Overtown's Historic Black Library Is in Shambles Despite City Promises to Preserve It

Community activist Elliott Jones is suing the City of Miami for failing to maintain the Dorsey Memorial Library, which was designated as a historical site in 2003.
Community activist Elliott Jones is suing the City of Miami for failing to maintain the Dorsey Memorial Library, which was designated as a historical site in 2003.
via complaint filed by attorney Faudlin Pierre

Update: A city spokeswoman says a restoration of Dorsey Memorial Library "is one of our projects currently in the early design phase." The city's full statement is below.

Thirteen years ago, the City of Miami designated the Dorsey Memorial Library in Overtown as a historic site. But looking at the building today, you'd never know it. The windows are boarded up. The walls are covered in graffiti. The roof is caving in.

"They never did the work to preserve it," community activist Elliott Jones says of city leaders. "It's kind of a slap in the face to the residents of Overtown."

That's why Jones and his attorney, Faudlin Pierre, have filed a public nuisance lawsuit against the city in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. They say the city has utterly neglected the building, which was only the second library available to local African-Americans when it opened in 1941. The land was donated by Miami's first black millionaire, Dana A. Dorsey, just 15 days before he died.

An undated historical photo of the Dorsey Memorial Library.
An undated historical photo of the Dorsey Memorial Library.

"When that library was built, blacks couldn't go to the regular public library. They weren't allowed to," says Marvin Dunn, author of Black Miami in the Twentieth Century. "It's one of the few physical reminders in Overtown not only of Mr. Dorsey's generosity but also of black education."

Although the library has not been used since the '60s, it was deemed a historic place in 2003, meaning the city is obligated by its own codes to preserve the property.

Curiously, even the city's own historical designation report acknowledged the building was a disaster then, noting "without sufficient maintenance, it will continue to deteriorate." Last year, the building department issued two citations to the city, saying the property was unsafe and a potential fire or windstorm hazard.

The Dorsey Memorial Library in 2002 (left) and now..
The Dorsey Memorial Library in 2002 (left) and now..
via Historic Preservation Miami and complaint by attorney Faudlin Pierre

Despite its recognition that the building is a significant piece of Miami's history, Jones says the city "has continued to do nothing" to fix the problems at the library, which puts it at risk of being lost forever.

"It would be a shame to lose one of the early beacons and signs of African-American progress in this community because we didn't have the foresight to put a tarp up, to invest in a roof, to invest in what was said would be invested in," Jones says. "After this area has been gentrified – and make no mistake about it, that's what's happening – we want citizens to be able to come back and say, 'This is where our roots are.'"

So why has the building fallen to pieces? A city spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit or the status of the building.

But as recently as six months ago, the city's Capital Improvements and Transportation Program is on record saying it was working to find money to rehabilitate the library.

Six months after this Twitter exchange, it's unclear if any progress has been made in restoring the property. It certainly doesn't look like it, Jones says.

He hopes his lawsuit sparks city leaders to step up and give the property the resources needed to get it back in shape.

"As a whole, it's a key spot on the tapestry that is Miami," he says. "We're really confident that we will get some traction with them. We're just trying to jump-start this a little."

City of Miami's statement:

"As previously mentioned, the Dorsey Memorial Library Restoration project is in the early design phase. Much interest has been given to Dorsey Library by private and public entities. $256,000 were previously approved by City Commission to fund the project. However, the estimated cost to fund the restoration work at Dorsey Library is between $1 million and $1.2 million.

"Rizo Carreno & Partners, the design firm, was given the Notice to Proceed this week to begin the design for the shoring of the walls to allow for the debris from the collapsed roof and other construction debris to be removed safely. Last year, a chain link fence was placed around the building to prevent any trespassers from entering the hazardous area. Additionally, the grass has been trimmed and the site is maintained clean.

"As you may be aware, this is a historical building. For this reason and due to the funding shortfall, a meeting has been scheduled for next week to discuss the funding and future use for this project." 


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