Figure 0.5. Seminoles performing at Miami Beach, 1922. Growing Greater Miami’s economy during the Progressive Era relied on selling Florida real estate as part of an untamed frontier and on allowing white tourists to enjoy watching colored people engaged in elaborate displays of primitivism and subservience. Here, in this photo dated 4 March 1922, onlookers enjoy alligator wrestling and a Seminole poling a dugout canoe in a Miami Beach swimming pool. (Courtesy of the Charles W. Tebeau Library, Historical Museum of Southern Florida.)
The Magic City
In 1845, Florida gained the fifty thousand white people required by federal law to achieve statehood. That year, Miami was what it would be for at least another half century, a remote and desolate outback. Until the 1890s, the region’s population, which cropped up around Fort Dallas, an old outpost from the Seminole Wars, consisted of a handful of homesteading white families; the families of freed slaves; fewer than five hundred Seminoles; and a few dozen, mostly black, Bahamians.1
With no bank, and therefore little access to credit, these early residents held their economy together through cash transactions. Most of the hard currency circulating through the local economy came by way of Seminoles who traded bird plumes, alligator hides, and animal furs of high demand within a growing international fashion industry.2
Through at least the late 1880s, Miami’s denizens were connected to one another and parts north by sailboat and canoe travel and by the on-foot trekking of those later known as “barefoot mailmen.” In the absence of roads and freshwater for horses, contracted mail carriers covered in three days the sixty-plus miles of coast between Palm Beach and Coconut Grove. Southern Florida’s Seminoles, black people, and white settlers fought each other and among themselves for any number of reasons. The relatively small population and the harshness of daily life, however, left very little use for what one would recognize as Jim Crow segregation.
Whatever yeoman way of life existed during Miami’s homesteading years began receding with the arrival of big money from the North in the 1890s. Julia Tuttle, Miami’s first booster, was also a widowed entrepreneur from Cleveland, Ohio. Touting the region’s lack of frost during the winter months, she enticed several northern investors, most notably Henry Flagler of Standard Oil, to take an interest in southern Florida. “As if by magic,” early residents liked to brag, Miami turned from a wilderness to a fully de
veloped city. Tuttle offered massive land grants and Flagler, through his railroad, transported people into southern Florida by the hundreds.
Publicists and businesspeople agreed to call Miami the Magic City as a way of capturing the almost supernatural speed with which early developers built a city out of what seemed like thin air.3
Work crews first hacked through Dade County’s bush to lay track for Flagler’s Florida East Coast (FEC) Railway in early 1896. They pressed through water moccasins, a near constant fog of mosquitoes, and dense mangrove forests. In less than six months, Miami had the semblance of a city grid, a newspaper, a bank, and several stores and churches. It also had about 500 voting-age residents—whites and Negroes—which was 200 more than the number necessary under Florida law to incorporate Miami as a city. Incorporation granted Miami’s first generation of civic leaders the power to collect taxes and start lobbying state and local governments for assistance in infrastructural development.4
As historians in South Florida are still quick to point out, 162 of the nearly 400 voters who incorporated Miami were colored men.5
Contrary to common depictions of electoral politics in the turn-of-the-century South, Miami’s white civic leaders would not summarily disenfranchise black voters after the city’s 1896 incorporation. Rather, white politicos would strategically deploy the Negro vote to accommodate one investor or another’s development vision. As laborers and swing voters, in fact, Negroes were integral to Miami’s early “magic.” John Sewell, who would become the city’s third mayor, proved particularly adept at tipping close elections with what he liked to call his “black artillery.” “I had about one hundred of my negroes registered and qualified to vote, and held them in reserve for emergencies.”6
Sewell kept his colored voters up to date on their poll taxes. One can also presume that, given the frequency of special “freeholder” elections for early land development projects, Sewell also ensured these men met the state’s property requirements.
Sewell first began building his “black artillery” as a foreman on Flagler’s FEC Railway and, later, during the construction of the Royal Palm Hotel. Built in 1897 as Miami’s first tourist destination, the Royal Palm sat on the banks of the Miami River and boasted four hundred rooms, six levels, and a six-hundred-foot veranda. A structure of that size looked like a palace standing alone amid surrounding swamp and wildlife. Building the hotel also required unearthing the burial mound of marsh-dwelling native peoples known as the Tequesta, a group who predated even the Seminoles by at least one hundred years. At the site, Sewell gave away as souvenirs some of the sixty or so Tequesta skulls his workers found while digging the hotel’s foundation.7
He ordered the rest of the bones removed to an unmarked grave. “I
took about four of my most trusted negroes,” Sewell later wrote, “and hauled all those skeletons out by where there was a big hole in the ground, about twelve feet deep, and dumped the bones in it.” On top of displaced Indian remains, Sewell built and sold what he called “a fine residence,” adding, “The things that the owners don’t know will never hurt them.”8
Errand into the Wilderness
Indian bones glibly discarded captures the kind of disregard South Florida’s early real estate men brought to the region, especially as it concerned the natural environment. Fancying themselves as the next generation of Henry Flaglers, a second wave of millionaire developers, again mostly from northern states, came to Miami just after 1900. Like the robber barons they emulated, these men paid very little mind to the ecological and social impact of their land reclamation efforts. The eccentric industrialist from Maine, James Deering; Missouri’s Locke Highleyman; Carl Fisher, an auto-body magnate from Indiana; and the aged New Jersey–born farmer John Collins were but a few of those who paid millions of dollars and secured millions more in government funds to build docks and bridges, to expand the railroad, to dynamite narrow streams, and to continue the slow, steady drainage of the Everglades with over 125 miles of new canals.9
Since at least 1906, drainage projects, in particular, began cutting off Seminoles from their seasonal marsh settlements and hunting grounds farther inland. Several native families, in response, elected to move closer to Miami’s slowly urbanizing sections. Seminoles traveled daily down the Miami River to work in small shops or sell animal pelts and Indian crafts to merchants and other recent arrivals. Where the Miami River met NW First Street, one could find more than a dozen dugout canoes parked on the river’s landings on any given day. Newly arrived whites often marveled at the sight of “real Indian” families in town on everyday business. Admitted one resident who spent his youth in Miami during the 1910s, “I liked to watch an Indian family walk down the street, always single file, with the father in front, followed by the boys . . . then the mother, and after the mother, the girls.”10
By this point in Miami’s development, Seminoles were hardly the warring nation so many whites associated with Florida’s frontier history. Their numbers had dropped to as few as 160 people in the 1860s, and they seemed, in the words of one official, “doomed ultimately to extinction.”11
Natural population increases had caused their numbers to approach 400 by 1910. Yet this growth brought with it spikes in rates of malaria and infant mortality. Public health crises ran headlong into dramatic reductions in the desirabil
ity of furs and alligator skins by 1915, driving Miami’s native communities further into poverty. Seminoles who saw little future success or stability as the 1900s wore on joined earlier migrants, and fled for reservations in Oklahoma. Others moved to Seminole settlements near Lake Okeechobee farther upstate. Others still, at the behest of John Sewell’s younger brother, Everest, would eventually find work as caddies on golf courses and, later, as “tribal” performers in silent films, promotional events, and at alligator-wrestling spectaculars. Though their thoughts on the matter remain largely unknown, Miami’s indigenous people, by their very presence, contributed to southern Florida’s frontier feel and the money one could make from it.
