Young Dorsey

At one point Dorsey owned much of what is now Fisher Island. In 1918 Dorsey purchased twenty-one acres on the island after whites no longer allowed blacks in Miami to swim in salt water. This was the first black beach in the county having been established decades before the establishment of Virginia Key Beach for Coloreds in the mid-1940’s. A ferry operated from the mouth of the Miami River to take black locals and black tourists out to the island. During the Depression Dorsey sold the island to Carl Fisher, the developer of Miami Beach. Fisher Island today is one of the most exclusive areas in the country being home to many celebrities.[1]Dunn, p.3.

D.A. Dorsey was Miami’s first black millionaire. Dorsey was from Quitman, Georgia. He had some training in carpentry. Dorsey made his way to Miami on a raft he built, the journey requiring several weeks. He arrived right before the railroad and started building small houses that he rented to other blacks in Colored Town. Even though his own education was limited he was the man who hired black teachers. He was the first black man who was allowed to own a car in Miami.

During the Depression Dorsey loaned 30,000 dollars to William Burdine because the Burdine store in downtown Miami was in financial trouble. He became part-owner of the largest department store in Miami. After the Depression Burdine returned the money with interest to Dorsey but informed him that he was no longer part owner of the store. According to his late daughter Dana Dorsey, when Burdine was on his deathbed he sent for her father and asked him to forgive him for what had taken place between them. Dana Dorsey told me that her father did not forgive Burdine and apparently told him so. The Dorsey family were the only blacks who could use the elavator in the Burdines store. The historic Dorsey Home still stands in Overtown.[2]Dunn, p.8.

Dorsey was the first black who was allowed to own a car in Miami. According to his daughter, he purchased a new Cadillac each year and had a black chauffer to drive him. The Dorseys attended Mt Zion Baptist Church, just half a block from their home. After church on Sundays, Dorsey had his chauffer drive him around to collect rent. His wife kept the books. This image shows Mrs. Dorsey with one of the family cars although the year is not given. Some black men who got into trouble with the police came to Dorsey who would hide them in his car, drive them to Twentieth Street, which was the city limit at the time, give them a few dollars and send them on their way.[3]Dunn, p.4.

A “shotgun house” in Colored Town Dorsey was in the right place at the right time and he found his niche in black real estate. On land that he purchased in Colored Town, he built small single-family homes. He never sold the houses, renting them to newly arriving blacks who were desperate to find housing. He used his rental income to purchase new property and build new houses, as far north as Fort Lauderdale.[4]Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.3.

The Dorseys and friends at American Beach near Jacksonville. Mr. and Mrs. Dorsey are on the left. This was a beach for Negroes that drew some of the richest blacks in the country. Some families rented cabins for the season at the beach. It is now called Amelia Island and is an exclusive white area. At one time, American Beach was the center of black status seekers in the sun. A group of black businessmen from Jacksonville established the beach. They were the founders of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. American Beach was in its heyday from the 1920’s until desegregation in the 1950’s after which blacks could go to any beach they wished.[5]Dunn, p.7.

The historic home of D.A. Dorsey, Miami’s first black millionaire. The home is preserved and is located at 250 Northwest Ninth Street. Although Dorsey was rich he used poor materials to construct the walls of the home which are made from railroad boxcars. The building is in continuing need of repair.[6]Dunn, p.18.

D.A. Dorsey at his home in Colored town. By June 1896 the Flagler organization had made the decision to incorporate the community. There were not a sufficient number of white male voters (women did not have the right to vote at this time) living in the area at the time to meet the minimum requirement of the state to incorporate a city. For this reason, John Sewell, Flagler’s head man, ordered his black laborers to attend the incorporation meeting for the city. Of the of the 3467 men who voted to incorporate the city, 162 were black. This was the end of their meaningful participation as voting citizens for five decades.[7]Dunn, p.14.

