Expose and Liberty Square. AT&T Miami-Dade County African-American History Calendar 2005/2006. | The Black Archives History & Research Foundation of South FL, Inc.
The Liberty Square Housing Project was created to relieve the overcrowded housing and living conditions in Miami’s Colored Town/Overtown. The idea was born when the Reverend Father John H. Culmer, then priest at St. Agnes’ Episcopal Church, became concerned about the substandard and unsanitary housing conditions in the area. Such conditions had brought about several cases of tuberculosis that had affected many members of the community.
Culmer presented the problem to the Greater Miami Negro Civic League, of which he was a member and chairman of the Inter-Racial Committee. Meetings were held to address and correct the situation. After a visit with the City Manager, followed by a letter confirming the issues, Fr. Culmer initiated and spearheaded an expose’ of then known as “Goodbread Alley”.
H econtacted Judge Stone-man, an Episcopolian and the editor of the Miami Herald, soliciting his cooperation in exposing “the abominable crime and vice breeding haunts of Miami’s backyard community” through the columns of the newspaper. The Herald’s two week expose’, beginning September 6, 1934, focused national attention on the situation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded by directing officials of his Works Progress Administration (WPA) to visit the area and take a survey of the conditions.
Officials from the City of Miami also agreed that immediate steps were needed to alleviate the housing and sanitation conditions throughout the area. Many of the structures were originally built as temporary housing to accommodate the in ux of blacks who came to Miami during the real estate boom, and immigrants looking for better opportunities. The city issued an order requiring owners to rebuild all condemned property and to bring repairable housing up to standards.
A federally funded housing project (affordable housing) was proposed. The federal government, however, determined New York City to be in greater need of the housing. As a result, Miami was approved for the second project.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t land available in Colored Town/Overtown to expand affordable housing. After a great deal of searching, an area bounded by N.W. 62nd Street on the north, 12th Avenue on the west, 15th Avenue on the east and N.W. 67th Street on the on the south was acquired for the construction of the federal housing project. But, because of opposition from white neighbors across the street on the 12th Avenue side, a wall was built to separate the two neighborhoods from 62nd Street to 67th Street on N.W. 12th Avenue. Sadly, this was a time in the history of the United States when blacks and whites were not only segregated by custom, but also by law.
The first section of federal housing in the State of Florida, and the South, for whites and blacks – named The Liberty Square Housing Project, and dubbed “The Million Dollar Project”—was completed in February of 1937. Later, two other additions were added, and the project grew from 243 units to 973 units. The first advisory committee put together to assist the housing manager, Captain James E. Scott, included Father John E. Culmer, Kelsey Pharr (President of the Negro Civic League), Dr. W. B. Sawyer, Professor Charles Thompson and Attorney R.E.S. Toomey.
In addition to the housing units, a central community building, housing a large social and recreational hall, a nursery school with a kitchen, and a doctor’s office, became the main feature of the project. A Consumer’s Cooperative Store, Federal Credit Union and study classes were also available to residents. Paved and lighted streets, city sewers, and beautifully landscaped parks with playground equipment further enhanced life at the project.
The residents were strongly encouraged to become homeowners; consequently, many of the early tenants purchased homes in the surrounding neighborhoods and enjoyed homeownership for the first time. Over the years, the Liberty Square Housing Project has produced many outstanding individuals: clergy members, business people, physicians, lawyers, educators and professionals-all of them contributing to, and changing, our society for the better.
Sources(s): Files of Fr. John E. Culmer Collection, The Black Archives History & Research Foundation of South FL, Inc. The Miami Herald, Sept. 6-20, 1934 Crisis Magazine, March 1942.