Considered to be, in the words of one paper, “peculiar recluses,” Seminoles also generally avoided sending their children to formal schools, and this further marginalized them from the rapid growth transforming the region. As reported by Indian Affairs agents, white people’s continually broken promises inspired the notion that white education taught a person to lie. Only careful negotiation among Seminole leaders, government officials, and local white educators finally got a single Indian boy, Hath-wa-ha-chee, into a white primary school in neighboring Broward County in 1914. Called Tony Tommie to ease white discomfort with pronouncing his name, Hath-wa-ha-chee was fourteen years old at the time he started first grade, and his initial difficulties in accessing “whites only” education prompted some to recommend that he attend a school for colored children. “I opposed this,” said Lucien Spencer, Florida’s federally appointed commissioner of Indian Affairs. “I know the Indians draw the color line even closer than we whites do.” “Persons of negro blood among the Indians,” Spencer continued, “have no tribal rights whatever, and to try and place a Seminole on a plane with negroes would destroy the work [of educating Indian children] completely.”12
During the 1910s, young Tony Tommie and other Seminoles remained largely relegated to being set pieces in parades and on golf courses.
Just as the presence of native peoples proved integral to Miami’s early years, the interdependency of black and white residential life and labor was equally evident from the very beginning of the city’s development. Wealthy white Miamians drew aesthetic inspiration from Mediterranean villas and British manors, and they built dozens of opulent winter homes, lavish waterfront estates, and hotels in full view of Miami’s impressive bayfront. Raising luxury from Florida bushlands brought West Indian and American Negro workers shoulder to shoulder with Scotsmen, Englishmen, Italians, and other Europeans.13
Two early Miami developers—the Canadian concert pianist Franklin Bush and Walter de Garmo, an Illinois-born architect—sold homes and lots in what would become Miami’s Coconut Grove and Coral Gables
neighborhoods. Though concerned principally with catering to a white clientele, Bush and de Garmo made renting to colored people an ancillary benefit of becoming a homeowner or developer in Miami. With every eight to ten lots they sold in Coral Gables, they threw in a free “colored” acre in Coconut Grove, the size of which accommodated nearly a dozen black rental houses.14
Black housing was mostly workers’ housing, and, in Miami, black work conditions, because of white racism, mirrored national trends. Almost as a rule, affluent white homes brought in black women as domestics. Hotels and white homeowners ran “colored preferred” want ads daily, with most expressly looking for an “American colored girl” or a “competent colored woman” for one kind of domestic task or another.15
The preponderance of wealthier white women among Miami’s early investor families ensured that most domestic work in the city was going to be done by black Caribbean women. Turn-of-the-century Miami also sat at the dawn of a thirty-year blackening of domestic labor around the country. Roughly between 1900 and 1930, the number of white women engaged in domestic employment declined by 40 percent. Most gained access to new clerical professions. Black women largely took on white women’s old menial labor, as evidenced by the 40 percent increase
in the number of black women working as domestics and laundresses over those same years.16
Racism on the job and between jobs determined the nature of black men’s work as well. Beginning in the 1910s and continuing well into the 1940s, white union members enforced “whites only” membership rules within the sectors of carpentry and entertainment. These helped exclude colored people from Miami’s most well paying jobs. Miami’s Central Labor Union, an umbrella organization representing workers throughout South Florida’s early tourist economy, argued in 1915, “Organized labor must maintain the barrier between white and black in Miami.”17
White union members and employers generally made poor-paying and degradingly servile jobs the kind of employment most available to black Miamians. The real estate developer Carl Fisher bragged of employing “the most wonderful Bahama negroes you ever saw.” They steered gondolas at Fisher’s Nautilus Hotel on Miami Beach, and, as Fisher explained to a fellow white entrepreneur, “They are all going to be stripped to the waist and wear big brass rings. And possibly necklaces of live crabs or crawfish.”18
Whites also preferred colored men for driving “Afromobiles” across the verdant grounds of the Royal Palm and other new hotels. An Afromobile was a wicker chair mounted on a three-wheeled cycle frame and usually propelled by a colored ...