The Archaeology of Miami’s Labor History

By Thomas Castillo

Migration, wealth, racism, ethnic diversity, and tourism are the likely quick associations one would make about Miami’s history. Miami, of course, is a city proper, but it also is the label that includes the entire urban region of Miami-Dade County. I, for example, no longer try to distinguish my hometown, Hialeah, adjacent and northwest of the city, from the Miami in people’s minds: the beaches, palm trees, scrumptious Latin American and Caribbean food, cigars, nightlife. It’s not a short elevator speech. Metropolitan Miami’s history mostly originates in the twentieth century. This is what most people are familiar with, yet there is much that remains unfamiliar.

Historian Andrew Frank reminds us of a forgotten history, the one prior to the last century. For 4,000 years the area had “been a continuing place and home for various people,” including “Tequesta Indians, Spanish missionaries, African slaves, Seminole Indians, Bahamian boaters, wartime refugees, merchants, planters, developers, and tourists.” His is a brief and wonderful archaeological story that serves as a good starting point to launch a short reflection on Miami’s labor history.[1] 

Incorporated in 1896 and sparsely populated at first, Miami and the county saw steady growth each subsequent year and decade. When Frank relates the story of the construction of pioneer Julia Tuttle’s hotel in 1895, he tells a well-known history of Black construction workers engaging in arduous labor under difficult conditions. It’s an important origination narrative that embeds the city’s founding into a moment of historical amnesia when skulls and other precious archeological discoveries were destroyed or spirited away. Frank writes, “construction and destruction went hand in hand, with the birth of a “new” Miami erasing the physical reminders of the old.”[2] In many ways, this very dynamic, of work, destruction, construction, and the production of the new, has defined much of the urban landscape and is at the root of much of the city’s labor and class history. 

Seminole family in dugout canoe, Miami, Florida, Detroit Publishing Co., between 1910 and 1920, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Few labor histories of Miami have been written. The recent story of labor activism in Miami has had a little more coverage through the hard work of Professor Bruce Nissen, former director of Florida International University’s Center for Labor Research and Studies. However, one would be hard pressed to identify a study focused primarily on Miami’s labor history. The deans of Miami’s historiography—Paul George, the late Raymond Mohl, Arva Moore Parks, and Thelma Peters—established important foundations. Melanie Shell-Weiss has offered a good overview of Miami’s social history (Coming to Miami, 2009), including especially useful insight into the small garment sector in the middle of the century. Marvin Dunn’s Black Miami (1997) established a great resource for many who have studied the city’s Black history. Even more recent books show a flourishing of the field of Miami studies: Christina Abreu (Rhythms of Race, 2015), Gregory Bush (White Sand, Black Beach, 2016), Julio Capo (Welcome to Fairyland, 2017), N.D.B. Connolly (A World More Concrete, 2014), and Chanelle Rose (The Struggle for Black Freedom in Miami, 2015). Much of Miami’s social history has focused on the critically important themes of race and ethnicity, subjects deserving much attention. However, the stories of labor and class struggle remain less explored.[3]

On many levels this is understandable. Sorting through the details of labor history can be time consuming and confusing. The archive of work and political economy is scattered and too often non-existent. The voices of workers are hard to find and corral. The useful ongoing Miami oral history project, Miami Stories, collected and archived online by the HistoryMiami Museum, offers some useful reflections but not much content on work or labor history. The “Tell the Story” oral histories, held at the Black Archives in Miami and whose transcripts are also available online through University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, provide several insightful gems. However, the interviewers’ scripted questions and their focus on the impact of I-95 and other transportation infrastructure projects on historic Black Overtown sometimes stopped them from recording fuller life histories.

I am reminded of one instance of this in an interview from the “Tell the Story” collection I read several years ago. I was particularly frustrated since the interviewer lost an amazing opportunity. James Norvel Roberson, a Black resident of Overtown between the years 1939 and 1963 who migrated from Georgia, related a story in which he claimed he called a labor strike in a “dry cleaning establishment” sometime in the 1940s. The interviewer failed to pursue the story. They did not follow up and tease out more details. Robinson tells how he was fired but then somehow was recruited by other workers in other dry cleaning stores because he apparently initiated this strike and thus he became popular among his peers, according to his recollection. The reader of the transcript learns that the workers ended up earning five cents more per hour, but it is unclear how that transpired. We also learn that he did not have a hard time finding another job. One gets the impression that Robinson boasted and took pride in the power he perceived himself to have. It clearly was an important moment for him. Too much was left unasked.

“General Strike Called in Miami,” Miami Metropolis, November 4, 1919, courtesy of the author.

I wanted to learn more: How long did the strike last before he was fired? Did anyone else lose their jobs? How many participated? Was there cross-racial collaboration? What other issues were important to him and other workers that were not related to wages? How did the employers treat other union organizers and how did other employers in the city react? What did he mean that other workers tried to recruit him to work in their dry cleaning workplaces? How did that develop? How long was the strike and was it covered in the news? Was he afraid? So many questions never asked. So much we will never get to know.

