MIAMI — “When you wanna get sun and sand, where you gonna go? To Miami,” says the American soul singer Jerry Butler, looking back on when he performed at Miami Beach hotels in the 1950s and ’60s. “The conflict was, here you were trying to get to the beach and the people in the heart of the city were trying to see you there and it was racism that kept the two from meeting.” The people in the “heart of the city” were the folks who lived in neighborhoods like Overtown and Liberty City, most of whom were racially segregated from whiter, wealthier Miami Beach.
This quote appears in Jacob Katel’s A People’s History of Overtown, Vol. 1, a self-published series of interviews with the people who’ve come to define the Miami neighborhood. Butler crystallizes both Overtown’s status as a soul-music mecca and its fraught history. In the 1950s and ’60s, black musicians who performed in Miami Beach — where they were not allowed to sleep — stayed in Overtown instead, often performing at local venues late into the evening. Says Overtown’s former advisory board chairman and “unofficial mayor” Irby McKnight, “These white men and women…used to ride the Grey Line bus tour and get dropped off right here. They said there was the show on Miami Beach in the hotels, but afterwards in Overtown, there was the show.”
Though several were conducted over the phone, Katel’s street interviews were done on a bicycle, with pen and paper. Katel, a Miami-based freelance journalist, photographer, and videographer, was inspired to learn more about Overtown after reading about Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club. The album was recorded in 1963 at the Harlem Square Club in Overtown’s entertainment district, then colloquially referred to as “Little Broadway.” “This got me interested in Miami’s soul, funk, and R&B history, and Overtown is the heart and soul of this epic story,” Katel told Hyperallergic, who plans on publishing more volumes on the topic. Indeed, the neighborhood’s story is sewn like shiny thread into the history of Miami itself.
After Southern blacks and Caribbean immigrants arrived to the area in the late 1800s, they were forced to a less ‘desirable’ side of Henry Flagler’s new railroad, building the neighborhood — then known as “Colored Town” — by hand. When Miami was incorporated as a city in 1896, the ruling was helped in part by black men (168 of the 362 voters), who stepped in to replace white voters who didn’t turn out. Yet despite their influence in physically creating the city, they were still considered second-rate citizens, subject to disease, overcrowding, Jim Crow laws, and terrorizing by the Ku Klux Klan, who arrived in the 1920s.
But Overtown flourished. The economy grew steady and the neighborhood became a cultural mecca, with its own black police precinct and a thriving nightlife. Acts like Cooke, Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong performed at theaters along Northwest Second and Third Avenues. One of these, the Lyric Theater, is now home to a collection of works by Purvis Young, an Overtown native.
Shortly before the construction of the I-95 expressway divided and ultimately decimated the neighborhood, public officials pursued a large-scale slum clearance. In 1959, the Miami Slum Clearance Department estimated 10,000 people would be displaced; in the 1960s, as I-95 went up, families were forced from their homes, while new government policies deprived the neighborhood of resources. Overtown was partly abandoned and mostly destitute, and has never fully financially recovered since.
A People’s History begins at the Historic Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum, then travels to bus stops, an apartment courtyard, and a street near the Florida East Coast railroad tracks. While working on his book, Katel was also a music writer for the Miami New Times, where he conducted about half the interviews he would use as sources — like former DJ Joyce Jenkins, former journalist Kelsey Collie, Willie Clarke of the famed Deep City Records, Gloria Jolivet (a backup singer for Bo Diddley), and the late Clarence “Blowfly” Reid.
The stories are mostly memories from Overtown’s golden age, in the 1950s and ’60s, when it was called the Harlem of the South: “I used to see Cassius Clay walking down NW 2nd Avenue, shadow boxing,” says retired Overtown Police Captain Otis Davis. Mitty Collier says little, save for, “Ooo, whee, Miami!,” which maybe says it all. Edward Coley Colebrook, the owner of Liberty City’s now-closed Shantel’s Lounge, recalls the Orange Blossom Classic Parade: “People came from all over. You could hear the laughter. The government was playing divide and conquer…Once they divided with the highway, they conquered.”
The interviews read like trains of thought, sometimes without clarity, and Katel refrains from giving us his question prompts. But the absence of Katel’s voice is an effort to hand over the story of the neighborhood to the voices who lived it. That these stories are tangential makes sense. The memories are both rough (“All night long, motherfuckin’ walking up and down all night long, bar to bar”) and poignant (“As I get ready to embark on this Overtown journey, you know I’m a Towner for life”), but so is the story of Overtown.
At times, the stories veer from Overtown specifically to delve into the black experience in America, of which the neighborhood is a part. “People really and truly cannot ever understand what it is to grow up as a black man,” says the aforementioned Clarke. “The Brother is the favorite victim of the police.” Jovilet recalls getting spit on while on tour with Bo Diddley.
Currently, the impending Florida Brightline railroad is building a massive wall between Overtown and the rest of downtown Miami to support its overhead train. Meanwhile, David Beckham is finalizing plans for a soccer stadium in the area. Though Overtown’s fate feels fragile, its history is not (the Dream Defenders note that attempts to destroy the neighborhood were institutionalized long ago). Says Katel: “Overtown knows its history, but almost nobody outside of it does. It’s important — it’s America’s history, and if we forget it, we have no future.”
A People’s History of Overtown, Vol. 1 by Jacob Katel is available on demand through Amazon.