Overtown as Text

The Faith of Overtown

by Anna Buntova of FIU at Overtown, September 15, 2021

From the last trip to Miami Downtown, I remembered how the novelty of lucrative Miami businesses, luxurious hotels, and reserved courthouses was built on top of the remnants of the past deeply archived beneath the contemporary architecture and overshadowed by the modernist abstract statues. This time, our class ventured into a novel territory which is a historic place called Overtown affectionately referencing “going over the town” when en route, once referred to as the Colored Town. As the name suggests, the Overtown used to be a place where the people of color used to reside ever since the Florida East Coast Railroad had been built all the way to Miami for the tourists to relish the tropical climate and orange farmers to grow their citrus plantations.  Overtown was initially created to provide the black workers with a place to live. Discreetly, it was a way for Flagler to segregate black people away from tourists so as to avoid any encounters near hotel and beach areas since it would downplay the luxury of south Miami. Overtown is considered one of the oldest neighborhoods of Miami after Coconut Grove with the richest black heritage leaving its mark as being the cultural hub of black history. Yet, of course, there is always a place for faith in the heart of the cultural community to welcome people all over the nation to “go over town” and see religion from a different perspective.

The most impressive part of the trip which was firmly imprinted in my memory was the image of Jesus drawn on the stained glass in the Greater Bethel Church located in the center of  Overtown. The image of colored Jesus struck me to the bone because of how different the commonly accepted version of Jesus is from the white-skinned blue-eyed version of him. I was familiar with the fact that the construct of Jesus is different in different parts of the world, however, to witness the actual image was a stunning experience. The image of colored Jesus is a symbolic representation of the dominance of the black population in Overtown, but it also tells how multicultural and multigenerational the church is. 

The Overtown left a unique legacy behind. By being oppressed and warding off for so many years, inhabitants of Overtown had to rebuild essential systems of society and one of them is religion along with entertainment and business. Nevertheless, it must be something that is salient, unique and characterizing of the black community. The image of colored Jesus is a symbolic representation of the dominance of the black population in Overtown. It is an integral part of the spiritual upheaval and turning over the new leaf.

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