How I-95 Destroyed Overtown's Housing and Wealth

It was 1956, and President Eisenhower had just signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act. Its main goals were to alleviate traffic congestion in cities and to make domestic travel by car easier. It was also meant to provide evacuation routes in the case of national, state, or local emergencies.

What many didn’t yet know was the racist legacy that the construction of our national highways would leave behind. Using eminent domain, the construction of highways purposefully tore through the homes and businesses of communities of color. Overtown housing was crucial to the preservation of a financial and cultural space for Black Miamians, and the highway disrupted their hard-earned wealth.

Black Wealth in Overtown

Established in 1896, Overtown is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Miami. It was built along the Miami River, just across from white-inhabited Miami Beach. At the time, Overtown was the only place in Jim Crow Miami where Black Miamians could stay. Despite this, many residents of Overtown worked just across town in Miami Beach for hotels, restaurants or white families.

In its heyday, Overtown was a source of Black pride and financial strength. Within Overtown, you could find people from the Bahamas, Nassau, Cuba, and Jamaica, as well as other states. Over 300 black-owned businesses operated within Overtown, and the neighborhood even had its own Black police department and courthouse.

But the wealth didn’t stop there. Overtown was home to the Mary Elizabeth, a hotel owned and operated by William B. Sawyer and his wife. At the time, it was considered the finest Black-owned hotel in all of the Southeastern United States. Naturally, the Lyric Theatre, a 400 seat auditorium with high ceilings and a grand stage, was also a source of pride.

The Mary Elizabeth Hotel, the finest Black-owned hotel in the Southeastern United States at the time.

Sundown Towns

Many famous personalities stayed in Overtown after performing in Miami Beach. Some notable guests included Zora Neale Hurston, Billie Holiday, and Nat King Cole. Black artists would be invited to perform in Miami Beach, only to be kicked out once the sun went down.

Sundown town curfews were enacted against Black people in the cities of Hollywood, Hallandale, and Miami Beach. Curfews started anywhere from 6pm to 10pm, depending on the city. Black workers were eventually required to show a racial identification card. This was to show that they could stay out after 10pm because of work. Many times, white employers either drove Black employees home or arranged transportation for them so that they wouldn’t have run-ins with the police. If a laborer didn’t have a note from an employer or a racial identification card, they ran the risk of being arrested, harassed and even killed.

Racial identification card.

Frozen on the Wealth Ladder

The people of Overtown were instrumental in developing several parts of Miami. Many of the people who lived in Overtown since its beginnings helped build Henry Flagler’s railroad. Others worked service jobs or helped with seasonal farmwork, although there was also a very strong moneyed class within Overtown. The people of Overtown built and maintained Miami through their labor, and even so, they were barred from exploring it in the same way that whites were allowed. Ironically, whites reportedly loved spending time in Overtown. It was bursting with activity, and white curiosity burned to take a closer look, taking in the sights of a place they chose to observe as more of a foreign circus than a neighborhood.

When it came to housing, conditions were far from ideal. Overtown housing was extremely crowded due to racist zoning laws. Forbidden from living anywhere else within Miami, shotgun houses were built to adapt to housing segregation. Many of the homes were built by hand in the Bahamian style by Caribbean immigrants who had experience building fishing boats out of planks of wood. But despite the knowledge that went into building these homes, financing was not available, and so the people of Overtown had to make do with what they had.

Built side by side with very little room, these homes generally had four bedroom layouts within a single story. They were constructed so close to each other, that some people would later recount how they could shake hands with their neighbors from their window.

Detailed plan of Overtown housing.

While this made for a tight knit community, the idea of community shouldn't be romanticized. One can't gloss over the fact that people were packed in carelessly like sardines. The lack of space to build homes stood in the way of obtaining visible wealth for many.

Despite becoming home to several well-to-do Black residents, people who lived in Overtown couldn't buy homes outside of Overtown due to racist zoning laws. Even well-to-do Overtown residents still lived in poorly built shotgun houses, an indignity that only further showed that no matter hard someone worked, they could only go so far in Jim Crow Miami. So yes, these homes had been built for quantity, not quality. In fact, Overtown's population density was about ten times higher than that of Miami Beach, with 150 people per acre.

While this restricted social mobility prevented many from visibly building upon their wealth, it helped preserve the sense of cultural unity that lived within Overtown, making it a powerful haven for Black people. With no options to expand outside of Overtown, its residents began building what wealth they could from within.

A map of Black communities within Miami-Dade in 1951.

The Shadow of I-95

As I-95’s construction began in Pennsylvania and trickled further down South, a ticking time bomb had been set in motion. The threat of I-95 loomed closer to South Florida as the years wore on. It finally reached Miami in the mid ‘60s. At the time, Miami was a whirlwind of rumors. How big would the highway be? Where would it be built? How would it improve workday commutes and local business? Many Overtown residents initially thought the highway would be good a thing. Many believed, mistakenly, that the highway would be a simple road passing through Overtown, and that it would bring more business to residents.

Unfortunately, the promised wealth that I-95 and I-395 were supposed to bring would happen at the expense of Black Miamians. Worst of all, is that initially, I-95 was going to be built without disrupting any neighborhoods. However, when it was revealed that the highway was going to run through the land of Edward Ball, a wealthy white businessman from the Du Pont Corporation, plans changed. Displeased with the idea of I-95 being built directly on top of his land, Ed Ball decided to use his influence to redirect I-95 towards a head on collision with Overtown.

