The saying goes that those who forget history fall prey to repeating it. We as a society, then, must look to the guardians of history to help us reclaim stories once lost, to interpret meaning and to draw our attention to moments, both big and small, that bear committing to collective memory.
Marvin Dunn is one such influencer. The psychology professor emeritus spent decades teaching at FIU, during which time he started the Roots in the City garden project to beautify neglected areas of the community and provide jobs to those with low skills. His book “Black Miami in the Twentieth Century” serves as the seminal history of the diverse groups—early Bahamian immigrants, the descendants of slaves who followed the citrus industry and the railroad south, more recent Haitian immigrants—that together have contributed immensely to the local area.
Dunn is also known for his excavation of the small Florida town of Rosewood, the site of a horrific race massacre in the 1920s, artifacts from which now form part of a collection he has entrusted to FIU Libraries, along with research notes and other materials used in writing his four books.
Dunn was honored today, on the 125th anniversary of the city’s founding, at the Perez Art Museum for his significant impact on Miami’s history and progress.
FIU Magazine: Your work addresses the social aspects of Miami history. It goes beyond the construction of buildings and the rise of commerce to talk about the people behind that growth.
Marvin Dunn: When I first started looking at Black history in Miami 30, 40 years ago, I found that there was almost nothing in the history books. You would find information about Blacks as laborers and all of that. But once you get past the workers at the bottom of the economic heap, and a few Black millionaires, like the Stirrups and the Dorseys, most of the Black history is left out, particularly the context in which all of these things were going on. How do you explain what was going on in housing, in politics, in education, what was going on with the evolution of schools as our community was growing?
How might neglected Black Miami history be best taught in our community?
We need to do that through the schools and through the internet. That’s why I’m working very heavily on digitizing my material on Black Miami history [see dunnhistory.com] and making my book into an audiobook. We’ve got to reach the next generation virtually. Young people are not going to museums. We have to teach our history through a medium that we know people can easily access.
I went into a high school during Black History Month in February and there must have been 800 students in the room, and I asked how many had ever heard of Arthur McDuffie [a Black former Marine beaten to death by police, whose acquittal in 1980 spurred riots in Miami]. Not a single hand went up. It makes me wonder: In 40 years, how many will know who George Floyd was?
My mission now is to save these stories, to keep the memories and the knowledge of these things that happened so that we don’t repeat them.
Preserving the stories and telling them to our young people, not casting guilt or blame but simply making people aware of what happened and why it happened and what we have to do to not have these things happen again, is important. My sense is that we can teach history virtually because we can make a whole lot of information available to researchers, to just curious folks who just want to know what’s happened. For that to take place, we need an archive, like the one I have at FIU.
With all that you know and have written about, regarding what is frequently a history of inequality, do you have hope for the future?
Yes, because I see young people, I’m in touch with young people and I don’t hear the animosity, the suspicions and mistrust that I hear among some of us who have been around for a long time. If you go into any Miami-Dade County public high school and look at how the kids interact, that’s encouraging.
Young people give me hope. I think they have more capacity for and interest in reaching out to others who are different from themselves than the adults do.
What should residents of Miami and the broader region know of Black Miami and its history?
What I want everybody to know, other than Black people did the physical labor to build the community, is that most African Americans in Miami-Dade are not poor, not homeless. People should know that most African Americans really are middle class and beyond, that most of us are not living in slums and fighting crimes and drugs. That image of the Black community needs to be changed. That’s why I first started taking FIU students to Overtown 40 years ago—to build gardens on a vacant lot—because I wanted them to see Liberty City was not what we were seeing in the media. We are a vibrant community, not a downtrodden, dangerous segment that should be avoided.
Celebrating the many communities within the larger collective of South Florida is great, but will we ever be one?
At some point we do just become one Miami. When we win the Superbowl, or the Miami Heat wins the national championship, we become one Miami. We also became one Miami during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. That calamity brought us together. Neighbors started talking to folks they didn’t even know lived across the street from them and helped each other. It didn’t matter if you were Cuban or Black or white. If you needed help, we helped each other during that crisis. The same thing happened in the 1926 hurricane. Tragedy has a way of bringing people together, at least for a short time. So does triumph in sports, for a short time.
What we need is something that brings us together for a long time, more than just a few days or few weeks. We’re searching for the magic that would bring us together in a way that would last beyond the moment.
History teaches us that such harmony can be elusive.
I just want to say, and I first made this comment a year or two ago about moving forward as a community: We have got to feel each other’s pain. Those of us who are African American have got to feel the pain of the Cuban people and the Cuban Americans here. They do have pain, they did lose a lot and people did die. They have legitimate pain that we who are not Cuban should recognize, and those of us who are Black, African Americans in particular, we have pain too that everybody else should recognize. Don’t say, get over it, slavery was 100 and something years ago, your parents weren’t slaves. That doesn’t resonate with folks who have risen from the depths.
So we need people to feel our pain, and we need to move forward without guilt, without making anybody feel like they are responsible for what is going on. Put guilt aside, put shame aside, put blaming aside and figure out what we need to do to have a united community going forward. To me, that means recognizing all pain, including that of white Miamians who felt pushed out of their community. Everybody suffered something during the course of the last 125 years. Let’s recognize that and respect it.