This article appeared in Greater Miami’s “Biscayne Times” July issue, with a good bit of positive commentary following, and as the author I am please to share it with our readers.
—Seth H. Bramson
There are as many rumors, fables, fairy tales and as much complete fol-de-rol dealing with Miami and its unquestionably illustrious history as there are true, factual and often unbelievable stories of the city and its incredible past, which, through good times and bad, was—for the most part—a beacon of hope and refuge for the forlorn, the downtrodden, and, yes, often for the hopeless. Was it always “the magic city?” No, not always, but, indeed, the aura surrounding what is today truly one of the world’s great cities, remains as magical a beacon as it was beginning in and with “our town’s” earliest days.
While Miami was founded on July 28, 1896, several items regarding its coming into existence are still shrouded in mystery, not the least of those being exactly how many people then living in the frontier village actually voted in favor of incorporation.
First, though, it should be noted that, while Miami, like every other city (not an exaggeration) in the South suffered through the vile and shameful years of segregation and Jim Crow, a number of black/”Negro”/African-American men were actually recruited to vote in favor, which they did, so Miami’s arrival as a city, without ever having been first a town or a village, is in no part due to the black men who voted for that to happen. The question, though, is “how many people actually voted that day,” and the answer is, we really don’t know.
“How could that be?” one may ask, and that answer is actually fairly simple: documented records show either 343, 345 or 347 males voted that day, the majority of them favoring the then-unincorporated area becoming a city, which, indeed, it did on that day.
Coconut Grove, founded as much by Bahamians as by whites, already existed, at least in name, when Miami came into existence. In fact, it was, not too long after Miami’s birth, “the Grove” was separately incorporated and remained the Village of Coconut Grove until, under a now thankfully sunsetted state law, it was subsumed by and became part and parcel of Miami.
Part of the hubris of Miami’s origination has, for many years, revolved around one woman being “the mother of Miami,” and, while simply put and not meaning to have readers go into paroxysms of either anguish or hysteria, there was more than one “mother of Miami,” and along with Julia Tuttle, Mary Brickell equally deserves that honorarium. In fact, for the edification of local historians, she and her husband offered land to the great Henry Plant, the builder of railroads in central Florida and on the state’s west coast as well as to Henry Flagler several years before Mrs. Tuttle did. The extension of the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) from West Palm Beach, which reached Miami (“Myamuh” as the old-timers pronounced it) was due not just to the efforts of the two women, but, in addition, to the work of Mr. Flagler’s land commissioner, James Ingraham, for whom the Ingraham Building in downtown Miami is named.
It was Mr. Ingraham who made the deals with Dade County (which, at the time, extended all the way up to and included today’s Martin County) as well as with the state to grant alternate sections (a section is 640 acres) on each side of the railroad as track was constructed further and further south.
1896 was one of the two most important years in Miami history, the other being 1926. On February 22nd of that year, Isidor Cohen, the first permanent Jewish settler to arrive on the shores of Biscayne Bay reached Lemon City by boat, thence by horse-drawn buckboard to what, eventually, would become downtown Miami. On April 15th, the first train—a construction engineer’s train—arrived, with the first passenger train arriving a week later, on April 22nd and the first excursion train from the north (Jacksonville) coming to a stop on May 11th.
Four days later, on May 15th, the first issue of Miami’s first newspaper, the Metropolis, was printed and distributed and on July 28th the city sprang into existence. Finally, on December 31st, Mr. Flagler’s grand Royal Palm Hotel on the north bank of the Miami River was opened with a gala New Year’s Eve ball. The year was an auspicious start for a fledgling municipality.
Unfortunately, writers for Miami’s largest daily paper, who will simply not allow facts to interfere with or get in the way of one of their stories, good or otherwise, incessantly refer to Miami’s black community as simply being known only as “Overtown,” which is shamefully false. What today is known as Overtown, began with its being called “Darky Town,” and then “Colored Town, and, finally, by the name we know it today, Overtown, and the story of how that name to be is, indeed, another story for another time.
By 1909, publicists for the FEC had coined the nickname for Miami as ‘the magic city,’ and it certainly was, with FEC promotional material showing the sun shining out of the clouds on the east coast of Florida with the tag-line, “The East Coast of Florida is Paradise Regained,” and for the people who, thanks to that railroad came south from northern climes, it was–as it continues to be for so many today—paradise regained.
As the years went on, Miami grew and its off-shoots, Homestead (the second incorporated municipality in Dade County), Coral Gables, Miami Beach, Hialeah and others became bedroom, resort and/or business communities, the entire area’s national reputation bringing unending growth which continued until the occurrence of “the five terrible events of 1926.”
By the end of 1925, “the roaring twenties” were doing just that and Florida was in the greatest boom period in its history. But in 1926, the brakes were applied in an emergency application and those five terrible events, beginning with the capsizing of the four-masted Danish schooner, the Prinz Valdemar, in the turning basin of the Miami harbor, which blocked all water borne traffic from entering Miami’s docks, then hard by Biscayne Boulevard and culminating with the horrific September 17th and 18th 1926 hurricane, which killed more than 600 people, would be the harbinger of the Great Depression which would begin just a little over three years later and affect not just the entire country but most of the world.
Recovery was slow, but by early 1940, the national economy was turning around, and, of course, with America’s entry into World War II everything changed
While Miami Beach is recognized as the number one training ground for the U. S. Army Air Force during the war, there is a tendency to overlook Miami’s importance, and between the several suburban air bases, Miami itself was both the Navy’s and the Coast Guard’s South Atlantic Command headquarters, located in downtown Miami’s Alfred I. DuPont Building, that command covering an immense area from the mid-Atlantic to and including the Caribbean and South America. Numerous photos exist of both branches in service on the mainland, with the Navy operating one of its two subchaser schools from the Miami docks.
The entire South, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination on account of race, lived under the hideous provisions of Jim Crow laws, which required all businesses to have separate water fountains and bathrooms for black and white patrons, with other such vile laws enforced by government mandate. Obviously, much has changed since then, and with Miami about to celebrate its 125th anniversary, and with all the problems, anguish, anxieties and frustration, it is still a great place to live, a most marvelous place to raise a family, and, for most, an excellent place in which to work.
And so it is, as we not only wish Miami a joyous and happy 125th but add only good thoughts for many more. As a famous and beloved personage was wont to say, “may the force be with you!”