Black Brain Drain: African-Americans, Class, and Miami

By Chanelle Rose

On August 20, 2020, the Miami Herald featured an article titled “‘A History of Broken Promises: Miami Remains Separate and Unequal for Black Residents.” After providing a comprehensive look at the stark racial disparities in housing, income, education, employment, and government that continues to disproportionately impact African Americans, the newspaper reported: “one lasting consequence of that hostile environment is a persistent ‘brain drain’ of young Black college grads and other high achievers, who for years have been leaving Miami-Dade. Many of those who stay behind — typically the less well educated — find it hard to get a job in a market where preference is given to Spanish speakers.”[1]

Beneath the glitz of Miami’s tourist façade and global city image, Miami-Dade remains one of the most racially segregated counties and poorest regions in the country. Over the past three decades, the city has witnessed a steady exodus of young African American professionals. The increasing number of aspiring African Americans leaving the city have moved to Broward County, Atlanta, and Washington, DC, seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families. The main reasons for their departure are: poor job prospects, inadequate schools, lack of affordable housing, and the dearth of strong Black social and business networks.

In fact, the bleak findings of the 2007 Florida International University Metropolitan Center report – Thirty-Year Retrospective: The Status of the Black Community in Miami-Dade County – offers more insight into this exodus. Three decades after the 1980 McDuffie uprisings, the report found that “Miami-Dade County over the last thirty years has only made modest progress toward the goal of eradicating the economic and social disparity between the Black community and the Miami-Dade community-at-large.”[2] Moreover, according to The Color of Wealth in Miami (a study written by scholars at Ohio State University that chronicles the racial wealth gap in major U.S. metropolitan areas), even though Blacks comprise 21 percent of the Miami MSA (Miami-Ft.-Lauderdale-West Palm Beach Metropolitan Statistical Area) population, they only received less than 2.1 percent of business receipts in 2012.[3] A decade later the Miami Times observed, “Miami-Dade’s median income for Black households is $38,015 versus $56,527 for whites, including white Hispanics.”[4]

Miami’s “brain drain” is a symptom of larger structural inequalities that have limited the opportunities of African Americans seeking better housing and educational opportunities since the post-World War II period and earlier. The 1951 bombing of Carver Village, a formerly all-white apartment complex known as Knight Manor, demonstrates that Miami did not escape the racial violence that resulted from Black residents’ transgression of the color line. But the equally, if not more, effective way of keeping most Blacks confined to poor, segregated housing was through the use of racial zoning, eminent domain, and urban renewal by the municipality, aided by white homeowners’ associations like the Dade County Property Owners’ Association.

African American Voters at the Polls – Miami, ca. 1944-1962, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

In many ways, Miami’s historically Black Overtown is still recovering from the impact of Interstate-95, which ripped through the heart of the Central Negro District (notwithstanding current efforts to revive this community through the historic preservation and economic uplift efforts of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc.). Poor and working-class Blacks bore the brunt of displacement, but more well-to-do African American and Bahamian-descended Blacks were also forced to move into areas like Liberty City that soon became overcrowded and congested.

With regard to public education, the peaceful desegregation of Orchard Village in 1959 is often attributed to Miami’s more moderate and progressive race relations, even though white parents’ decisions to withdraw their children resulted in an all-Black school the following year. And the ongoing struggle to achieve racial equity and bridge the education gap between African American and white students became more complex as Dade County public schools became inundated with Spanish and later Creole-speaking children–the former often receiving benefits denied to African American and Haitian youth. Certainly, the desire for better schools among young African American professionals is shaped by some of these larger forces at work that continue to have an impact on their decisions to leave.[5]

Much like the civil rights era, the city of Miami’s progressive tourist mystique has obscured deep-seated inequities that contribute to the “brain drain” of young African American college graduates and professionals. The local Black freedom struggle and race relations did not fit neatly into the racially explosive images of the civil rights movement that took place in cities like Birmingham, Alabama, or Little Rock, Arkansas, and became lodged in public consciousness.