Mrs. D.A. Dorsey with the family car in an undated photograph but probably the 1930s. She assisted her husband as his record keeper. According to his daughter, Mr. Dorsey was driven around Colored Town and elsewhere on Sundays after church to collect his rents. She said, “Nobody could collect daddy’s rent but daddy.” Dorsey,.a carpenter who arrived at the Miami River just before the railroad arrived, made his fortune by building and renting houses to blacks.[8]Dunn, p.63.

D.A. Dorsey, from Quitman, Georgia was a carpenter by training who arrived here before the railroad. He built small houses for other blacks who arrived in Miami as the city was founded. Dorsey acquired a great deal of property and is recognized as Miami’s first black millionaire. In an interview his daughter Dana Dorsey told me that during the Depression William Burdine, the white owner of one of the largest department stores in Miami borrowed 30,000 dollars from her father. The two men signed papers agreeing that Dorsey owned a portion of the Burdines Store. After the Depression she said Burdine sent her father a check for the money including interest and advised Dorsey that he was no longer a part owner of the store. She said William Burdine called her father to come to him when Burdine was on his death bed. She said Burdine asked Dorsey to forgive him for what took place between them. She said her father did not accept the apology. Dana Dorsey gave me the originals of her father’s deeds, records, letters and other documents including communications with Flagler, Julia Tuttle, the Brickells and many other white figures of the era. They are now a part of the Dunn Collection at FIU. 

Black workers breaking ground for Flagler’s the Royal Palm Hotel which opened in 1896

Prior to moving to Miami, Dorsey lived in Titusville, Florida working as a carpenter for the Flagler organization. Since there were no roads to Biscayne Bay at the time, Dorsey reportedly built a raft and sailed there alone in the early 1890s. It was a well-timed move as he arrived before the hundreds of blacks who came in with the railroad. Dorsey found a critical need for housing in Colored Town, where blacks were forced to live in tents near their work sites.[9]Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.2.

Once at the Miami River, Dorsey took what work he could get. Land was cheap and many whites paid black laborers with land rather than with money. At one time, before there was any way to get there, blacks, including Dorsey, owned huge tracks of land on Miami Beach having been paid for their labor with land. Dorsey accumulated a great deal in property in Colored Town and beyond. He began constructing small shotgun houses and renting them out to blacks as they settled in Colored Town, the only area that was available to them in the city. Coconut Grove was not a part of the City of Miami at that time. By the 1920’s Dorsey was a millionaire and could travel any place he wished including a trip out west. He is shown on this postcard on his way home passing through Arkansas.[10]Dunn, p.2.

The tomb of D.A. Dorsey, Miami’s first black millionaire in the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Brownsville.

Update on Cleanup Effort

Many individuals and groups have responded to the idea of helping to clean up the cemetery. We are compiling a list of volunteers and will keep everyone posted. Karen Cartwright, my friend in Overtown, is assisting in compiling the list. You may volunteer to donate supplies such as paint if you can not come out and work whenever the date is set. We will be forwarding your contact information to Karen. Dewey Knight is organizing the effort and I will consult with him as we move ahead. More details will be forthcoming. Thank you!

By 1912, under the leadership of Roddy Burdine, Burdines had grown into a full-fledged department store and continued expanding. The land-boom of the 1920s helped the store launch its first branch in Miami Beach. As Florida’s population soared, so did the growth of Burdines. Over the next thirty years, four other branches opened across the state of Florida. But that would not have happened but for a black man. Miami’s first black millionaire, D.A. Dorsey. Dorsey, from Quitman, Georgia, had been trained in carpentry and arrived at the Miami River right before the railroad arrived in 1896 and the city was established. He had made his way to what would become Miami on a raft he built for the purpose. Dorsey set about working as a laborer but using money he saved to buy lots in Colored Town and property elsewhere in Miami-Dade County and beyond. He built shotgun houses and rented them to newly arriving blacks and made a fortune in the process. At one time he owned parts of what is now Fisher Island, arguably the richest enclave in North America. In 1916 he opened the Negro Savings Bank. Dorsey died in 1940.

