The History of Overtown

The community of Overtown is one of the oldest neighborhoods within the original boundaries of the City of Miami. Adjacent to downtown Miami, Overtown is bordered on the north by N.W. 21st Street, to the south by N.W. 6th Street, the east by N.W. 1st Avenue and on the west by 1-95.

Segregated by both custom and laws, it began as “Colored Town” at the turn of the 20th century. The area was assigned and limited to black workers who built and serviced the railroad, streets and hotels. The success of Miami’s pioneer tourist industry depended on the labor of black workers from the Bahamas and the Southern states. For more than 50 years, they were the primary work force in Miami.

Over time, immigrants arrived from Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and other countries throughout the Western Hemisphere. Their common heritage was their slave fore-parents, forced from Africa and left as cargo in various ports throughout America. Different cultures developed in the various ports and some languages changed, but the common ground for all was race. These skilled migrants and immigrants arrived with a determination to improve economic conditions for their families. In turn they helped build Miami and Miami Beach, a tourist mecca for others to enjoy.

When the decision was made to incorporate Miami as a city in1896, black men were used as voters but later disenfranchised. Since the required number of white male registered voters did not participate, black male registered voters were used to reach the number required by state law to form a new city. Nearly one-third of the men who stood for the incorporation of the City of Miami were black. After helping Miami become a city, the black incorporators lost their civil rights to existing public policy. Residents of Overtown in the late 1800s were subject to Black Codes, which, in the 20th century, became Jim Crow laws, restricting the civil rights of black people in every phase of life throughout the South.

In spite of these challenges, Overtown grew and developed into a vibrant community. As early as 1904, the official City of Miami directory listed businesses owned and operated by black people. These included general goods and services, a medical doctor, 26 laundresses, and several hundred laborers. Miami’s Colored Board of Trade was established as a clearinghouse for commercial and civic betterment. The Fourth Census of the State of Florida taken in the year 1915 records the population of Miami City at 15, 592. Of those, 5,659 residents were Negro. Their holdings in real estate and personal property were estimated at $800,000. Black women were not members of the Colored Board of Trade, but some were in business, including seamstresses, landlords, restaurant owners and a hat maker. Severl owned their own properties. Blacks living south of Miami in Coconut Grove and Lemon City to the north, would travel to Miami’s Colored Town for shopping, business transactions and entertainment.

The History of Overtown

Schools, churches and businesses flourished. Most of the goods and services in the community were produced by residents. There were many fine restaurants, a privately owned tennis court and several first-class hotels in Overtown. The Mary Elizabeth Hotel, built and operated by a black physician, Dr. W. B. Sawyer, Sr., was host to such notables as United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; Congressman Adam Clayton Powell; labor leader A. Phillip Randolph; educator, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune; Dr. Carter G. Woodson, “the father of Negro history,” and W E B. DuBois, and internationally known intellectual and author.

At least one national convention was held annually in Overtown, where hotel rooms, restaurants, cultural events and entertainment were in full supply. Repeat business brought by visitors helped stabilize the economy in the community, and promoted pride in a people who were self-motivated and self-sustaining.

The Lyric Theater is the lone surviving building in the district known as “Little Broadway.” The Lyric opened in 1913 and quickly became the major center of entertainment for blacks in Miami. It was built, owned and operated by Geder Walker, a black man from Georgia. On October 16, 1915, the Miami Metropolis described the Lyric Theater as, “possibly the most beautiful and costly playhouse owned by colored people in all the Southland.”

White tourists and white residents also frequented “Little Broadway” to enjoy the entertainment, exotic foods and music, especially jazz and gospel singing. Local resident and entertainment promoter, Clyde Killens, was primarily responsible for bringing performers directly from the hotels and clubs of Miami Beach to Overtown. In the early days, black entertainers who performed on Miami Beach could not bed or board there because of restrictive social practices and racial segregation laws. After their last performances, these performers would cross the railroad tracks to Overtown’s hotels and night clubs.

Through the years, Overtown jammed to the sounds of Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., and many others. From Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Aretha Franklin – all found a welcoming audience in Overtown. Literary artists Langhston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, singers Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson, boxer Joe Louis and baseball great Jackie Robinson also frequented the area.

In the mid-1960s, Overtown began to lose its luster. Urban renewal and construction of two expressways tore the community apart. Today, Overtown is coming alive again. Efforts to preserve and restore historic sites, create housing and develop new mixed-use facilities proceed today with the support of many organizations and the dedication of community volunteers. Support for Overtown’s revitalization is derived from: the Overtown Advisory Board, the Overtown Empowerment Zone Assembly, the City of Miami and CRA, Metro-Dade County, Dade County Public Schools, the State of Florida, federal grants, St. John Baptist Church’s CDC, Greater Bethel AME Church’s CDC, the Knight Foundation, the LeRoy Collins Center, Greater Miami LISC (Local Initiative Support Corporation), and the Trust for Public Land.

