Miami's Early Days
In 1891, Clevelander Julia Tuttle purchased 640 acres of land in South Florida for pennies on the dollar, and made it home. Over the next three years Tuttle tried to persuade Henry Flagler, oil and railroad entrepreneur, to extend his rail lines to South Florida, but he declined. In December of 1894, freezing in northern and central Florida deciminated nearly half of the state’s citrus crop. In February of 1895, another freeze struck, wiping out the remaining crops and new trees. South Florida however, was unaffected.
In the midst of the Great Freeze, Henry Flagler toured to South Florida to witness the vibrant plant life. Flagler then purchased hundreds of acres of land from Julia Tuttle and William and Mary Brickell and officially announced his railroad extension to South Florida’s Biscayne Bay on June 21, 1895. Over the next year, South Florida’s population increased to nearly 3,000, with a fairly strict racial division of labor. White settlers, many of whom were devastated by the Great Freeze, poured into the “freeze-proof” region to capitalize on the future land boom. Black settlers, nearly half of whom were Bahamian immigrants, completed hard physical labor, such as clearing mangroves of thick trees.
In June 1896, John Sewell, Flagler’s chief supervisor in South Florida, reported that there were enough people living in South Florida to incorporate a city. On July 28, 1896, 367 registered male voters (162 of whom were black) voted to incorporate a city in South Florida, and named it Miami. Separate but equal segregation laws, as established by Plessy V. Ferguson just two months earlier, dictated that the city designate a portion of the city to its black population. Within Miami, the black population was restricted to the north and west of Flagler’s railroad, which became known as “Colored Town,” also known today as “Overtown.”
Life for most black residents in Miami at the turn of the century was tough. Conditions in Colored Town grew worse as the population became denser. Unpaved streets were lined with rickety houses and shacks, which made fire a constant threat. Colored Town lacked basic city services such as garbage removal and sanitation facilities. Epidemics of influenza, yellow fever, and smallpox were common. One Bahamian immigrant recounted, “Having passed the immigration and customs examiners, I took a carriage for what the driver called ‘Nigger Town.’ This was the first time I had heart that opprobrious epithet employed… I was vividly irked no little. Arriving in Colored Town, I alighted from the carriage in front of an unpainted, poorly-ventilated rooming house where I paid $2.00 for a week’s lodging. Already, I was rapidly becoming disillusioned. How unlike the land where I was born. There colored men were addressed as gentlemen; here, as ‘niggers.’”