Dorsey and his wife had only one child who was adopted. She was named Dana Dorsey after her father and worked for the City of Miami for many years. Prior to her death she allowed me to interview her several times. She said that when The Depression hit, the Burdines Store was almost lost. “Mr. Burdine came to my father’s house in Colored Town and asked to borrow thirty thousand dollars to save his store. My father agreed and papers were drawn up indicating that in exchange for the loan my father would be a part-owner of the Burdines Department Store. When The Depression ended Mr. Burdine sent my father a check for the loan plus interest. The document also said that in repaying the loan my father was no longer a part-owner of the store. When Mr. Burdine was on his deathbed he sent for my father who went to him. Mr. Burdine asked my father to forgive him for the misunderstanding between them. I don’t know what he told him but he did not forgive it and later told us he let Burdine take it to his grave.” Incidentally, due to the special relationship the family had with the store-owner, the Dorseys were the only blacks in Miami who were allowed to use the elevator in the Burdines store.

Some years ago Dana Dorsey gave me a safe which contained her father’s extensive papers. It contained documents related to land purchases and sales to Miami’s most noted whites including Julia Tuttle, Henry Flagler, William Brickell, Carl Fisher (who developed Miami Beach) and many others. Dana told me that her father and some other blacks were given lots on Miami Beach in exchange for their land-clearing labor since whites had land but no cash. “There was no causeway out there then and land on Miami Beach was worthless.” She said at one time blacks held many lots on Miami Beach. Apparently many of them eventually sold out to Carl Fisher and other whites after the first causeway to the Miami Beach was built in the 1920s. The Dorsey Papers are now in the Dunn Collection in the Greene Library at Florida International University.[11]Dunn, Understanding Our Past, p.2.

The wife of D.A. Dorsey, Miami’s first black millionaire, with the family car. When automobiles first came out blacks in Miami were not allowed to buy cars. Mr. Dorsey was the first black man who was permitted to buy a car. He had his own driver for his cadillac cars (he got a new one each year) who drove him around Colored town on Sundays after church at Mt Zion Baptist, to collect his rents. He became rich by building shotgun houses and renting them.[12]Dunn, Understanding Our Past.

The Grave of D.A. Dorsey in Brownsville’s Lincoln Memorial Cemetery

Dorsey arrived in Miami from Quitman, Georgia. He made a raft and floated himself to what became Miami arriving just before the railroad in 1896. It took him months to get here according to his daughter. He was a carpenter and built little shotgun houses and rented them to newly arriving blacks in Colored Town. He became a millionaire. He was the Supervisor of Colored Education even thought his own formal education was limited. At his dining room table he interviewed every black applicant who wished to teach in Miami. Applicants had to have an eighth grade education. Mr. Dorsey was very generous. He donated land for schools and a library to serve the black community.

Dorsey owned properties with Miami pioneers such as Julia Tuttle, the Mother of Miami and Henry Flagler. A collection of his letters, deeds and personal photographs are in the Marvin Dunn Collection at the Green Library at Florida International University. The papers were given to me by Dorsey’s late daughter, Dana Dorsey.

Several other black pioneers and leaders are buried in this cemetery which has been in bad condition for decades. Thanks to volunteer caretaker Arthur Kennedy, shown here, some of the graves can be visited.[13]Dunn, Understanding Our Past.

D.A. Dorsey at his home in Overtown,undated (Marvin Dunn Collection) Prior to her death, Dana Dorsey Chapman, the only child of the Dorsey family, gave me what she said were some of the contents of her father’s safe at the time of his death. The donation included documents and letters that Dorsey exchanged with pioneer white families of Miami including Julia Tuttle, William Brickell and the Flagler organization. Almost all of the material relates to land deals. She also gave me some family photographs some of which are being shown here for the first time. She gave me several hours of her time talking about the Dorsey family history. The materials are now archived in the Greene Library at Florida International University in the Marvin Dunn Collection. The account provided here is based upon interviews I conducted with her.