Closed for four decades, the Lyric Theater was acquired by the Black Archives Foundation of South Florida in 1988, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in January of 1989 and reopened in 2000 after extensive restoration. Literary, visual and performing arts events take place throughout the year for tourists and residents in the 400-seat auditorium of this community centerpiece. The Black Archives, History & Research Foundation, Inc. is spearheading the development of the Historic Overtown Folklife Village, a two-block-area retail, cultural and entertainment district. The Lyric Theater is the anchor site of the Historic Overtown Folklife Village. Plans for the development of the Overtown Lyric Theater Complex include construction of a facility adjacent to the lyric, providing a welcome center, gift shop, banquet, community and meeting rooms, dance hall and catering kitchen. The complex will connect visitors to the 9th Street Pedestrian Mall, a transportation corridor linking Overtown to the bustling world of Greater Miami.

“This is a very historical area,” observed Professor John Hope Franklin, the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University. “The very history of Miami is incomplete without the history of Overtown.” No doubt, the futures of Overtown and Miami are destined to be linked as well.

Originally printed in the Winter 2002 edition of Florida History & the Arts: A magazine of Florida’s heritage.
Reprinted with permission of Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources.


Rebuilding Overtown Miami

The Growth Partnership

  • An initiative of the Collins Center for Public Policy whose mission is to help develop attractive livable communities in urban core transitional neighborhoods.
  • The TGP mission is to work with stakeholders, residents, developers and governmental agencies in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties to revitalize and restore economically dis-invested neighborhoods.

Linking Communities to the Region

  • So. Fl. Regional Resource Center =  CUES Center, SFRPC, TCRPC, Collins.
  • Cooperative efforts with ULI, GMCC regional work, Internet Coast, business leagues.
  • Focus on transportation and redevelopment initiatives around smart growth, social equity and economic sustainability principles.
  • Model is to establish CPC’s in neighborhoods using resources of the SFRRC to coordinate issues and maintain a regional perspective.

Overtown: The Neighborhood

  • Historic African American Neighborhood
  • 15 block by 7 block neighborhood directly North of Downtown
  • Approximately 8,000 residents
    • At its peak had 40,000 residents
    • 90% African-American
    • Almost 40% under the age of 20
  • Affected by urban renewal and highways
    • Almost complete clearance of original housing, replaced by substandard housing
    • Had TWO highways constructed through the neighborhood

Overtown: The Challenges

  • Miami is the poorest large city in the United States
    • Declared “low-wage economic center” by Brookings Institute
  • 55% of population live under the poverty level
    • Median Household income approximately $12,000
    • Median Rent $300, 90% of are rent burden
  • 44% of housing units are vacant
    • Accounts for 10% of all vacant housing in the city
  • All the public schools are deemed failing by the state
  • Over-planned community and sense of community mistrust
  • Adjacent to 2 of the hottest zip codes for real estate in the country

Overtown: The Assets

  • Cultural Assets
    • One of the oldest communities in Miami
    • Center of African American cultural life from the Harlem Renaissance to Motown era
    • Proximity to downtown, the bay and the river
    • Proximity to largest employer in county, Jackson Hospital
    • Best served areas for public transit in region
    • Incentive Zoned to the Max
  • Vacant and cleared parcels of significant size

Revitalization Strategy

The Collins Center for Public Policy identified the necessary tools to effectively carry out a revitalization strategy.

  • Community Involvement / Consensus Building
    • The Overtown Civic Partnership and Design Center
  • Land Assembly / Control
    • South Florida Land Trust for Smart Growth
    • Land holder in the core of neighborhood with $2 million in holdings
  • Access to Capital
    • Equity Funds
    • $50 million – $75 million to be capitalized by year’s end
    • Used to fund mixed-use/ mixed income projects S. Florida’s  inner city communities

Equitable Outcomes

  1. Generate major new resources for Overtown through (a) new ideas and visioning, (b) focused attention (c) private capital and market expertise, and (d) asset-building for current residents.
  2. Link Overtown and neighborhood residents to the larger Miami community and South Florida region, e.g., jobs for residents along mass transit lines, attractions and services offered to visitors.
  3. Develop the capacity of neighborhood residents and organizations to benefit from these major new resources and these new links to larger communities through leadership development and civic engagement initiatives.
  4. Establish a new model of community development and neighborhood well-being.

Transportation: A Key Wealth Building Tool

  • Establishment of a transportation node at 8th street will help move large numbers of people into and out of the area creating substantial demand for goods and services (jobs).
  • County’s new office building will enable more efficient use of public transportation (increased rider-ship and access).
  • Public transportation creates more access and thus investment in business due to location.
  • Public transportation serves current residents need to connect with job opportunities locally and regionally.
  • Transportation access provides incentive for middle income wage earners to locate to Overtown and create demand for services.
  • Transportation access increases the market for goods and services for “home grown” businesses in Overtown.
  • Transportation increases the value of existing businesses due to access.
  • Eligibility for transit-related mortgages may increase home ownership.

