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New Book Looks At How Jim Crow Laws Shaped Miami

Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences

N.D.B. Connolly grew up in South Florida and couldn't wait to leave. That's when he realized just how attached he was to the region. That's also when he started to look at the history of Miami and how for more than a century Jim Crow laws made life in the Magic City painful and difficult for African-Americans.

He's speaking about his first book, "A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida," at this year's Miami Book Fair International.

In the late 1960's Miami's city leaders and developers were bulldozing communities for the expansion of I-95. Those communities were mostly the poor black neighborhoods of South Florida.

More than 12,000 people were relocated as part of slum clearance. On one July afternoon in 1969 city leaders along with the NAACP celebrated a park opening right under that expressway. Not even the local media of that time pointed out how young black children played on land deemed dead, out of sight of the thousands of cars speeding along above them.

Credit University Chicago Press Books
Image from A World More Concrete by NDB Connolly


This action of taking homes and land for the economic benefit of the city was common place during the 20th century. Because, even though Miami was the gateway to the Caribbean and Latin America, it was still a southern city that had to grapple with tensions between white and black. It was a city where the expansion of Miami was in big part possible because of Jim Crow laws.

One of the ways that city leaders were able to keep control over the African American community was through property. Many African Americans were renters. They had difficulty attaining loans to buy a house. If they could options were limited. Houses in black communities were not constructed as strong as those in nicer, white neighborhoods. For years many African Americans were forced to live in shotgun homes, structures that were basically one large room inside from front to back. At one point African Americans were able to move to concrete homes with paved roads, but miles from downtown, away from everything.  

Connolly talks about how decades ago heads of state who were of color had a hard time finding a place to stay while in Miami.

Even relations between African Americans and Native Americans was strained. There was a man known as Tony Tommie, a sort of self-proclaimed chief of the Seminole tribe. He attended school in Fort Lauderdale, and unlike many in the tribe spoke unbroken English. Tommie put the Seminoles front and center as show piece for tourists. He held events like Seminole weddings (that were anything but authentic) for visitors. But, we asked Connolly why the tribe was willing to subject itself as a sort of side show and still have a disdain for the black community.  

Connolly discusses a darker side of the Seminole's history and their relationship with whites and blacks in Miami during the early part of the 20th century.

Cubans were in Miami before the revolution. It was after the revolution though that the arrival of thousands of Cubans became somewhat problematic to the African American community. Many of these Cubans, some well educated and experts in different trades, started taking many of the jobs that were traditionally for African Americans. Relations between the groups was also strained by the fact the US government was assisting Cuban refugees and making it hard for many African Americans to receive welfare. 

Connolly talks about how the U.S. government may have been giving more advantages to Cubans coming into the country than African Americans already living here.

Credit University of Chicago Press Books
A World More Concrete N.D.B Connolly

The location of different communities in South Florida, especially in Miami-Dade County were shaped by a century of Jim Crow segregation. Connolly looks at how, even though Miami is possibly the most unique southern city, economic opportunities and property ownership were harder to attain for some than others in the place known as the Magic City. He looks at how everything from home ownership to eminent domain to violence shaped the Miami we know today.

Connolly shares how his experience as an African American man from South Florida played in his ability to write this book.

Connolly holds an MA and PhD in history from the University of Michigan, an MA in social sciences from the University of Chicago and a bachelor's degree from St. Thomas University in Miami.

Luis Hernandez is an award-winning journalist and host whose career spans three decades in cities across the U.S. He’s the host of WLRN’s newest daily talk show, Sundial (Mon-Thu), and the news anchor every afternoon during All Things Considered.