Historic Miami as Text
“Through the River’s Eyes” by Jane Osowski of FIU in Downtown Miami on August 31, 2022.
Skyscrapers, city lights, coconut trees, islands with high-class housing…as I walked along the Miami River for the first time, I was filled with awe by the essence of what is commonly known as Miami.
But was I seeing the real Miami?
I learned that “Miami” comes from the name the early people gave to their life-giving river. When the early people called Tequesta were pushed into Biscayne Bay by Europeans, they skillfully adapted to the terrain with the help of this river (Davis, 1935). One can see on a map that the Miami River flows from the Everglades to the Atlantic Ocean. This connection to the ocean provided the Tequesta with the best of both worlds. They had access to both fresh water for drinking and a vast ocean for fishing. At the HistoryMiami museum, there is a Tequesta dugout canoe displayed that was used to catch whale in the ocean. It is astonishing to imagine that almost 200 years ago, instead of sidewalks and balconies the land was marsh and there were huts scattered along the river.
Years later, when Europeans forced the Tequesta out of their home yet again, the landscape began to change. The agenda was profit and those in charge were blinded by dollar signs. The waterfalls were diminished. The river was made wider and deeper so ships could pass through (Miami River History). What was dug out was used to make a luxury island. Little did they know, this could lead to an ecological disaster. The Tequesta burial grounds turned into construction sites and the first attraction, the Royal Palm Hotel went up (Bailly, 2022). Although the river looked pretty with the new surrounding decorations, it was atrocious inside. The river was polluted from hotel sewage dumps and it continues to be toxic to this day.
This time, when I walk along the Miami River, I see through the river’s eyes. Now teary, weeping for our fate. I see the Tequesta skulls in the sidewalks, coconuts of colonization and worries in the water. I see the minimal efforts of multimillionaire companies and the Church to make up for their massacre of land and culture with a simple memorial plaque or mural. I see that living in Miami for most is a blessing. I see that sometimes life seems kinder when you are blind. I see that there cannot be good without the bad nor give without a take. Soon the river’s tears will accumulate to take vengeance on the hotels and return the islands back to their Atlantis state. What I hope is that we do not get caught in the crossfire.
Living here does not mean I am destined to be a puppet of profit. Miami is ever changing, and so are we. We can look at the past and grow from it, to not repeat it. To treat every living and non-living thing with respect, because as my mother always said: what you give out to the world is what you will get back. And that is…the essence of Miami.
Bailly, John William. “Historic Miami.” Bailly Lectures, 28 Aug. 2022, https://baillylectures.com/miami/miami/.
Davis, T. Frederick 1935 Juan Ponce de León’s Voyages to Florida. The Florida Historical Quarterly 14:3- 70.
“Miami River History.” Miami River Commission, Rosenstiel School, https://www.miamirivercommission.org/river3.htm.
Overtown as Text
“Last Tree Standing” by Jane Osowski of FIU in Historic Overtown on September 14, 2022.
We arrived at Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of a few notable structures still standing from the golden age of Overtown. Although, the town did not seem to be shining anymore. As we waited to enter, I watched people walk by the condominiums across the street. They were all homeless. I would soon find out why.
When we walked in, it was quiet as most churches are, but the ambiance was melancholy, eerie, and old. Despite this, the stained-glass art that surrounded me was beautiful. It depicted religious figures, but not the usual whitewashed ones, they were brown colored. Ahead of me there were light brown wooden pews filling the entirety of the main room, all facing towards the front.
I grew up in Wisconsin where the tales of lumberjacks meant tales of strength and perseverance. Our prized possessions are pasted on wooden plaques or secured in intricately designed boxes to protect them. But in that moment, these wooden pews did not seem strong, they appeared as ancient artifacts, too delicate and too rich in history to be used or support someone. As we made our way down past the pews to the front of the church, the podium in the middle called out to us to come closer. It felt like this wooden structure was in the center of what used to be a beautiful forest, but now the podium is the last tree standing. This tree is holding on to what is left, holding the soil down but begging for some water, for someone to come along and feed it instead of cutting it. I can tell that this podium in Overtown has significant potential to bear fruit for the community. Much like a tree holds its history in the rings of its trunk, this podium holds the history of inspirational words once spoken. It is likely to be the same podium that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke this encouragement into (qtd. By Stanford Univ.):
Nowadays the government is making it difficult for these people of color to pray. One can see on a map that they built the interstate right through Overtown. This disturbance replaced occupied wooden homes for cement and steel so that automobiles could drive over the community, instead of through it. Then, they built luxury condominiums for the affluent people of Miami. Most of the residents who were displaced either no longer had a home or could not afford to live there.
We were introduced to Wendell who works hard to support the church. Wendell told us that the church is funded fully by its community. With the old community displaced and new uninterested neighbors, it has become harder to maintain the building. To make matters worse, a sign from last year showed that the church was under threat of removal due to its unsafe structure.
Although the podium’s microphone is not powerful enough to mask the noise of the interstate and reach the listeners now disbursed to distant neighborhoods, it still holds power. It is just waiting for the right person to come by and water it, to speak their powerful words into it, and pack the wooden pews to make history again.
It is sad to me that the rich and influential history of Overtown, which I have not even begun to elaborate on, is disregarded in the Miami-Dade schools that my peers attended. It is for this reason and more for why this town is being disrespected and cut down little by little. I am thankful I had the opportunity to see this town before it is gone and for a professor who is sharing where the real history in Miami is.
“Address Delivered at a Meeting Launching the SCLC Crusade for Citizenship at Greater Bethel AME Church.” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, 24 May 2021, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/address-delivered-meeting-launching-sclc-crusade-citizenship-greater-bethel.