Next Steps: Building an Equitable Community

  • Ensure adequate infrastructure to include public and private transportation.
  • Ensure compliance with agreement for affordable housing.
  • Advocate for the development of the right housing mix.
  • Oversight in implementation of an area master plan.
  • Develop resident empowerment pipeline.
  • Create a broad based partnership to ensure continuity of plan


Neighborhood business leaders and stakeholders are now partnered as community developers to transform one of Miami’s oldest neighborhoods; reviving the history and spirit of one of Miami’s first Entertainment Districts. As a community-based organization, this coalition of community leaders and civic entrepreneurs have come together to form the District Partnership Initiative. The District Partnership Initiative (DPI) is a community-based partnership dedicated to supporting the City of Miami’s Southeast Overtown CRA, local associations, and the Vision for the Historic Overtown Folklife District. DPI is composed of community leadership that through its landholdings and resources seek to advance a sound Development Implement Strategy, advocate for policies that provide long-term economic sustainability, and to ensure an improved quality of life for the greater Overtown community.

This organization strives to bring together community stakeholders, establish public/private partnerships, serving as the link between downtown businesses, residents, tourism, and others to effectively collaborate and access resources to redevelop this historic Overtown neighborhood; themed as a Miami Arts & Entertainment District.

Overtown (Miami, FL)

Overtown, Miami, FL – Overtown is approximately a two square mile area located directly north of Miami’s downtown business district, and presently exists as an African American neighborhood that historically was called “colored town” during our period as the segregated south. Though segregated, Overtown was economically diverse and rich in culture, thriving with a peak population of 40,000. In 1963, Interstate 95 was erected devastating the social fabric of this otherwise thriving and vibrant neighborhood, and entertainment district. Since that time the neighborhood has been disinvested and declining economically.

The first step toward revitalization was initiated by the Black Archives with the acquisition and renovation of the Lyric Theater, a vaudeville house built in 1913 by an African-American developer inspired by the opera houses of Europe. The Black Archives acquired the building in 1988 and spent much of the ‘90s restoring it with the assistance of grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Florida Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, along with city, county, and state grant dollars. The theater re-opened in 2000 as a performing arts venue, with an emphasis on culture of the Black Diaspora and ultimately has become the centerpiece for the proposed redevelopment effort.

The DPI, in support of the vision for the Historic Overtown Folklife District, aims to preserve cultural history to attract tourism, investment, provide a variety of attainable housing choices, take advantage of transit facilities, and support local workforce.

The Historic Overtown Folklife District is within an emerging neighborhood and premier location with excellent opportunities as a Transit Oriented Development. The District area is an assemblage of approximately 25-acres with close proximity to some of the largest employers in the region, to include: two major colleges; major hospitals and a medical research institute; arts and entertainment, sports arena venues within blocks, the Miami Performing Arts Center; along with immediate access to Interstate 95, major roadway arterials, railway facilities and or forms of public transportation.

Redeveloped primarily high-density mixed-use (residential, commercial/retail), the District will evolve as a mixed-income housing community, offering a variety of affordable housing choices, including loft housing for artists, along with attractive ground floor shops and businesses. Education is also part of this comprehensive plan, as the DPI association will also work with local colleges and universities training students in business, architecture, hotel management, historic preservation, and marketing.

The DPI proposed implementation strategy for the community estimates approximately 2,800 housing units, and more than 500,000 square feet of commercial retail to be a viable opportunity. Build-out investment for proposed redevelopment is estimated at $628 million.

Further, collectively DPI maintains several strategically located properties within the District. In collaboration with developable land-owners, DPI will continue to play a major role in the planning and visioning of this historic community.

The District Partnership Initiative sees this as an opportunity to create a well designed implementation strategy for sustainable community redevelopment that will results in major investment to include strong commercial and retail business environment, supported by a healthy combination of market-rate and affordable housing, and improved transit and green space development.

Development Implementation Program highlights are as follows:

  • District Partners will lead physical redevelopment and landholdings will be developed as a mixed-income housing community, offering a variety of attainable housing choices that are environmentally responsible, including loft housing for artists, along with attractive ground floor shops and businesses.
  • This “Main Street” neighborhood with a unique live/work community close to the downtown core, with ethnic restaurants, boutique hotels, neighborhood retail, annual street festivals and events becomes the magnet for attracting tourism.
  • Public Art is enjoyed by pedestrian friendly walking places and Transit Oriented Development, and secured by the support of a 24-hour neighborhood.
  • Support the “Arts in Public Spaces” creation of an artisan village to bring about a greater awareness of the neighborhood’s past and present cultural creativity, and to develop youth programs/internships consistent with the concept of an arts educational institute.
  • Education also plays a role with an emphasis on the cultural arts, in partnership with local colleges and universities the community will enjoy access to higher education in business, architecture, hotel management, historic preservation, and marketing.
  • Finally, it is anticipated that this effort will create a momentum that expands well beyond the District boundaries, and encourage revitalization throughout the entire Overtown community.

Initially, with the benefit of foundation and corporate support, DPI intends to continue to lead the redevelopment effort with the hire of personnel, consultants, and other professionals; all brought together to facilitate a program that supports comprehensive, complimentary, and non-competitive implementation of District revitalization.

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