Johns Hopkins’ Nathan Connolly speaks on Miami’s history of race and real estate

(Connolly addressed the intersection between segregation and property ownership. Photo by Amanda Martin)

The history of a southern city famous for its real estate is infamous for just the same reason, according to Johns Hopkins history professor Nathan Connolly.

Commenting on the history of segregation and profiteering in Miami, he said, “Property rights became central to the way that the Jim Crow economy developed.

“This is a story about voting rights, a story about civil rights, and eventually, a story about the perfection of the American democratic process,” he said in his presentation, “The Caribbean History of an American City: Greater Miami and the History of the Rest of Us.”

Connolly presented evidence gathered over 10 years, three of which were spent in Florida, on Dec. 5 in the McCarthy Center Forum.

Framingham State history professor Joseph Adelman introduced Connolly to an audience of about 50 students, faculty and guests. Adelman started by recounting Connolly’s academic pedigree and a brief history of his publications, which include opinions in The New York Times.

Connolly initially addressed the audience by thanking FSU for its hospitality and inclusiveness and congratulating the University for hosting a Black Lives Matter teach-in. By examining some of the socioeconomic influences on African Americans in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, he said he would be able to “contextualize some of the history behind some of the events of the past few years.”

The presentation was shown in three parts, which Connolly used to parallel the steps in the construction of a house: foundation, construction and renovation. He used the allegory of home construction because he found in his research many cases of African-American neighborhoods being razed to be rebuilt and redeveloped by white profiteers.

Switching between readings from his book, “A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of the Jim Crow South,” and prepared slides, Connolly started with an overview of the history of property ownership in southern Florida. He said one method of asserting one’s status as a free man, a voter or a taxpayer was to advertise one’s deed. It is from this link between land and rights that the systemic disenfranchising of African Americans in Florida occurred.

Connolly said that African Americans were only begrudgingly allowed to purchase property in the context of faltering property tax revenue. The white reaction of this newfound venue to accumulate wealth and evidence one’s citizenship was violent. He presented photographs of members of a mob posing at early-20th century Florida lynchings.

The period was marked by large populations of rural African Americans seeking sustainable employment in cities such as Miami, where they satisfied a service-industry labor shortage caused by booming tourism, said Connolly.

He said segregation became compromised when the money from tourism demanded a source of inexpensive labor. The result was a patchwork of different city-mandated racial enclaves meant to preserve an iconic beachfront that met tourists’ preconceptions while still providing housing for the largely African-American service workers.

Connolly addressed how real estate speculators would collude to deny African Americans’ purchase of property in white neighborhoods. He said the value of properties during that era was a function of the racial constituency of the surrounding area. Rising returns from rented beach real estate, construction of a massive interstate highway and a hotel boom caused fluctuation from which the speculators profited.

Senior Ines Stafford, who studies housing issues in her social policy class, thought it was “an enlightened way to look at Miami.” She expressed dismay on the disparity of housing opportunity between races, stating, “It’s easy to forget how that came about. Basically, it always comes down to money.”