Perhaps people are not necessarily socialized to think in terms of power or political economy, hence remembrances tend to express nostalgic themes, or interviewers have other agendas. When so much in American culture is linked to monetary success, the bootstrap narrative and the mysticism of meritocracy garner so much emotion and energy, particularly when discussing work. The memories of the pain and suffering caused by work or the anxiety for the lack of it and class struggle too often slip away or only leave glimpses of these histories. 

It takes a keen interviewer, prepared to unpack class and labor history details, to uncover these hidden artifacts of political economy and labor struggle. Too often the oral histories, when discussing work, default to equal opportunity and economic climbing narratives. The next researcher is then left with incomplete information and familiar discussions relating the interviewee’s mettle, determination, and hard work. Certainly, much has yet to be discovered. Each passing year makes recovery of the city’s older class and labor history through oral history less likely. Hope, of course, still remains for the post-1960s past. 

The process of “construction and destruction” in the founding of Miami described in Andrew Frank’s observation existed for much of the city’s history. There have been several new Miamis. This too makes recovery of the city’s labor history challenging. The general assessment in the literature is that whites benefited from white privilege, meaning they had access to better jobs and worked hard to keep that advantage limited to only members of their group. The problem with this framing is that it misses much of the actual history. Of course, the city has a racist past. But how about the common struggle the working class faced in a capitalist system that sought to exploit their labor? That is, an economy that worked hard to make labor into a commodity that was bought low, while the resulting commodities were sold high.

Employment agency, Miami, Florida, Marion Post Wolcott, 1939, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Miami has gone through many changes, perhaps none more significant and defining than the continuous migration into and out of the city. People (white and Black) came from other parts of Florida, the South more generally, the Northeast, and the Midwest. The Caribbean and Latin America have always been connected by people and trade, including the tourist industry and what it entailed: the movement of tourists using Miami as a gateway to “exotic,” tropical adventures. Bahamian Blacks constituted a majority of Blacks in 1920, but that rapidly changed when southern Blacks greatly surpassed their numbers by the mid-1920s. The Miami of Latin American flavor did not appear until the post-WWII period and only slowly at first. One 1950 Census study identified emerging small population concentrations along the Miami River and what would later become Calle Ocho. These social scientists identified the new residents as coming from the “Other America.” They constituted 4,413 out of a city population of 259,000 (and a county of nearly half a million).[4]  

These population flows do not account for the transitory movement of people who came to Miami to work during the tourist season (generally speaking, January-April) and their return home, or the winter residents and tourists who visited for short or extended periods. Overall, this dynamic of flows and circulations of varying classes is critical to understanding much of Miami’s labor and class history. It suggests a struggle, from the perspective of permanent residents, to form a community amid the seasonal changes in the landscape as well as a growing and developing resident population.  

The city never developed much of a manufacturing or extractive economic sector. Building construction, tourism, and the service trade characterized the local economy. Miami’s labor unions certainly attempted to negotiate this volatile context through protectionist policies, something not unusual in the history of labor unions. Safeguarding labor markets and protecting workers—their ability to earn, access to benefits, tolerable working conditions—was at the heart of labor unionism. The strongest labor unions existed in the construction trades. Unfortunately, they excluded skilled Blacks from skilled positions.

Greater Miami Employers’ Association, Miami Metropolis, October 18, 1923, courtesy of author.

Yet the reality was that few good job options existed in Miami. Jobs that did exist often did not last for long (a common characteristic of the construction sector) or were seasonal in nature. Workers in Miami, across the working-class spectrum, faced perpetual insecurity rooted in seasonal work which was insufficient and poorly paid. Some recollections in the “Tell the Story” oral histories indicated the need to hold multiple jobs during the tourist season in order to make it during the summer months. Skilled construction workers repeatedly noted how they spent months not working.[5]    

It is also clear that there were spaces for cross-racial alliances, however tenuous they may have been. White unionists supported biracial unions of common laborers in 1919, an effort that did not succeed, in part because of employer resistance. Beginning in the 1930s and subsequent years, similar efforts at biracial unionism occurred with longshoremen, common laborers, tile setter helpers, laundry and dry cleaning workers, transit workers, and garment workers. These have yet to be excavated and analyzed. Only fragments have been identified, suggesting much has not been told. What is clear is that white construction unions were focused on controlling the labor market so as to control working conditions (pace, pay, hours, & benefits). Racial exclusion was immoral and myopic, but it also represented the cruelty and illogic of an economic system that on the one hand celebrated the work ethic while on the other fought hard to devalue one’s labor.

The employers’ effort to undermine labor union power through the Open Shop movement after WWI represented the biggest challenge, undermining worker power and perhaps even the possibility of greater cross-racial alliances. The Greater Miami Employer Association (1919 through the mid-1920s) succeeded in heightening the anxiety over job security and helped prevent greater unionization. Workers in retail, for example, made attempts to organize but failed because of this resistance and the formation of company unions such as the Burdines Employees Protective Association. Combine this class context with the movement of workers and threat of nonunion competition ready and willing to work for less and under worse conditions, and you have the key elements to create a volatile social context. Efforts by workers to organize unions in the retail, restaurant, laundry and dry cleaning, and hotel sectors faced major obstacles through the 1930s. Gradually, workers succeeded in forming unions, first in the 1930s and increasingly more in the next two decades. 

