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The role of black laborers in the development of Coral Gables

By Dorothy Jenkins Fields

The Gilded Age, the era in United States history spanning the late 19th century, is known for rapid economic and population growth as well as extreme wealth. Following that period industrialist James Deering built Vizcaya, his Italian palace in Coconut Grove. A decade later Coral Gables, the dream city of real estate developer, planner and builder George E.  Merrick, was incorporated in 1925.

In the context of the time, Deering and Merrick were wealthy white men. In contrast, most black people were poor and limited “in every phase of life,” through Jim Crow laws sanctioned by the United States Supreme Court and regional customs. Locally, black people were not allowed to vote, and were excluded from participating in the city’s government and society.  Moreover, restricted clauses in land deeds prohibited black people from living in the same neighborhoods as white people.

Blacks were primarily servants -- the men as day laborers and the women as domestics. In the first issue of the Historical Association’s journal, Tequesta, George Merrick made these observations in his article Pre-Flagler Influences on the Lower Florida East Coast: “… practically the only available workers (the Bahaman negro) … had a distinct and important influence … (they) brought inspiration to many of the first English, French, Northern and Southern planters…at first skeptical of the coral-rocky country. Bahaman negroes brought their own commonly used trees, vegetables and fruits… skill in masonry building with native coral limestone … walls, roads, other uses of the coral; and uses of the land, of the sea.”
At the turn of the 20th century the black Bahamians traveled from the West Indies to Key West, then settled in the “colored village in Coconut Grove” and Golden Gate neighborhood.  In 1925 when more living space was needed for black workers the Coral Gables Securities Corporation made available property purchased from a pioneer white school teacher, Flora McFarlane.  Some of Coral Gables’ “colored” neighborhoods received electricity in the 1950s.
Homeownership was important to pioneer black residents, including Mariah Brown, Frank and Ruth Payne, Rebecca Johnson Gibson and Merries Johnson Moore. According to the City of Miami designation report: (E. W. F. Stirrup, a black Bahamian) “became one of the largest landowners in Coconut Grove.  Believing homeowners were better citizens he built more than a hundred houses in Coconut Grove, providing many newly arrived Bahamians with the opportunity to purchase their first home.”
Golden Gate residents organized the Lola B. Walker Homeowners Association.  Members Leona Cooper Baker, William Cooper and Leona Ferguson Cooper led the Association in nominating the McFarlane Homestead Subdivision a historic district. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.

The black neighborhoods located in Coral Gables are examples of proud ownership in “the City Beautiful.” The passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 changed the laws and removed exclusions. Some descendants of the laborers distinguished themselves in medicine, education, religion, law and public service. Some choose to continue living and working in the pioneer neighborhoods.