Cortrina Williams: Miami as Text 2022-2023

Cortrina Williams is currently a Senior majoring in Psychology at Florida International University. She has a love for research as well as the Social Sciences and with this, she aspires to become a research psychologist in the future. Her other interests includes traveling and learning about different cultures. She is originally from The Turks and Caicos Islands and moved to the United States in 2019 to attend University. One of her many goals is to help lower the stigma that surrounds mental health in the Caribbean islands. This in turn will hopefully allow the residents to feel safe and be more inclined to seek the necessary help if they need it.

Downtown Miami as Text 

“A glimpse from the past” by Cortrina Williams of FIU in Downtown Miami on September 7th, 2022

“Fort Dallas/William English Plantation Slave Quarters”, photos taken by Cortrina Williams // CC by 4.0

I have studied history for as long as I can remember. The Tainos in The Turks and Caicos Islands, the middle passage, salt raking, cotton harvesting: all the parts of my ancestry that my country deemed necessary to add to our schools’ curriculums. At first, I was rather reluctant to learn about these particular aspects of my history because I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be connected to something that is so deeply rooted in pain and suffering to the extent where present generations are still feeling the effects today. However, as I got older, I realized that some of the main reasons for teaching this history is so that we never forget that it actually happened and also so we can learn from our past mistakes and prevent them from happening again. 

As my classmates and I explored the Fort Dallas slave quarters, I couldn’t help but ponder the history of it all? Not just the events that transpired there but also the history of the building itself. Fort Dallas was originally located on the plantation of William English and in 1925 it was taken apart and reassembled in its present location in Lummus Park. The original layout, door frames and windows are still a part of this structure and perhaps even more impressive, the original oolitic limestone walls are also still there as well. You may be wondering how something seemingly insignificant as a rock can impress me and the answer to this question relates to the nature of limestone rocks as well as to my own connection to them. I grew up on an island where the literal foundation is almost entirely made up out of limestone rocks, my family home is made out of it, the chalk that I pretended to be a school teacher with as a child was made out of it. Basically, almost everything that surrounded me was made out of limestone. With that being said, I understand the very fragile, yet resilient nature of limestone rocks and this is the reason why I cannot help but admire them.  

In my home country, limestones were used for many different things in the past. I remember my grandmother talking about how they would use the rocks to scrub clothing when they did laundry, how they crushed it up to make homemade medicine and how they used it to help to purify their drinking water. While I am not familiar with the history of limestone in the United States, it is quite clear that the people of the past still found good use for it in their everyday lives; the structure of Fort Dallas being evidence of this.

During our class lecture, the professor encouraged us to touch the walls of Fort Dallas as a way of connecting to the past. This was one of the most interesting parts of the day for me because I was the only student who did not go up and touch the walls. I’m not entirely sure why I decided not to touch it, maybe it has something to do with the knowledge that I have of my history or the knowledge that I have of the slaves who previously lived within those very walls. Nevertheless, whatever the reason was, not touching the wall felt like the right thing to do. As it relates to the students who decided to touch the wall, my only hope is that they actually felt some connection to the history of that building and that it wasn’t just an opportunity to capture another selfie for their social media followers.

In conclusion, I know it may seem a little crazy, but perhaps we all could learn a thing or two from limestone rocks. The main lesson that I have taken from them is to never allow my history or genetics to define or limit me.

Overtown As Text

“The Lyric Theater”, photos taken by Cortrina Williams // CC by 4.0

The Unwanted Yet Wanted” By Cortrina Williams of FIU at Overtown on September 21, 2022

When I reflect on the history of black people in America, I cannot help but be completely perplexed. How is it possible for a race of people to be so unwanted yet wanted all at the same time? In the late 1700’s to the mid 1800’s slaves were the most desired investment. From house work, to field work, to the prestige that it could bring to a family’s name, it could be said that the advantages of owning a slave were endless. However, despite this longing to own one, a large percentage of the white population did not want to be anywhere near black people. A seemingly simple act such as walking through the same entrance or even making eye contact with a white person for too long was viewed as a great offense. Now, fast forward to the 1900’s and 2000’s, where things such as durags, cornrows, and certain genres of black music were often viewed as being tacky. Yet, despite this, a considerable portion of the white population still adapted these very same aspects of black culture and referred to it as the hottest and latest trends. Therefore, reiterating my confusion; “unwanted yet wanted”. 

As my classmates and I walked through the streets of Overtown, this same confusion was heavy on my mind. Black people helped to build this very city that we know as Miami today (both literally and figuratively). When Miami was incorporated in 1896, black voters accounted for 162 of the 368 voters that were present. It is important to note that the legal minimum for a settlement to be considered a city rather than a town was 300 so without those additional black votes, Miami would not have been classified as a city at the time that it was. To add to this, black labor also helped to build Miami from the ground up with things such as the railroad tracks and hotels. After they helped to incorporate and build the city, black people were still not wanted in Miami and they were restricted to live in specified areas such as Colored Town (Overtown) and Cocoanut Grove (Coconut Grove). Again, reiterating my point “wanted yet unwanted”. 

During the 1900’s, some black performers were often requested to perform at white only clubs. However, they were not allowed to use the same entrances or exits as the white crowd, they could not stay in the audience to watch the other performers and they were not allowed to stay in any of the hotels that were in close distance to the white venues. This led to many of these performers traveling to black towns such as Overtown to give a second show at places such as The Lyric Theatre. To this end, black towns such as Overtown became a central hub for musical entertainment. The strip that is located on North West 2nd Avenue was home to numerous thriving clubs so much so that it became known as “Miami’s Little Broadway” or the Great Black Way”. The Lyric theater was one of these thriving clubs. It was built for Gedar Walker (a wealthy black businessman) and it hosted many black performers such as Bessie Smith, Hazel Scott, and Nat “King” Cole. The building was also used for things such as political meetings, boxing and beauty pageants. The shows that were hosted in The Lyric Theater and other places along that strip were so good that many white people would also travel there to listen to it. That being the case, we see that some of the white population did not want to interact with black people, yet, they still listened to their music and traveled long distances just to be a part of the black entertainment culture. 

I remember a discussion that my history class had concerning the death of Bessie Smith (one of the black singers who performed at The Lyric Theater). Bessie Smith was said to be one of the greatest talents of her time, she was also one of the richest black singers too and she was often requested to perform at white only clubs all over America. On the day of her death, she got into a car accident and was refused entry into the white hospital that was closest to her location. Her ambulance ended up driving around trying to find a hospital that would treat a black person and she succumbed to her injuries. To this day many historians still believe that her life could have been saved if one of the white hospitals had taken her in and treated her. She was a highly coveted performer in both the white and black community but in her time of need they didn’t even view her as a human being. She was buried in an unmarked grave for 40 years until 1970 when Janis Joplin had a headstone made for her grave.  

I know that we still have a long way to go in terms of racial equality, however, every time that I look back at my history, I try to remind myself not to take for granted the little advantages that I have today. 

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