By the 1960s, the local Anglo civic elite became increasingly more preoccupied with securing the vision of Miami as a tropical paradise and gateway to the Americas, so they took great measures to avoid racially explosive incidents that could damage the tourist industry. Behind the scenes negotiations between civil rights activists and the white civic elite ultimately led to the peaceful desegregation of a number of downtown lunch counters before many southern cities with the aid of the more progressive Mayor Robert King High, the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Interdenominational Ministers’ Alliance, and local business leaders.

The Overtown Market in Downtown Miami, Carol M. Highsmith, 2020, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Separate but equal was never a reality for most Black Miamians, but the Black middle-class reaped some benefits from a Jim Crow system that required their cooperation.[6] And like other parts of the South, all-Black communities like Overtown thrived under segregation (notwithstanding poor housing conditions), because its nightclubs and hotels attracted Black tourists and entertainers who could perform but not stay on Miami Beach. However, desegregation came with a price, and the Cuban Revolution of 1959 dramatically altered the course of race relations, ultimately displacing the Anglo power structure. 

Against the backdrop of civil rights activists breaking down the barriers of white supremacy–particularly a Jim Crow system that relegated Black people to second-class citizens–the early Latinization of Miami began to undermine the existing racial order. The post-1959 influx of Cuban refugees changed the civil rights public discourse as Black leaders demanded equal treatment and voiced their discontent with an Anglo leadership that privileged Spanish-speaking Caribbean immigrants over native-born Blacks. In some ways, race relations in Miami serve as a point of departure from various other metropolises because of the “honorary” white status accorded some Spanish speakers, particularly Cuban tourists, who received service in public accommodations that denied African Americans. The first wave of Cuban migrants or “Golden Exiles” occurred at a time when mostly African American and Bahamian-descended Miamians were beginning to reap some of the benefits of the freedom struggle, and a nascent Black Power movement was emerging that put pressure on city leaders to address the enduring institutional structure of racism.

In 1974, Black militant leader Cecil Rolle wrote an impassioned editorial about Miami’s Cuban refugee problem in one of his fiery biweekly columns entitled “Seize the Time.” In contrast to the enduring racial plight of African Americans in education, police brutality, and housing, Rolle asserted, “the white Cuban exile or refugee doesn’t need a Civil Rights Bill, or a School Desegregation Supreme Court decision, or an ‘open Housing Bill’ out of Congress.”[7] Despite the relatively peaceful desegregation and legislative victories of the civil rights era, some of these structural problems remained while white Cuban exiles were able to take advantage of the generous aid provided by the United States government during the Cold War. African Americans who have left the city often reference Miami’s inhospitable climate and lack of economic opportunities alongside the challenges that come with residing in a Cuban-dominated political climate where many Blacks view not speaking Spanish as an occupational liability.[8]

Although some middle-class Black Miamians benefited from desegregation and affirmative action as they escaped the confines of congested neighborhoods and entered new arenas that previously denied them access, they have not overcome the barriers to living in a city without a vibrant Black political class. African Americans in cities like Atlanta, Tallahassee, and Raleigh gained some political power with the election of Black mayors, even though they faced an uphill battle spurred by white flight, budget deficits, and deindustrialization. But Miami’s demographic shift helped to bolster the political ascendancy of a white Cuban leadership with a staunchly politically conservative ideology that indirectly discouraged the efforts of Black activists pushing for radical socioeconomic justice. Despite the unequal power dynamics of this relationship, it also disrupted the long history of interracial negotiations between the established Black leadership and Anglo civic elite. Some have heralded the historic significance of five Black members of the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners in 2021–the highest number of Black commissioners seated at the same time on the board. But others question their political leverage and lament the fact that the city has never elected a Black mayor.