“Unemployed Descend on City Hall,” Miami Daily News, July 1935, courtesy of author.

This class dynamic appeared most clearly in the language of the period that put a premium on hiring “home labor” and called for a year-round economy and residents through the 1930s. This home labor patriotism or protectionism revealed the effort to build community. At times, it was in tension with employers’ questionable claims of labor shortages, unwillingness to work with organized labor, and lack of interest in empowering workers. It is in this light that much else of Miami’s social history must be understood. 

The often ignored and notorious Hobo Express, a practice that was adopted by the city and counties north of Miami-Dade, demonstrates how indigent transients were forcibly ousted from the city and county by paddy wagon. My forthcoming book is the only study that offers a comprehensive treatment of this institution that ran from the late 1920s through the early 1940s. Police officials justified the Hobo Express on tenuous law and order arguments, but it was often ignored by a population made anxious by snowbirds swooping down to take precious work.[6] With growing concerns over crime and fraud, Miami and Miami Beach required fingerprinting and IDs for workers in the tourist trades. It is in the context of labor competition and the seasonal nature of tourism (and the influx of transient workers) that this ID policy emerged. 

Also forgotten is the city’s unemployment movement. It’s a subject I cover extensively. Suffice it to say that one of the largest social movement demonstrations in Miami’s history occurred in 1935, after years of unemployed and employed worker activism. On July 31, over 1,500 white and Black residents descended upon City Hall asking for assistance. Such figures as Perrine Palmer Sr., the father of the future mayor of the city, helped lead the movement and informed the public of the plight of white and Black worker-residents enduring impoverishment and facing such conditions as poor housing, inadequate health care, and starvation. Seldom ever discussed was the use of tents for housing at various moments in the city’s and region’s history (1924-1926, 1934-1935) or the practice of workers supplementing their food supply by fishing the South Florida waters and tending personal gardens where they harvested vegetables and fruit. 

Much has yet to be written. The study of Miami’s class and labor history needs to account for the demographic realities of constant population circulation, labor competition, unstable labor market (seasonal work, low paying jobs), and recalcitrant employers unwilling to concede to greater worker power. Racism undeniably grew in this social petri dish. While questions of identity are certainly important, the archaeological site of Miami’s labor history and political economy has much still to offer for a greater understanding of how class operated and how capitalism evolved in such urban locations.


Thomas Castillo is an Assistant Professor in History at Coastal Carolina University. His book Working in the Magic City: Moral Economy in Early Twentieth Century Miami will be published by the University of Illinois Press. This study centers Miami’s social history on class marginalization and worker disempowerment, evaluating closely the city’s labor and unemployment movements in the interwar period. He is also currently working on a history of the right to work. He has published in several journals, including Labor History, Labor: Studies in Working Class History, Journal of American History, and the Florida Historical Quarterly.

Featured image (at top): June in January, Miami Beach, Florida, Marion Post Wolcott, 1939, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

[1] Andrew Frank, Before the Pioneers: Indians, Settlers, Slaves, and the Founding of Miami (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2017), 1.

[2] Frank, 103-106. 

[3] Contributions by two of Raymond Mohl’s students were useful beginnings. Maria Jurkovic, “Picketing in Paradise: The Garment, Laundry, and Hotel Workers Union in 1950s Miami” (MA Thesis, Florida Atlantic University, 1995); Eric Tscheschlok, “‘So Goes the Negro’: Race and Labor in Miami, 1940-1963,” Florida Historical Quarterly 76, no. 1 (Summer 1997): 42-67. Alex Lichtenstein, “Putting Labor’s House in Order: The Transport Workers Union and Labor Anti-Communism in Miami during the 1940s,” Labor History 39, no. 1 (1998): 7-23; “‘We at Last Are Industrializing the Whole Ding-busted Party’: The Communist Party and Florida Workers in Depression and War,” in Florida’s Working-Class Past: Current Perspectives on Labor, Race, and Gender from Spanish Florida to the New Immigration, edited by Robert Cassanello and Melanie Shell-Weiss (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009).

[4] U.S. Bureau of the Census, U.S. Census of Population: 1950. Vol. III, Census Tract Statistics, Miami, Chapter 31 (Washington, DC, 1952), 7.

[5] Bernice Sawyer, “Tell the Story,” interviewed by Stephanie Wanza, Oct. 25, 1997, 8-9, the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc. See my forthcoming book, Working in the Magic City: Moral Economy in Early Twentieth Century Miami (University of Illinois Press).

[6] The moniker used by Miamians and Floridians more generally for northerners visiting the city and state during the winter months.

One thought on “The Archaeology of Miami’s Labor History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.