I presume I am not the only person who thinks regularly about the strange reality of living in a part of what traditionally was the South, that is no longer really the South, like my native Northern Virginia. I think my idiosyncrasy explains why whenever I travel to a place that fits that description, I am infinitely curious about the Southern history of the locale, and what, if any, Southern character remains buried beneath the surface. It is, in a sense, a job made for a historian or cultural anthropologist, or archaeologist, though I am none of the above.
In late February I spent a few days in and around Miami, Florida for work. My wife and I celebrate our tenth anniversary this year, so we made a vacation of it, staying in Miami Beach. While I worked, she spent the days enjoying the sun. In the evenings we enjoyed some of the best food Miami could offer, including Cuban, Mediterranean, and of course, seafood.
Those unfamiliar with Miami Beach should be forewarned. I’m not sure if it’s Sodom or Gomorrah, but it’s definitely a close relative. I’ve never been to a strip club, but after walking along the beach on President’s Day weekend, I might as well have. Nor have I seen so many flagrant homosexuals in my all my life. I presume I’m not the only tourist who, witnessing all this with surprise and disgust, thought to himself: “Was Miami always like this?”
The answer is undoubtedly no. At the beginning of the Civil War, the future Greater Miami area reported only 28 settlers, but 40 is a more realistic estimate. These pioneers, like most modern Miami area residents, were immigrants from another area, state, or country. Of the 28 settlers listed in the 1860 Census, 14 were foreign born and some were former soldiers or civilian employees of the Army, according to research done by James C. Staubach. During the war, some Miamians ran the Union Navy blockade, one fought for the Confederacy, and at least one other worked for the Union Navy which raided and burned in the area.
Development after the war was slow. Julia Tuttle, a local landowner and son of a wealthy Florida planter, convinced a railroad tycoon to expand the Florida East Coast Railway to Miami. Miami was officially incorporated as a city on July 28, 1896. It had only 300 residents.
The population of the city increased dramatically in the early decades of the twentieth century, from about 5,000 in 1900 to 43,000 by 1920 to 143,000 by 1930. In 1910, blacks constituted more than 40 percent of the city’s resident population, and half of them were of Bahamian origin. To this day, Miami remains a popular tourist and business destination for black Caribbeans.
As recently as 1960, more than 80 percent of Dade County’s population was “Anglo whites.” This is pretty amazing, given the large number of Jewish immigrants to the Miami area, particularly from northern states, who were already immigrating to Miami in large numbers — in the 1970s, about 80 percent of the population on Miami Beach was Jewish, and metropolitan area retains a strongly Jewish character. By 2010, the percentage of Anglos in Dade County had dwindled to less than ten percent, and that minority, whether we are talking Dade County or the larger Miami area, do not have traits common among other Southern whites. Though Floridians exhibit some phonological features of Southern English, such as the fronting of /o/ and resistance to the low- back merger of /ɑ/ and /ɔ/, researchers Phillip M. Carter and Andrew Lynch note that this distinction is not found in the current white population of the Miami area.
Today Miami, and especially Miami Beach, are known for its hedonism, though this is a fairly recent development. The culture of the area was until the 1990s conservative in ways similar to the rest of the South (and much of its Cuban population today is quite conservative). In the 1930s, locals, including the police, raided at least one local LGBT nightclub.
In 1977, Christian singer Anita Bryant ran the “Save Our Children” campaign to repeal a local ordinance in Dade County that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Today people remember the incident more as a flashpoint in the history of the gay rights activism campaign — many celebrities at the time attacked Bryant. But the campaign was actually a success: a sizable majority of locals (69%) voted to repeal the ordinance in 1977. Even when Dade County restored the ordinance in 1998, the vote was a tight 7-6!
Sadly, it must be mentioned that Miami’s Southern character was also influenced by racist groups like the The Ku Klux Klan, who antagonized not only the LGBT community, but local blacks. Howard Leslie Quigg, twice Miami police chief for two long stints beginning in 1921 and ending in 1944, was not only a member of the KKK, but was indicted in 1928 after three Miami police officers beat a Black bellboy to death for allegedly insulting a white woman.
Little now remains of Miami’s Southern culture, whether the good or the bad. The 1959 revolution in Cuba resulted in massive Cuban migration to Miami — as of 2012, there were 1.2 million Cuban-Americans in the greater Miami area. Miami is now known best for its robust, vibrant Latin population and its language, food, and music — at one of the famous Cuban cuisine restaurants my wife and I visited, the hosts and hostesses didn’t even speak English!
When a Southern community is vacated by its Southerners, all that renames is its slowly decaying, forgotten history, often overlooked if not maligned by new residents. In my native Northern Virginia, streets and schools named after Virginians such as Jefferson, Mason, Lee, Jackson, and T.C. Williams have been rechristened, and few residents would even know that Southern accents were common in Alexandria as recently as the 1960s.
Much the same can be said for Miami. One of the most famous streets is Old Cutler Road, which owes its name to the former town of Cutler, a farming community founded by William Fuzzard, an earlier settler of the Miami area, in the late 1800s. Another, Collins Avenue, is named for prominent Miami farmer John Stiles Collins, originally of New Jersey. I presume there are many more, some perhaps explicitly connected to families of the South.
Who cares if Miami was once a Southern city? Perhaps few. Perhaps a few more of an activist bent would prefer that whatever last vestiges of its Southern identity survive be obliterated. Yet there’s an irony there, given that the woke talk constantly of preserving the unknown stories of our past. Well, I suppose, some unknown stories. Others, if they don’t fit neatly into a certain racial and sexual understanding of the past, are apparently best left to fade away forever.