Ed Ball & The Pork Chop Gang

Ed Ball was known as a “law unto himself”. He was a rich, pro-segregationist who wielded enormous power in Florida politics, despite not being a politician. This was due to his close ties to the Pork Chop Gang, a group of Northern Florida legislators that stifled progress in the state until the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for them to do so. They were called the Pork Chop Gang because the group engaged in pork barreling, a practice by which politicians would appropriate government spending to only benefit their district.

Supposedly, when Ed Ball married his wife, he made her sign a prenuptial agreement with a clause that included a promise that she wouldn’t engage in his specific definition of nagging. And when his sister passed away, he used the funds from her trust for himself and his ventures, rather than donating her money to the Nemours Foundation for children with disabilities, as she had wanted.

What I’m trying to say is that Ed Ball’s I-95 stunt wasn’t anything other than business as usual for a sleaze ball like him. In 1962, Ed Ball, together, with the help of Governor Farris Bryant and the Miami Chamber of Commerce, convinced the Florida State Road Department to build I-95 through Overtown housing, crushing homes and displacing at least 10,000 people in the process.

Ed Ball, a notorious racist affiliated with The Pork Chop Gang and the Du Pont Corporation.

Overtown Housing Destruction

Overtown mattered more to white Miami as a servant’s quarter than as a neighborhood the city wanted to invest in. Very little resources were available to build proper homes. And due to the fact that Black Miamians were pushed into the fringes of Miami that whites didn’t want to inhabit, their home values suffered.

Unknown to many at the time, Florida had a homestead exemption law. It prevented local governments from levying property taxes on homes that were worth $5,000 or less. Since many of the homes in Overtown weren’t worth much in terms of market value, the neighborhood generated very little property taxes. This made local government officials eager to demolish Overtown housing in order to make way for an interstate that would bring over well-to-do whites so that they could spend their money in Miami’s up-and-coming entertainment economy.

Overtown: Always Under Siege

To be honest, the intent to evict the Black residents of Overtown had always been there. In 1936, the Dade County Planning Board proposed a resettlement plan for Overtown. They wanted to push Overtown residents towards the agricultural fringes of Miami, away from the city. And in 1937, George Merrick, the founder of Coral Gables, gave a speech to the Miami Realty Board, proposing another resettlement plan to further segregate Miami. Although Merrick never followed through on his proposal, white developers built Liberty Square in 1937, in the hopes that the center of Black Miami would move there.

Liberty Square public housing.

Liberty Square was the first public housing project for Black people in the Southeastern United States. Located in Liberty City, it was five miles from Overtown, a fact which white developers hoped would coax Overtown’s Black residents to move. While Overtown was crowded, and the expanded housing was seen as a welcome addition, it was also seen as an unwelcome resettlement initiative aimed at weakening the neighborhood's cultural power.

Decades later, the highway managed to do what white developers couldn’t. By claiming eminent domain, the Florida State Road Department began preparing to displace Overtown residents with no relocation plan in mind. By the mid ‘60s, residents in Overtown began receiving thirty day eviction notices in their mailboxes.

As for Overtown’s few homeowners, they received enclosed checks from the government with a couple thousand dollars. Bereft, many had no idea that they could dispute the situation being imposed on them, and most ended up cashing their checks and moving somewhere else.

A Look Back at Miami

In a 2013 city report by Richard Florida, a fellow at the New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate, he examined the state of Miami’s deep class divide. We’re all aware of it. I’ve also described it in-depth when talking about how foreign national loans influence rent rates in Miami.

In many ways, Miami is a cultural haven, providing immigrants with a taste of home. But in other ways, Miami is a city that amplifies class divides and cultural and racial tensions. The destruction of Overtown’s wealth made it so that the unique identities that coexisted within Overtown disbanded. Many people moved to Opa-Locka, Liberty City, Hialeah, Hollywood, and other areas within Miami-Dade and Broward county.

What happened to Overtown is now happening to Little Haiti. Brickell developers have taken their franchises, their luxury apartment buildings, and set up shop in another cultural haven. Once looked down on, Little Haiti is now considered an up-and-coming neighborhood, and gentrification has set in motion surges in rent prices that are once again, dissolving community and making housing even less affordable in one of the most expensive cities in the United States.

Maintaining Integrity While Fostering Social Accountability

Housing is not equal in the United States. The very genesis of the mortgage industry is rooted in financial desperation and racism, some of the ugliest qualities the US is best known for. But by holding ourselves accountable as real estate professionals, and taking stock of our nation's housing history, we can pave a better way forward.

Lending laws no longer allow racist covenants to exist when it comes to home buying. And as the government has acknowledged the systemic inequalities it upholds, it's removed some hurdles from buyers' paths, such as student loan debt, using positive rental payments to boost low credit scores, and providing co-borrowers with some relief to make home buying fairer, given how expensive our national market has gotten.

It is our ethical obligation to educate home buyers. Housing is about more than four walls and a roof over your head, or a nice kitchen with marble countertops. Housing is about history, context, and all of the negative space in between. The displacement of people is just as important as the strength of their roots within a community, and their impact extends much further than we think. Whenever something happens to housing, you can expect the changes to have ripple effects that last for generations. That’s why housing matters, because real estate is the most important asset someone can have in the United States. It saved the country during the Great Depression, and it sustains people now, as they develop their careers, build a family, and get ready to retire. Security and stability are key in a world of unpredictability, and it is unfortunate that so many people don't have access to the crucial building blocks of establishing wealth. But if you're interested in home buying and personal finance, the first step is to learn how the system works—and that's a start.