Community Contributor
5:35 pm
Fri June 21, 2013

Early Settler Recalls Miami's Bustling Black Neighborhood Called "Colored Town"

My maternal grandparents, Sam D. and Ida Ellen Roberts Johnson, were born in Harbour Island, Bahamas. It is believed that their foreparents were among the millions of black slaves forced from West Africa and sold in the West Indies.
 

A postcard from Overtown, 1907.

Papa was Samuel David. He was born in 1872. His parents were John David and Matilda Johnson, descendants of ancestors from Haiti and Barbados and considered a wealthy planter.

By comparison Mama's family was poor. She was born Ida Ellen Roberts to Horatio and Letitia Roberts in Harbour Island. The Roberts family's ancestors may have lived in Bermuda.

When their parents divorced, Mama and sister Dora were raised by an aunt who was the cook for the island's medical doctor, a white man trained in England. He encouraged them to learn to read and write.
 

This article, originally published in the Miami Herald, is part of HistoryMiami's Miami Stories project.

About 1897, Sam D. and Ida Ellen were married on Harbour Island in the St. John Wesleyan Methodist Church. Seeking better economic opportunities, Papa moved to Key West, became a sponger and sent for his bride. Two children were born in Key West, Samuel Hensdale and Elaine.

Papa relocated to Miami's Colored Town (Overtown), where his sister Alice and her husband, Thomas Bullard, had already settled.

In December 1903, Samuel and Elaine left Key West with Mama for Miami aboard the steamboat Shinicok and landed at the P and O dock, now 12th Street and Biscayne Boulevard.

They lived in Colored Town adjacent to the developing white downtown.

Other relatives had already relocated to Coconut Grove. Mama, however, preferred to live in the city. One of the neighbors originally from the Bahamas, Shaddy Ward, encouraged Papa to buy land and build a house. Eventually three houses were built two blocks north of the Lyric Theater: 159 NW 10th St., 153 NW 10th St. and 1004 NW First Ct.

Before 1910, Miami's Colored Town was a bustling community with family grocery stores, barber shops, beauty shops, schools, churches, a milliner and drug store. Family and friends from Lemon City (Little Haiti), Coconut Grove and neighborhoods traveled to shop and dine in Colored Town.

Five other children were born: Roberta, Frederick, Dorothy, James and John. Papa called them his "bunch."

By 1909 Papa was an officer at Mount Zion Baptist Church. He was a laborer at several construction sites, a gardener at the James Deering Estate (Vizcaya) and caretaker for prominent families, including the Chafee's cousins of John D. Rockefeller and William Jennings Bryan, a three-time U.S. presidential candidate.

Papa and his sons worked on the Bryan estate, Villa Serena. The Bryans encouraged Papa and Mama's desire to educate their children. Once, Mrs. Bryan gave Papa an old suit for Samuel as he prepared to go away to school. Another time she gave Papa a copy of Horatio Alger's book, Store Boy.

Educating all seven children was Mama's goal. In the early 1900s in Miami, black children were only allowed to finish eighth grade in public school. They had to work or leave Miami in order to finish high school. Mama and Papa sent Samuel to high school in Jacksonville at the Florida Baptist Academy, now Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens.

The seven children all graduated from college and were Miami-Dade County's first black family to educate seven children through college before 1945.

The accomplishments of Samuel D. and Ida Ellen Johnson and their children mirror the history and development of Miami. Their efforts inspired the grandchildren: dentist, Dr. J.K. Johnson Jr.; retired attorney, Judge A. Leo Adderly; retired educators Jewyll Wilson, Betty Jones, and Joyce Silver; and archivist and historian, Dr. Dorothy Ellen Jenkins Fields. The goal set forth by the fore parents continues to their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and cousins through the Harbour Island Family Reunion. The Harbour Island Family Reunion promotes education by giving scholarships to family.
 

Tell us your story: HistoryMiami invites you to share your Miami Story. To submit your story, click here. Your story may be posted at miamiherald.com/miamistories, published in Sunday’s Neighbor's print edition and archived at HistoryMiami.org.

About Miami Stories: This project is a partnership between HistoryMiami, Miami Herald Media Company, WLRN and Michael Weiser, chairman of the National Conference on Citizenship.