Dana Albert Dorsey started his journey with one lot on which he built housing, rented it and reinvested his earnings, repeating that over and over. In a matter of years, Dorsey, who worked as a carpenter, had amassed a real estate empire. He would become Miami’s first Black millionaire and a civic leader philanthropist in Miami’s Black community thanks also to his other financial endeavors, including banking. And he achieved all these amid segregation in the Jim Crow era when Blacks were limited in every phase of life.
Dorsey, affectionately remembered by locals as D.A. Dorsey, was born a sharecropper’s son. He was born in 1872 to former slaves, in Quitman Georgia, Fulton County but later moved to Miami around 1896. At the time, he only had a formal fourth-grade education and was self-taught. He had moved to Miami in search of a better life just like everyone else. Miami had just become a brand new booming city. There, he started working on Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railroad but while he was working, he realized a shortage of housing for his fellow Black workers.
So he purchased a lot in Overtown and built a house. He used the rental income from that house to buy a second lot to build a second home, and so on.
“When he came to Miami he began to amass his fortune in real estate. He began to buy property, sell property, rent property and it amassed to be well over a million dollars, which made him the first black millionaire in Miami,” said Timothy Barber, executive director of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida that restored Dorsey’s home to be used as a museum.
Dorsey built the historic home in 1915 at a time when Black residents were basically shut out of the housing market. As Dorsey amassed a large portfolio of property, he sold land to the city of Miami amid segregation to be used as a park for Black residents. He also built a library for Black people in Miami and donated large amounts of land for schools for Black students, being passionate about the importance of education. Dorsey in fact donated land to build Miami’s first Black high school, which now sits as DA Dorsey Technical College.
He also became the owner of the Negro Savings Bank and the first Black owner of a hotel in Miami, Dorsey Hotel. The unfavorable business climate for Black business owners could not stop him from progressing.
“…It was during a time, a climate in our history, where Blacks were not allowed to mingle with Whites. Where Blacks were designated to a certain area of the city that separated them from Whites,” Barber told WLRN.
Still, there were wealthy Black people who had needs. Dorsey helped cater to those needs while still donating his time, money, experience, skills or talent to improve the lives of others. Apart from owning property in Miami, Dorsey also owned property as far north as Fort Lauderdale. The real estate pioneer and millionaire owned property in the Bahamas and in Cuba as well, but a very famous property he owned was Fisher Island in Miami Beach.
Dorsey bought Fisher Island — now one of the world’s wealthiest zip codes accessible only by ferry, boat or helicopter — to build a colored resort. The Miami Daily Metropolis reported in 1918 that Dorsey purchased Fisher Island “to form a company for the development of the tract as a high-class colored resort and subdivision with a hotel, cottages for well-to-do men of his own race and boats to convey them back and forth between the mainland and the island so there will be no conflict of the races in the project.”
But the island remained his property for only a year and a half as he eventually sold it to Carl Fisher who was developing Miami Beach. Barber explained to WLRN why Dorsey sold the island.
“There were some issues where he could not build and expand Fisher Island. One, I know notably was that it was on the east side of a railroad tracks and we know that [Henry] Flagler designated the east side of the railroad tracks for white people on the west side for Black people.
“And I think it was very difficult for Dorsey to get the people and the manpower that he needed to get over to the island on a regular basis to get this island prepared for a resort that he then sold the island to Carl Fisher.”
Dorsey passed away in 1940, but his legacy can still be seen today. There is a street, park, and school named after him. His home, which has been restored throughout the years, is now a museum and a symbol of his success. He also continues to inspire many.
“He’s an inspiration because with him being a pioneer, it shows us where we can go,” Kevin Smith, a young Black real estate entrepreneur with roots in Miami, told Legacy Magazine in 2019.