per parcel, reinvesting the rental income to build more and rent more, eventually expanding as far north as Ft. Lauderdale.
In 1917, he and his wife Rebecca sold land to the City of Miami for a park for African Americans (during an era of segregation). Dorsey Park is located on Northwest 17th Street and First Avenue.
In 1919, Dorsey sold the barrier island of Fisher Island, just east of to automotive pioneer Carl G. Fisher, who was developing Miami Beach. In 1925, Fisher traded the island to William Kissam Vanderbilt II in return for a 200-foot (61 m) yacht. Vanderbilt’s improvements led to what is today one of the wealthiest and most exclusive residential enclaves in the area.
The first black-owned hotel in Miami was his Dorsey Hotel, and he was the owner of the Negro Savings Bank. Dorsey was a firm believer in education and he donated a large quantity of land for black schools. He gained great respect and admiration from the white community.
819 Northwest 2nd Avenue Miami, FL
Opening in 1913, the Lyric Theater quickly became a major entertainment center for blacks in Miami. The 400-seat theater was built, owned and operated by Geder Walker, a black man from Georgia. In 1915, The Miami News described the Lyric Theater as, “possibly the most beautiful and costly playhouse owned by Colored people in all the Southland.” The Lyric Theater served as a symbol of black economic influence, as well as a social gathering place free of discrimination. It was a source of pride and culture within Overtown.
The theater anchored the district known as “Little Broadway,” an area alive with hotels, restaurants and nightclubs frequented by both black and white tourists and residents. Clyde Killens, a local resident and entertainment promoter, was primarily responsible for bringing black entertainers—who could perform in the clubs on Miami Beach but not stay in the hotels—to Overtown, the Lyric Theater and “Little Broadway.” Little Broadway’s roster of stars was spectacular, featuring such performers as Count Basie, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Celia Cruz, B.B. King, Patti LaBelle, Ella Fitzgerald, Redd Foxx and Mary Wells.
Patterns of entertainment changed at the same time as Overtown’s population and businesses began to decline in the 1960s. The Lyric Theater closed and has remained shuttered for four decades.
Black Police Precinct Courthouse and Museum
480 NW 11th Street, Miami, FL 33136
Office: (305) 329-2513 (305) 329-2547
In September 1944, Miami’s first five black police officers were sworn in and given the responsibility of patrolling the Central Negro District, which included today’s Overtown and parts of Liberty City. As the separate police force grew, this modern building was constructed as headquarters for the patrols and as a municipal court where black defendants were tried before an African-American judge. The police precinct and courthouse operated in this building until July 1963, when the black officers were integrated into the Miami Police Department. This building is currently awaiting rehabilitation.
The Black Archives
5400 NW 22nd Avenue Building C, Suite 101 Miami, FL 33142
The Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc. was founded in 1977 by Dorothy Jenkins Fields, Ph.D. Dr. Fields, historian and archivist, made it the mission of The Black Archives to not only preserve the documentary and photographic history of black South Florida and black Miami, but to enrich the present and protect the future through the revitalization Miami’s former black business and entertainment district, Overtown.
Virginia Key Beach
4020 Virginia Beach Drive Key Biscayne, FL 33140
Virginia Key Beach, once accessible only by boat, was established in 1945, as the only public beach for the “exclusive use of Negroes” in Dade County. In 1982 the City of Miami closed the park and it remained shuttered until the Grand Re-Opening in 2008 when local citizens formed the Virginia Key Beach Park Task Force in response to plans for private development of the property. In 2002, Historic Virginia Key Beach Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Come visit our beautifully renovated venues which celebrate the distinct cultural, recreational and ecological past of this tropical paradise.
Little Haiti Cultural Center
212 – 260 NE 59 Terrace
Miami, FL 33137
The Little Haiti Cultural Center offers a unique opportunity for residents and visitors to gain exposure to Afro-Caribbean culture, entertain and develop a new talent, and expand their knowledge of the arts. It is committed to providing activities for the community that promotes imagination, creativity, and positive experiences for children and adults throughout the year.
The center conducts programs in the visual and performing arts that are designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of diverse backgrounds, ability, and educational levels.