Published on Thu, Feb. 09, 2012
By Theo Karantsalis
Special to The Miami Herald
As Bahamians fled their homeland and sought farm work along Biscayne Bay in the late 1860s, many settled in what later became known as Lemon City.
These early pioneers, from both black and white families, thrived amid the pineland, prairies and lemon groves that stretched to what is now I-95 to the west, Biscayne Bay to the east, Northwest 71st Street to the north and Northeast 54th Street to the south.
The neighborhood was home to one of the county’s oldest schools, the Lemon City School, and first library, the Lemon City Library. And one of its early markets, Rockmoor Grocery, would go on to become the first Winn-Dixie store.
By 1900, the neighborhood had three defined sections: Nazarene, Knightsville and Boles Town, the latter being named after Elijah Boles, a black settler nicknamed “Lottie” who was one of Lemon City’s first entrepreneurs. He bought land near Miami Avenue and 57th Street and built and rented out several wooden homes. He also ran a small store. The businesses he ran helped him to become one of the more affluent blacks in the town.
The Nazarene area, called Naz’ree by locals and inspired by the Bible, was near Northeast 71st Street and Second Avenue. Knightsville, considered the cultural center for the black community, comprised small lots near Northeast Second Avenue and 68th Street.
“My grandmother, Josephine Powell, who was born in Astor, Fla., in 1895, moved to Boles Town when she was 2 years old,” said Janice Powell, a 66-year-old granddaughter. Powell said her grandmother’s father was one of the founders of Mount Tabor Missionary Baptist Church, founded in 1902.
“When she was 12 years old, she used to carry a gas lantern to light the path to Mount Tabor, plus a wood crate to sit on,” Powell recalled.
The original Mount Tabor, located in Knightsville, “held people together,” said Rep. Carrie P. Meek, the retired U.S. Congresswoman. Meek, born in Tallahassee, represented Florida’s 17th Congressional district — which includes Lemon City — from 1993 to 2003. The church eventually moved west to Liberty City, where it still stands and where Meek attends Sunday services.
“The first place that establishes a sense of place in the black community is the church,” said Meek. “It adds stability to the people who live there.”
In fact, Lemon City Methodist Church, which eventually became Grace United Methodist Church Haitian, is the oldest continuous church congregation in the county, according to Lemon City by historian Thelma Peters.
Fueling the growth was demand for the area’s biggest cash crop: coontie, a Seminole Indian word that means “white bread.”
Demand was so insatiable that one local mill on the town’s northern border processed nearly 30,000 pounds of the root each day, according to Peters. The milled product fed the starchy diets of livestock and also substituted for flour to bake cakes and bread.
“In 1895, Lemon City, at its peak, claimed 350 residents, according to the Florida state census,” said Miami Dade College history professor Paul George, who conducts tours of South Florida’s historic neighborhoods. “By the following year, with the railroad entering Miami, Lemon City began to decline in importance as Miami began its inexorable rise.”
Lemon City represented both black and white Bahamians in the early days, George noted. It had its own post office, railroad stop, school, library and mom-and-pop stores. The strong local economy led to the county’s first school and library.
The 20-foot-by-40-foot Lemon City School, with its batten walls and exposed rafters, opened in 1886. Alice Brickell taught there in 1889 while she was homesteading land a bit farther south. By 1892, the school had 46 students.
In 1894, the Lemon City Library and Improvement Association opened South Florida’s first library at 701 NE 62nd St., inside the home of Cornelia Keys. Keys, originally from Chicago, owned the upscale Lemon City Hotel in 1890 and also taught school.
In 1902, the neighborhood built a larger library, and in 1955, it moved to a 6,000-square-foot building a few blocks away. Lemon City, which today is also known as Little Haiti, comprises three square miles and has three public library branches: Edison, Little River and Lemon City.
Corner grocery stores also dotted the landscape. One of the best known was the popular Rockmoor Grocery store. One of the Davis brothers — the family who started Winn-Dixie — paid $10,000 for the grocery in 1925. Their success with that store led the Davis family to open and acquire other stores, eventually converting Rockmoor into the first Winn-Dixie store.
By the early 1900s, however, Miami began to swell to the south.
As Miami grew, so did vice, according to FIU Professor Marvin Dunn, who details the shift in his book Black Miami in the Twentieth Century. Julia Tuttle, known as the “mother of Miami,” shunned brothels and saloons and charged Dade County Sheriff Dan Hardie to herd all prostitutes from Miami up to Lemon City in what became the county’s first “red-light” district, known as Hardieville.
In 1895, the first Miami police officer to be killed in the line of duty was shot to death by an angry bartender inside a Lemon City saloon on the corner of Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast 61st Street, which was once Lemon Avenue. Deputy Murrettus McGregor was buried near Tuttle at the municipal cemetery on Northeast Second Avenue, which buried whites on its east side and blacks on the west side.
Many had questioned where Lemon City’s pioneers were laid to rest. In 2009, they found out. Construction crews preparing to build an apartment building near Northwest Third Avenue and 71st Street unearthed skeletons from Lemon City. An estimated 523 pioneers were buried in a 150-foot-wide lot. Today, the site is a memorial garden known as the Lemon City Cemetery, which was deemed a historic site last year.
“The bones they found there were my granddaddy,” said Georgia Ayers, 83, a well-known activist in Miami’s black community who is a descendant of Lemon City pioneers. Ayers’ grandfather, Charles Henry Pierce, worked for the Florida East Coast Railway, she said. He also worked as a grave digger for the Lemon City Cemetery.
“He was murdered, in 1923, for the $100 he had on him to pay on the property he owed,” said Ayers, who noted that the Lemon City train station was a key piece of the town’s fabric.
Ayers has watched the area change and morph into what is now Little Haiti. Guarding the southern entrance is a statue of Haitian General Toussaint L’Ouverture, the father of Haitian independence.
Most businesses in the area are influenced by Haitian culture, and none more so than Chef Creole, where Wyclef Jean held a rally, in 2010, to run for president of Haiti.
“Just like 100 years ago, food in this town is very important,” said Wilkinson Sejour, founder of Chef Creole. Wilkinson was born in the Bahamas but is of Haitian descent.
Though Sejour sees Haitians as Miami’s new pioneers, he says they have something in common with the original pioneers.
“We left behind other worlds in search of a better life,” said Sejour. “And we learned how to adapt to change.”
The Miami-Dade Public Library System’s Florida Room, the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida, and Dr. Paul George of History Miami contributed to the research of this article.
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