The Black Miami: Black Influence in South Florida from the 1800s to the '80s Riots

There are probably about a million secret histories hiding in Miami. With so many different cultures and communities coexisting in one place, no two people's versions of the events of the past are likely to match up perfectly. It's beautiful, in a way, but it also means that many of us are missing out on things that are happening right next door.

That's why the new documentary The Black Miami has piqued our interest. Based on Dr. Marvin Dunn's book, Black Miami in the 20th Century, the film describes the history and significance of blacks in South Florida. Regardless of your background, you're sure to be captivated by the stories of The Black Miami, many of which you've likely never heard.

Carlton Smith, who, along with Michael Williams, is helming the project, answered some of our questions about The Black Miami, how it came into being, and why people in South Florida need to see it.

Cultist: How did this documentary come into being?
Carlton Smith: I met another producer, Michael Williams, through work, and we had talked about doing side projects together -- particularly, we wanted to do a documentary. He had been reading this book, Black Miami in the 20th Century, and he said it would make a really great documentary. I read the book myself, at which point we decided to take it on as a documentary project. We called the author of the book, Dr. Dunn, who lives in Florida and is a retired professor from FIU. We said that if he was on board, we would definitely do it. He joined us as an interviewee and an associate producer, which was a win-win.

How does the film compare to the Dr. Dunn's book?
The book goes into so much more detail. After reading the book and sitting with Dr. Dunn, we made a timeline of which key points in his book we wanted in the documentary. With his permission, we kind of said, "What do you think are the most important assets from your book? What are some of the things people don't know about black history in Miami?" The book has more detail, while the documentary is more like an overview, a condensed version of things that are in the book.

How long have you been involved in this project?
We began working on this in November of 2011. Because Michael and I have full-time jobs, we were shootings weekends and evenings. We just got done with post-production.

Wow. We're no filmmakers, but that doesn't seem like long at all. How were you able to finish so quickly?
It was really fast. We were on a tight schedule. Actually, we wanted to submit it to the American Black Film Festival in Miami, but we missed the March deadline. We slowed down a little bit after that, but basically we filmed every single weekend for about three months, and we were doing two or three interviews a day. Michael, being a superb editor, was able to do the post-production in about a month.

How does The Black Miami compare to other projects you've worked on, it terms of content and scale?
I currently work for a national television show, and before that I did music videos, news, and other film projects. This is really the first documentary I've tackled, and it's very special. We didn't have any money when we just went out and did this. We're still looking for sponsors, for businesses in Miami who want to tie their names to this, before it comes out. Everything was done pro bono, everything was on spec, and we owe people money, but [it was worth it]. Living in South Florida, being a black person, I want to know the history of my race. I want to know the history and the significance that blacks played in South Florida, where I'm living.

 

The book that inspired the film.
The book that inspired the film.
via amazon.com

You've traveled a fair bit and have lived in places like Kentucky and Indiana. Why focus on black history in Miami as opposed to any of those places?
Well, for Michael, my business partner, he's a native Miamian. It probably hit closer to home for him at first. But once we looked at the book, it was a given. We knew we had to do it. It's a compelling story. I'm sure black history is compelling in any state, but in Miami, it held a special bond for me just because of the significance that blacks played. When people think of Miami, they think of Latin culture, they think of Hispanics. Even me, before I lived here, that's what I thought. But once you dive into black history, once you know what was going on before the Hispanic boom.... There was a lot going on here in regard to black history, moreso than in other places in the country where I've lived.

What's an example of something interesting about black history in Miami that most people probably don't know?
For me personally, just learning that the city of Miami was incorporated by black votes, that's something interesting I learned from the book. This city wouldn't have been incorporated when it was without that number of black votes. You're talking about a time in the 1800s when, in most states, blacks couldn't even vote. Also, people take for granted the Caribbean influence in South Florida. Most don't realize it, but their influence on Miami is just amazing to learn about.

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Do you think there is still a lot of prejudice or segregation between blacks and Hispanics here?
I haven't seen it first hand. When you watch the documentary, you're going to hear from Bahamians who have lived here for 20 years, you're going to hear from blacks, you're going to hear from whites, and there is that overlying theme, I think, that when the Hispanics did come over, the blacks felt like they were pushed in the background a little bit. They almost felt like they were really starting to propel. And that's really a message in Dr. Dunn's book and within the documentary.

How can people see the documentary?
Keep checking out TheBlackMiami.com. Once we have our sponsors on board and we land our location, we'll have a premiere this summer in Miami.

What do you think is in the future for the black community here?
You know, this documentary should inspire blacks in Miami [to improve their future]. Whether you're African-American, whether you're Bahamian, whether you're Jamaican, it should serve as an inspiration to people once they realize the origins and the significance of blacks in Miami. It's like I said: We think of Miami as a totally Hispanic culture, but early on, in the 1800s, the blacks were here building railroads, leveling everything for the big hotels and for Flagler. And that should inspire people, especially our youth, to want to do more in the community. Even in the documentary, we cover the '80s riots, and I have people who say, "Wow, we still haven't totally gotten over those riots, but maybe the documentary will help."

For more information on the film, email Smith at carltonsmith1975@yahoo.com.

Follow Cultist on Facebook and Twitter @CultistMiami.


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