The taking of black-owned land is a common story throughout the history of the United States. In Miami, one community that was displaced with little notice was made up of black workers who built and serviced the local railroads and trains.
It was called Railroad Shop Colored Addition, established around 1917 in Allapattah. The Florida East Coast Railroad had a repair shop in the neighborhood.
“Railroad Shop Colored Addition is ingrained in my memory,” said Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall. “My mom, cleaned houses and my daddy built construction. He was a builder.”
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Bendross-Mindingall, a Miami-Dade County School Board member, lived in Railroad Shop, as did many of her aunts, uncles and cousins.
“My family is a family from Alabama, which means their family members picked cotton, so to get to Miami was to get to the promised land and to be able to live in a place that seemed to tell the story of such a great promise,” she said.
Miami had only been a city for about 21 years when Railroad Shop was created. As Miami grew, word spread throughout the South and the Bahamas that there was land to clear, roads and railways to build, sewers to dig—black labor built Miami’s foundation.
The Railroad Shop neighborhood spanned from Northwest 46 Street north to 50th Street from Northwest 12th Avenue to 14th Avenue. The all-black community was otherwise surrounded by an all white neighborhood. Those white neighbors wanted their black neighbors gone.
On August 1, 1947, Bendross-Mindingall was just four years old when police sped into Railroad Shop on motorcycles. The officers, some wielding shotguns, put the black families — who owned their land and homes — out into the rain with nowhere to go.
It was an organized effort by the white community, who used their political connections to get rid of a black neighborhood they felt was too close to their own. White residents lodged complaints with the City of Miami and lobbied the Miami-Dade County School Board until both bodies intervened to take the black-owned land through eminent domain.
Black families were told their land was being taken for the public good, to build a school — for whites only.
Sixty-three years after Bendross-Mindingall was kicked out of her childhood home, she ran for a seat on the same county school board that took her family’s land. She’s been a sitting school board member now for 10 years.
Listen to an in-depth radio story about the history of Railroad Shop Colored Addition from some of the people who called it home.
What follows is a conversation with Nathan "N.D.B” Connolly, a historian at Johns Hopkins University who did research on the Railroad Shop Colored Addition Neighborhood for his book “A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida.”
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
WLRN: The primary reason Railroad Shop Colored Addition was taken from these black families was because their community, was otherwise surrounded by an all white neighborhood, and those white neighbors wanted them gone— they thought having black neighbors was a detriment, but Nathan Connolly says that wasn’t always the case.
What’s so stunning about this transformation in the 40s is just a generation earlier, one of the biggest selling points for white neighborhoods was, in fact, their proximity to black people because it was domestics and gardeners that you needed to be close at hand. It was the black nursing aides who were tending to your children. And every white community in the South had a kind of had an outpost of black people nearby who could service the white privileges of that neighborhood.
And so proximity to black folks was considered to be a selling point when you needed a workforce to come in and basically tend to your domestic lifestyle.
But as the country is modernizing, as the technology is improving and people are basically, you know, gaining washer and dryer machines, they're learning how to cook pancakes with Aunt Jemima ready-made mix … black folks as workers are becoming increasingly expendable, that proximity to black people is now seen as being a detriment to white fortunes. And, you know, property values.
One of the things Connolly found while doing research about the Railroad Shop Colored Addition community was that City of Miami government officials really worked hard to try to drive down the neighborhood’s value in order to eventually take it over.
CONNOLY: Black folk were being told, you can't use building permits or repair permits to upkeep your property after, you know, certain kinds of deterioration, because we actually want the property values to go down.
We want to drive down our condemnation costs by making this neighborhood more deteriorated over time. And then we're going to basically condemn it.
And even as [Railroad Shop Colored Addition] was being denied permits, they're working by lamplight, so that they're not seen as being in violation of city rules.
This isn’t an unfamiliar story for Black Miami—or for the country —the taking of black-owned land by the government. Probably the best-known version of this in Miami is Overtown for example. Overtown was once a vibrant community that was known as the Harlem of the South before it was pretty much decimated when I-95 was built right through it.
We talk about the Interstate 95 displacement. Absolutely. But that's preceded by Railroad Shop’s displacement by more than 20 years.
And that for me was actually important to acknowledge that, you know, even as we have a very robust narrative about the demolition of Overtown— this other story, this was the preview, right? This was the prologue to what was to come.
It was, in fact, a very important moment of learning that white Miami had where they could say, “Oh, wait a minute, we actually can use eminent domain in this way to really, you know, just reroute black presence in a variety of ways.”
What happened to the black families who lived in Railroad Shop Colored Addition, in the middle of Allapattah, isn’t widely known, but there are some small markers that pay homage to the community. For example, two schools in Allapattah have been renamed for former Railroad Shop residents: Lenora Braynon Smith Elementary and Georgia Ayers Middle School.
I think having the schools it's commendable, but it falls far short of what was actually lost in the Railroad Shop moment. What is it that is wounding people? Right.
It's the economic stuff that is taken away, the future that is taken away, it's the community identity that's taken away. It's a sense of there being a future.
Does Miami have a black future? That's an open question and it shouldn't be. And so what would an investment mean that removes that as a question from the city?