Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
Having been to Miami many times, we were looking for something different to see and do. And being short on time to plan what that something different might be, our research was limited to asking some local friends what was new in the city and checking a list of museums’ current exhibits.
We plugged our destination into foursquare and hit “Get Directions.” The fact that foursquare decided the end point of our trip was on the side of I-95 and that we eventually required a police escort to find the museum only underscored how marginalized the precinct and its community were historically… and, in many ways, remain.
Staff and volunteers, however, are trying to change that.
When we finally pulled into the parking lot and entered the museum, we were greeted by Davy, a retired Miami police officer who now spends his days giving guided tours of the refurbished precinct and courthouse. He was thrilled to learn we’d found out about the museum through Miami Museums; “We just recently signed on with them,” he said, “so we’re glad to know people are finding us that way.” Davy said visitors to the museum are people who really want to learn about Miami’s black history; far from Miami’s museum district and difficult to access, the people who end up at the museum often have interesting stories about how and why they wound up there.Davy was so enthusiastic about sharing the history of the Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum with us that he forgot to collect our admission fee (We sent it afterwards, along with an extra donation). Instead, he launched right into the incredible story of the nation’s only “known structure… designed, devoted to, and operated as a separate station house and municipal court for Blacks.”
That story complicates the binary narrative of pro- and anti-segregationists before and during the civil rights era, not the least reason being because the precinct’s establishment was the result of successful lobbying by black leaders. Indignant with white police officers’ treatment of their community, black leaders in Miami’s “Coloredtown” neighborhood (now called Overtown) insisted that black officers could–and should–police the community more effectively. In 1950, white leaders finally capitulated and made provisions for a special black police precinct, which also housed its own small jail and courthouse.
Officers in Coloredtown worked their beats on foot and, later, by bike; they weren’t allowed to drive patrol cars and didn’t have access to most of the tools and resources white officers were able to use. Yet they did drive down crime in the neighborhood, and the precinct and courthouse were the means for many of its employees to have meaningful professional careers at a time when few viable opportunities were available.
The precinct, jail, and courthouse were in existence for 13 years before the community-based policing project was terminated and the building was shuttered. Officers from the black police precinct were reassigned and integrated into an existing precinct in 1963. The historic precinct and courthouse sat closed until a restoration project was spearheaded. The site reopened as a museum in 2009.
Today, there aren’t many visitors to Overtown. Besides being tough to find (especially for the directionally challenged, who are likely to be frustrated by the warren of one-way streets), Overtown continues to have a reputation as a rough community. And how could it not? Sitting under the interstate and next to a power plant, it has all the characteristics of a community that has been isolated in the midst of plenty. Or, as Jane Jacobs described so eloquently in her 1961 book (still so relevant today), The Death and Life of Great American Cities, this neighborhood is just one of America’s “marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy and vitality of city life…. Expressways… eviscerate great cities…. [These are a]mputated areas [that] develop galloping gangrene.”
Fortunately, Davy and his colleagues, many of whom have direct ties to the precinct (though Davy joined the police force three years after the black police precinct and courthouse closed, he knows and is friends with many of the people who did work there), are continuing the work that mitigates the forces cutting the community off from its neighbors. In addition to functioning as a museum that holds the ephemera of Miami’s black policing history, the site also serves as a community center where certain groups, such as Scouts, can meet. The museum is also playing some cameo roles in TV shows and films, including “Burn Notice”; reasonable rental fees help pay the bills.
If you’d like to visit, be sure to call ahead (305-329-2513) and ask for good directions. The museum is open 10 AM-4 PM, Monday-Saturday, and admission is $3.00 per person.