History of Brownsville

Brownsville is a historically Black neighborhood in Miami-Dade County. One of the most famous landmarks is the Historic Hampton House, a mid-century hotel that catered to Black travelers during the Green Book era, and hosted famous guests such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Muhammad Ali. The neighborhood is also home to historic Lincoln Memorial and Evergreen cemeteries, and Georgette’s Tea Room, a prominent gathering spot for social events. The Brownsville Civic Neighborhood Association has been leading efforts for many years to preserve and highlight this historic neighborhood. Thanks to a National Park Service grant obtained by the Dade Heritage Trust, a non-profit historic preservation organization, working in collaboration with the BCNA, Brownsville is currently being surveyed for historic and cultural resources. The firm PlusUrbia is conducting the survey working with the BCNA and community members.

Timeline of Development in Brownsville, 1916 - 1969. [IN PROGRESS]. 

Illustrations and Maps of the Timeline below can be found in the Community Forum Presentation

1916 — Brown's Subdivision is Officially Platted.  At the time of Brown’s Sub plat in 1916, the area around Brownsville was considered part of the Allapattah Prairie, which was the eastern edge of the Everglades.  There was limited farming in the area, mostly citrus groves.  Historical records suggest that W. L. Brown and his wife Martha Brown were Black farmers and landowners, however more research into their identity is needed.  In addition, a 1914 map of the area suggests that the two Black families, the Williams Family and the Brown family, already owned land in the area.

1924 — Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery Officially Platted.  Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery, a Black cemetery, was officially platted in 1924 and was originally owned by F.B. Miller, a White real estate developer.

1927 — Black Property Ownership Expands around Brown's Subdivision.  J.D. Williams, Dr. W.B. Sawyer, Samuel Wilson, F. Ayres, and T. Amos were just some of the Black property owners in the area around Brown’s Sub by 1927.  In addition, Centerville Subdivision was platted by Dr. W.B. Sawyer, a prominent Black doctor and land owner.

1938 — Kelsey Pharr Takes Ownership of Lincoln Memorial Park.  Kelsey Pharr, a wealthy Black undertaker and civic leader, took over ownership of the Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery, and the Cemetery was doubled in size.  Around the same time, Kelsey Pharr constructed his own residence, a two-story Moderne-style home, across from the newly-expanded Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery.

1940 — Homeowner's Paradise Subdivision is Platted.  The plat for Homeowner’s Paradise was approved on February 27, 1940. It was platted by a White man, F.B. Palbicke, in business as “Palgar Home Builders” with Wesley Garrison, a White man, who would go on to build and privately finance homes for Black homeowners throughout the 1950s.  Although Homeowner’s Paradise was platted in 1940 for Black homeowners of modern single-family homes, construction of homes in the subdivision was delayed for a decade due to racism and contested territory by White homeowners in the area who feared an expansion of Black residents in the area around the Brown’s Sub community.  During this time period between 1940 and 1951, there were reported cross burnings and intimidation in the area as White property owners sought to scare away Black residents.

1949 — Alberta Heights Rental Housing is Constructed.  Dr. William B. Sawyer was 63 years old when in 1949, he built the concrete-block Alberta Heights Apartment Complex.  It was one of the first black-owned rental apartment projects to be financed by an FHA-backed mortgage.  Black-owned single-family homes were not yet being approved for FHA-insured mortages in 1949.

1950 — Homeowner's Paradise Homes are Built.  Around 1950, the FHA began changing its practices and began insuring mortgages for single-family homes in black neighborhoods.  By 1952, a handful of modern, concrete homes with tile roofs were constructed in Home Owner’s Paradise.  By 1963, the subdivision was almost entirely built out.  Most homes were constructed and financed by Wesley Garrison, a White developer, and his associates.  Oral history records show that J.D. Williams, a Black businessman and early property owner and booster of Brownsville, partnered with Garrison to implement the platting of Home Owners Paradise and later the construction of single-family homes.  Former resident Sumner Hutchinson remembers that his father was a realtor and a pioneer resident of Brownsville.  He was a strong believer in Brownsville and convinced many of his contacts in Overtown to buy homes in Brownsville during the 1950s.  Modern Ranch-style homes in Homeowner’s Paradise were built out of concrete with white tile roofs.

1951 — Bethune Elementary is Relocated, Expanded and Improved.  By 1949, the original Black school site provided for the children of Brownsville was seriously inadequate.  It was a one-acre site that had been donated to the school board in 1918 by T. Amos. It had twelve wooden classroom buildings.  It originally served 10 families, but by 1949 it was serving 500 families and 1,635 children.  On March 3, 1949, the Bethune Elementary School PTA and the Brownsville Improvement Association lobbied the Dade County school board for a new building.  While initially told that no funds were available for the school, by September 1950, $300,000 was allocated for the purchase of a 5-acre campus and construction of a modern 20-classroom building.  By 1951, the school was open, and Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune herself attended the dedication ceremony as the celebrity guest speaker.

1965-1969 — Public Housing & Bannerman Park and Pool are Built.  By 1965, Dade County and the Miami Housing Authority had selected Brownsville as a location to build a significant amount of public housing units.  The Brownsville Improvement Association was in opposition, concerned that public housing would not be adequately maintained and that the residents would not be sufficiently screened by the Housing Authority.  Over 100 property owners in the neighborhood were actively involved in public opposition through petitions, attendance at public meetings, and other actions.  Despite strong neighborhood objection, the public housing was constructed throughout Brownsville but primarily on the east side of NW 27th Avenue.  In some cases, eminent domain of black-owned homes was undertaken in order to construct the public housing.  According to N.D.B. Connolly in his book A World More Concrete, the Bannerman Park & Pool was constructed by Dade County in 1969 as a concession to the neighborhood for the construction of public housing.

 

Working Bibliography:

 

  • Connolly, N.D.B. A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida University of Chicago Press, 2014.

  • Hopkin's Maps

  • Miami-Dade County Clerk of Courts, Plat Maps

  • Miami-Dade County Property Appraiser, Historic Tax Photos

  • Miami-Dade Public Library Historic Aerials

  • Miami Herald Newspaper Articles

  • R.L. Polk City and Suburban Directories

  • University of Florida Historic Aerials

  • Oral History Interviews