From Knight Manor to Nightmare

Just when a forlorn section of Liberty City is about to get the help it so desperately needs, along comes Miller Dawkins on his political bulldozer

After the torpedoing, Western Estates sank. Simmons, who had only a limited amount of time to clean up and buy the property before it went back on the market, failed to meet his deadline. Tacolcy took its $2.5 million county grant and applied it to another project. Developers from Fort Lauderdale swooped in and signed a contract for exclusive rights on the property.

Like Simmons and Tacolcy, the Broward developers approached the City of Miami in search of government subsidies. Unlike the Tacolcy project, though, these developers were not admonished by Dawkins to hold public meetings or draw up new designs. Instead, Dawkins paired them with the Urban League of Greater Miami, a nonprofit corporation headed by his friend and former campaign manager T. Willard Fair.

Without waiting to see how many buildings the partners planned to construct or questioning whether the proposed houses would be affordable to Liberty City residents, and without ensuring that the land was environmentally safe, Dawkins urged his colleagues to award the partnership not the $500,000 Tacolcy had requested, but a whopping $4.7 million, with virtually no strings attached.

And his fellow commissioners, as they usually do when it comes to issues that affect Miami's black community, deferred to Dawkins, passing his motion unanimously.

"We're trying to do something here that everybody will be proud of," said Dawkins when he snuffed Lorenzo Simmons's request. "That's all."

But that wasn't really all. Unmistakably, this project to restore Liberty City would unfold with Miller Dawkins's blessing or not at all.

And now, nearly two years later, it is unfolding. And it's a mess.
Everyone in Northwest Miami awoke at 2:15 on the morning of September 22, 1951. That was the precise moment when two 100-pound sticks of dynamite exploded in an unoccupied building in Carver Village, a development that had been dubbed Knight Manor back when it was built as whites-only housing. Now, with a new name and with blacks moving in, Carver Village was the focal point of Miami's fierce racial tensions.

The explosion ripped the roof off the building and tore doors and windows from their frames, according to research done by Metro-Dade Division of Historic Preservation historian Teresa Van Dyke. Damage exceeded $200,000. On November 30, another early-morning bomb destroyed two more units at Carver Village. Three more bombs exploded on December 2.

City leaders had inadvertently lit the fuse 55 years earlier, upon the founding of Miami. Railroad baron Henry Flagler housed his black workers in a strictly defined rectangle of land northwest of downtown Miami, away from the river and the Biscayne Bay properties coveted by whites. Colored Town, as the area came to be called, maintained the same borders even as the number of blacks living in Miami grew with the rest of the city. Housing prices skyrocketed.

In the Thirties, a visionary (and shrewd) white real estate man named Floyd Davis devised a solution to the problem. Davis, through his attorney, proposed the construction of Liberty Square, which would be the largest housing project in the South, and, as he saw it, the nucleus of a new black enclave. Not only would Liberty Square relieve the housing crunch in Colored Town, it would also make Davis a wealthy man. He owned much of the land in the neighborhood in which the proposed complex would be built.

The project was a winner, for Davis and for the city. Blacks flocked to the sparkling new Liberty Square, described popularly as the most beautiful housing project in the country. A six-foot-high stone wall ringed the subdivision in which Liberty Square was built, a not-very-subtle reminder to blacks who might otherwise have been tempted to enter the surrounding white-occupied neighborhoods. Any black housing projects built inside the wall quickly filled to capacity.

The success of Davis's housing project caught the eye of two developers, Malcolm Wiseheart and John Bouvier, who cashed in on the building boom by constructing their own black housing project in the Forties. At the same time, they erected a sister project just outside the wall and named it Knight Manor. The black project, as predicted, quickly filled. Knight Manor, built for whites, didn't fare so well; renters never filled more than half the complex.

Bouvier and Wiseheart altered their bottom line, and the history of all Miami, in 1951, when they decided to rent 215 empty Knight Manor apartments to blacks. It was the first time in the history of super-segregated Miami that blacks were invited to live outside their clearly defined borders.

To fight the change, angry white citizens mobilized into groups with names such as the Dade County Property Owners Association and the John B. Gordon chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. White residents of Knight Manor held an "Indignation Meeting," followed by a motorcade in which they drove around the now-integrated project flashing their headlights. Some of the more law-abiding Klansmen obeyed a Dade County ordinance banning cross burning and instead ignited giant wooden letter Ks.

The consonant burning, and the subsequent bombings, did not prevent blacks from moving in. So strong was the demand for affordable housing that the boundaries of the black neighborhood soon moved beyond Knight Manor to encompass a larger (albeit still confined) section of Miami that is now known as Liberty City.

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