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Miami's 125th Birthday And Remembering The City's History

Patrick Farrell
Miami Herald
The history of Miami was largely shaped by African Americans, Bahamians and people from the Caribbean.

Wednesday marked the day, 125 years ago, that Miami officially became a city.

On July 28, 1896, 367 people voted to make it a city, which was more prestigious than a village or town classification. Of those people, 162 were Black residents.

The history of the city was largely shaped by African Americans, Bahamians and people from the Caribbean.

Despite their role, those communities were limited to specific areas, enforced through Jim Crow laws and the legacy of those rules.

“I was born in Overtown. ... I grew up under segregation. And so when I see the transformation that has taken place and where we are today, I just never thought I would live long enough to see what I'm seeing,” said 89-year-old Dr. Enid Pinkney, who is the founding president of The Historic Hampton House Community Trust in Miami’s Brownsville corridor. “I'm just amazed at the changes that have taken place and the progress that has been made and I just want to continue to be a part of it.”

HistoryMiami Museum has a new exhibition celebrating the city’s anniversary called “It’s a Miami Thing: Highlights from Our Collection.” It opened Thursday and will be on display through Jan. 9, 2022.

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Sundial took a look back with Pinkney and Dr. Paul George, a resident historian at the HistoryMiami Museum, to understand what makes Miami the place we know today.

We also heard from listeners about what they think makes Miami special.

This excerpt of the conversation has been edited for clarity.

July 28, 1896

GEORGE: It's an amazing day in the area's history. You went from a tiny village, according to the Florida state census in 1895, of nine people living on both banks of the Miami River and its mouth to an incorporated city on that day. The election took place in what was called the lobby building, a wood-framed building built that year. There was nothing there prior to 1896, other than the Tuttles' home on the north bank of the river.

The incorporation meeting took place between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. and it was all-male, as far as we know, because women in Florida did not have the right to vote at that time. And so the voters, including more than one-third of the voters being African Americans, many of whom were Bahamian Americans, voted by acclamation for a City of Miami. You needed 300 registered voters in order to come in as a city. They also voted for a board of aldermen, who made the laws for the first mayor of Miami, and the logo, which would include a royal palm tree native to the area. And everybody was really happy at the end. [Henry] Flagler sent a telegram down soon after the meeting congratulating the incorporators. So it was really a monumental day to launch the city.

The Mother of Miami

GEORGE: Julia Tuttle had a very ambitious vision for Miami. It felt like it had tremendous potential, whether it be the clouds above her, the warm waters of Biscayne Bay and the Miami River and location. She believed [Miami] might become a nexus between the Americas, that is between South Florida, the Caribbean, Central America and South America. She was really way ahead of her time in terms of her vision. She hailed from Cleveland. She first arrived here in March 1875, so she saw great potential for the place, she believed it needed a connection to the outside world other than a sailboat to bring people here and there. And that connection would be the railroad.

READ MORE: Julia Tuttle May Not Be The Only Mother Of Miami. Could Mary Brickell Be One, Too?

Early Bahamian Americans

PINKNEY: They were very important because they brought their culture and food. They also knew how to farm, even though the area had coral rock and theft land was barren. And we are still benefiting and living off some of the things that they bought today.

Most people think that Miami as a place for immigrants started in 1959 and with the Cuban boatlift — they don't know that back in the 1890s that the Bahamians would come in here and they settled in Coconut Grove, but they also settled in Lemon City. That kind of history is lost.

The Civil Rights Movement in Miami

PINKNEY: We were aware of the civil rights movement. The Hampton House was owned by a Jewish couple, but they permitted the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to have its regular meetings at the Hampton House where they planned the strategy for integrating Miami's buses, the fountains. I remember the colored fountain and sitting in the back of the bus and all of the segregation laws that we had to endure were discussed in how we were going to protest against them. And Dr. Martin Luther King was there. He used to come down to the CORE meetings with all of those pioneers. Miami had its own civil rights movement before the civil rights movement.

Leslie Ovalle Atkinson is the former lead producer behind Sundial. As a multimedia producer, she also worked on visual and digital storytelling.
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