In 1896 when the city of Miami was established, historians say that there were 367 people who voted to officially make it a city. Of that number, 162 were Black residents. And the first name on the charter of the city was that of a Black man called Silas Austin. In actual fact, Bahamians, Haitians, the Caribbean Diaspora, and African Americans, helped shape or create the region.
“The election took place in what was called the lobby building, a wood-framed building built that year. There was nothing there prior to 1896, other than the Tuttles’ home on the north bank of the river,” historian Dr. Paul George told WLRN. “The incorporation meeting took place between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. and it was all-male, as far as we know, because women in Florida did not have the right to vote at that time. And so the voters, including more than one-third of the voters being African Americans, many of whom were Bahamian Americans, voted by acclamation for a City of Miami.”
Even though the Bahamians and people from the Caribbean were some of the first settlers in what would become Miami, Jim Crow laws limited them to specific areas. As history shows, early settlers from The Bahamas built Coconut Grove, a neighborhood in Miami. Here’s how it all began.
In the 1880s, a group of Bahamians settled in Miami. “They settled here because the first work that was available to Blacks that was not farm work was available at the Peacock Inn,” historian and author Marvin Dunn told NBC Miami. He said the Bahamians were brought in to work at the Peacock Inn as gardeners and cooks. Even though they worked at the hotel, they lived in the West Grove, along what was then called Evangelist Street (now Charles Avenue).
It was on that street that the Bahamian Coconut Grove development began. The street would come to have many homes, businesses and churches. Dr. Enid Pinkney, who is the founding president of The Historic Hampton House Community Trust in Miami’s Brownsville corridor, said the early Bahamian Americans were very important because they brought their culture and food to Miami.
“They also knew how to farm, even though the area had coral rock and theft land was barren. And we are still benefiting and living off some of the things that they bought today,” Pinkney told WLRN last year. Pinkney further said most people think that Miami as a place for immigrants started in 1959 and with the Cuban boatlift.
“They don’t know that back in the 1890s that the Bahamians would come in here and they settled in Coconut Grove, but they also settled in Lemon City. That kind of history is lost,” said Pinkney.
Today, the University of Miami’s Otto G. Richter Library houses various archives that help to preserve this important local history. The library houses The Theodore R. Gibson Family Papers, which tell the story of Reverend Gibson, Miami Commissioner during the 1970s and 1980s, and champion of Black Coconut Grove, according to the University of Miami. There are also materials highlighting the activities of Gibson’s wife, Thelma Gibson, who is a University of Miami trustee emerita.
Historian Dunn also spoke to WLRN about M. Athalie Range, the first Black woman to serve in the Miami City Commission. “Mrs. Range, as we called her Momma Range, was a powerhouse in Miami. If you wanted to run for Congress, you had to go to Momma Range and talk to her. If you wanted to run for president, believe me, you had to go talk to Momma Range. And when tragedy hit the community, she was the one whose shoulders held us up and spoke for us.”
At the time the Bahamians were brought to Miami, piracy was a very attractive occupation for Blacks as they believed it was better than slavery and they were rewarded with loot. “Several Black men had ships that powered it along the southeastern coast of Florida, including right here in Miami,” said Dunn. Florida’s most renowned Black pirate who used the island of Elliott Key and other hiding places along the Southeast Florida coast to conduct raids on unsuspected ships and villages was Black Caesar. He is still remembered by many as a long-lasting pirate, who survived past many of his contemporaries.
What has happened to the Bahamian population in the Grove?
The Bahamian population in the Grove has declined over the years as families move to other parts of South Florida. However, their legacy can still be felt. There are currently two iconic homes still on Charles Avenue. The first is the home of real estate magnate E.W.F. Stirrup, who was the first Bahamian to settle in the Grove. The second is the home of Mariah Brown, the first Bahamian woman to move to the neighborhood.
The Bahamian section in Coconut Grove has become one of the most gentrified communities in the City of Miami. On the back of this, the City of Miami recently designated several homes, “about 20 or 30 or these “Stirrup” type homes as historical landmarks and they cannot be destroyed,” Dunn said.