MIAMI (AP) – Scott Barnett didn’t realize Miami was the South.
Sure, Florida is located below the Mason-Dixon Line, yet the sunshine, beaches and large foreign-born population purports Miami to be a mixedrace paradise. But make no mistake:
Miami was the South: like Ku Klux Klan marching down the middle of the street South.
"There’s no theories here," Barnett, the director of "Crossing Overtown," said Saturday afternoon to the audience at Lyric Theater following a screening. "This is facts."
That realization birthed "Crossing Overtown," a documentary that explores the community’s history as foundational not just to the city of Miami but also the Civil Rights Movement. The ﬁlm, which features interviews with several prominent Miamians including former Ferguson, Mo., Police Chief Delrish Moss, historian Marvin Dunn and Black Archives founder Dorothy Fields, could be considered a corrective history that centers Black Miami’s perspective. It premieres nationally on PBS in late March.
"Without Overtown, there would not have been Miami," Dunn said in the documentary. "There would not have been anyone to build it. There would not have been anyone to clear the land.
There would not have been anyone to physically put this community on the map had it not been for Black people in Colored Town. " While the documentary touches on more well-known parts of Overtown’s history like its home to the Black men who voted to incorporate the city of Miami and its cultural significance as the "Harlem of the South," some of the most fascinating parts center around policing and the community’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.
"Miami, for being a young city, has really been central to some of the major social, cultural issues in America going back to the early 1900s," HistoryMiami Museum resident historian Paul George said in the documentary, later listing the KKK’s resurgence, police violence, desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement as examples.
Overtown’s legacy is intertwined with both the good and bad aspects of policing. The good can be seen with the creation of the Black Police Precinct and Courthouse, which brought a reprieve from the terror of white officers, the first of whom came from Georgia and rural Florida and were sent "to Colored town with very little restrictions on what they could do," according to Dunn. Fields, whose family has been in Miami for generations, offered a pretty blunt view of the city’s early policemen.
"They were part of the structure" in Miami, Fields said in the documentary. "They wore hoods at night and uniforms in the day."
Although Black patrolmen could not arrest white citizens as they were not considered full officers, their work laid the groundwork for what’s now considered community policing. The Black Police Precinct operated until 1963, when integration allowed officers of African descent into the Miami Police Department, something that many within the community of Overtown were not too happy about.
"The Black community, for once, had felt a little relief from just being policed by a white police department," Chief Clarence Dickson, the first Black Miami police chief, said in the documentary. He later added that "a police department is only as good as the community that it serves thinks it is."
"Crossing Overtown" also makes the case that the community was far ahead of its time in the fight for equal rights due to an influx of Black veterans and white Northerners settling in Miami. Both the first nonviolent training and Civil Rights demonstration a "wade-in" at Haulover Beach that led to Virginia Key being designated as a Blacks-only beach – occurred in Miami, according to Dunn. Miami was even home to one of Florida’s first lunch counter sit-ins, roughly six months before the famed one in Greensboro. " We had a vanguard of Black leaders in Miami early on that were pushing for things that were not being done in other parts of the South," Dunn said in the documentary, referring to figures like Rev. Theodore Gibson, Judge Lawson Edward Thomas and Father John E. Culmer.
When the documentary ended, Barnett, Moss, Fields and Terrance Cribbs Lorrant, the executive director of the Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum, who was also featured in the project, took the stage for a brief forum. The group discussed everything from making the documentary to preserving Black history to even Tyre Nichols’ brutal killing. Although he was not called out by name, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration’s moves to limit how schools can teach race naturally came up in conversation. In the end, it was Barnett who gave the most direct denouncement of DeSantis.
"For our leaders to contemplate taking away African American history courses, taking away DEI – diversity, equity and inclusion," Barnett said. "When someone comes up with that kind of nonsense, where does it come from? Obviously it comes from the throes of a racist past."