Public Housing Units in the Liberty City Neighborhood of Miami, Carol M. Highsmith, 2020, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The “brain drain” of African Americans has developed alongside the continued growth of Miami-Dade’s Afro-Caribbean population, particularly Haitians and Jamaicans. The city’s Black diasporic communities face their own intraracial challenges living in a metropolis with a history of ethnic tensions and United States immigration policies that have primarily benefited Cuban Americans. However, Black ethnic enclaves in places like “Little Haiti” and Lauderhill (a.k.a. “Jamaica Hill”) ostensibly serve as a balm against the gentrification displacing African Americans and Bahamian-descended Blacks from historic communities like West Coconut Grove, Overtown, and Liberty City. Moreover, the city’s sordid history of police brutality, increasing voter suppression, and health disparities exacerbated by COVID-19 not only compound the frustrations of those choosing to leave, but they also highlight the most vulnerable African American residents with few resources.

In the midst of the “brain drain,” grassroots organizations remain firmly committed to engaging in social justice work intended to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in Miami’s diverse Black communities. Black people who live in the shadows of Miami’s popular tourist hot spots face police brutality, rising foreclosures, and the gentrification of historically Black neighborhoods. But organizations like the Miami Workers Center and Dream Defenders Miami are on the ground doing work that centers Black and brown women and calls for radical police reform in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.

While African American professionals continue to leave Miami, local civic and business leaders have strengthened their resolve to address inequity and inequality in the city. For example, the South Florida Black Prosperity Alliance (founded January 8, 2020) joined forces with Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava’s new Office of Equity and Inclusion, with a particular focus on developing a better infrastructure for Black businesses. The alliance has also partnered with several institutions, businesses, and community stakeholders like Florida International University and the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. The success of their efforts is yet to be determined, yet some local groups question how working-class and poor African Americans will directly benefit.[9]


Chanelle N. Rose, Associate Professor of History and Coordinator of the Africana Studies program at Rowan University, received both her BA and MA degrees from Florida International University, and her PhD at the University of Miami. Her areas of research and teaching include modern American history, specializing in African American history, Civil Rights-Black Power movements, the African Diaspora, conservatism, tourism, and urban history. Her first book, The Struggle for Black Freedom in Miami: Civil Rights and America’s Tourist Paradise, 1896-1968 (2015), examines the long struggle for racial equality in one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. It complicates the black/white binary and offers a new way of understanding the complexity of racial traditions and white supremacy in southern metropolises like Miami. Her current book project, tentatively entitled The Black Silent Majority and Conservatism in the Black Power Era, 1960-1980, looks at the complexity of Black conservatism at the local level and the understudied subject of a “Black silent majority” that emerged during the height of racial unrest in the 1960s and 1970s.

Featured image (at top): Murals on a Long Wall next to the North District Police Station in the Liberty City Neighborhood of Miami, Carol M. Highsmith, 2020, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

[1] Andres Viglucci, Isaiah Smalls, Rob Wile, and Yadira Lopez, “‘A History of Broken Promises’: Miami Remains Separate and Unequal for Black Residents,” The Miami Herald, August 20, 2020, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/a-history-of-broken-promises-miami-remains-separate-and-unequal-for-black-residents/ar-BB18cMtt

[2] Thirty-Year Retrospective: The Status of the Black Community in Miami-Dade County (The Metropolitan Center, Florida International University , 2007), https://metropolitan.fiu.edu/research/services/economic-and-housing-market-analysis/thirty-year-retrospective/full_report.pdf.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mark Sell, “Achieving Prosperity for Black Miami After Decades of Failure: How Lessons Learned and Putting in the Work are Key,” The Miami Times, Mar 3, 2021.

[5] See Chanelle Rose, The Struggle for Black Freedom in Miami: Civil Rights and America’s Tourist Paradise, 1896-1968 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015).

[6] For a detailed account of how Miami’s Black property owners and “black activist-owners” negotiated with the white power structure to gain concessions within and outside Jim Crow segregation, see Nathan D. B. Connolly, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

[7] “Concerned Citizens,” Liberty News, January 20, 1974, National Council for Negro Women Collection, Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Miami, Florida.

[8] See Rose, The Struggle for Black Freedom in Miami, especially chapter 9.

[9] Sell, “Achieving Prosperity for Black Miami After Decades of Failure”

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