D.A. Dorsey was born in 1872. He was from Quitman, Georgia but by 1892 he was living in Titusville, Florida working as a carpenter for the Florida East Coast Railroad which was working its way down the eastern spine of the state. . He arrived in what would become Miami in about 1892 or 93, before the railroad arrived in 1896. Dorsey made the journey down the Florida coast alone on a raft he built himself. There was no other way to reach the Miami River. Although he had training in carpentry, he never completed the fourth grade in school.[14]Dunn, p.1.

A True Tale about the Burdines Department Store (Now called Macy’s) and D.A. Dorsey, Miami’s First Black Millionaire

The Macy’s Store in downtown Miami is closing. It is a victim of on line shopping. Macy’s was once called Burdines Department Store. I thought this tale to be timely since this piece of Miami history is passing away.

In 1897, Henry Payne and William M. Burdine opened a dry goods store in the central Florida city of Bartow. A year later, Payne left the company, and Burdine brought in his son, John, as a partner, resulting in the company’s name change to W.M. Burdine and Son. In 1898, Burdine bought a block on South Miami Avenue, one block south of Flagler the then-fledgling community of Miami.

That year he opened the first W.M. Burdine & Son store at the location, just two years after the first people had arrived in the area from the newly completed Florida East Coast Railway to incorporate the city. His tiny store held only a few shelves of clothing, which were primarily sold to construction workers, soldiers from the Spanish–American War, and the local Miccosukee and Seminole Native Americans. Burdine was amazed with the business that he did in Miami and decided to close his store in Bartow and move his operations base to Miami, changing the business name to Burdines and Sons.

By 1912, under the leadership of Roddy Burdine. Burdines had grown into a full-fledged department store and continued expanding. The land-boom of the 1920s helped the store launch its first branch in Miami Beach. As Florida’s population soared, so did the growth of Burdines. Over the next thirty years, four other branches opened across the state of Florida. The store later became known as Macy’s and is now closing for good due to competition with internet sales.

There is a little-known story about the store that involved Miami’s first black millionaire, Dana A. Dorsey. The story was related to me by Mr. Dorsey’s daughter, Dana Dorsey (named for her dad), who has since passed away. Mr. Dorsey arrived in Miami just as the city was being established. He came from Quitman, Georgia having built himself a raft that floated him for a good portion of the trip that required several weeks. Dorsey was a carpenter and built and rented small homes (called shotgun houses) to blacks who settled in what was then called Colored Town but today is known as Overtown. Dorsey became a rich man and was the city’s most influential black person. He was Miami’s first black millionaire.

According to his daughter, when the Great depression took place in the early 1930s the Burdines Store was in trouble: “Mr. Burdines came to my father and asked to borrow $30,000 to keep his store open. (This was probably Roddy Burdine.). My father let him borrow the money and they signed a document that made my dad a part- owner of the store. When the Depression ended Mr. Burdine came to our house and gave my father a check for the loan plus interest. He then told my father that he was no longer part-owner of the store.

This upset my father very much. When Mr. Burdine was on his death bed, he sent for my father who went to him. He asked my father to forgive him for what had happened between them. My father did not forgive it and allowed Mr. Burdine to take it to his grave. Miami was a very segregated town at the time. Because of that loan our family members were the only black people who could use the elevator at the Burdine store.” Ms. Dorsey gave me a metal box that contained original letters and other documents that belonged to her father which included letters between Dorsey and some of Miami’s richest whites including Julia Tuttle, Henry M. Flagler and several others. The papers are in my collection at the Green Library at Florida International University.[15]Dunn, Understanding Our Past.


1 Dunn, p.3.
2 Dunn, p.8.
3 Dunn, p.4.
4 Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.3.
5 Dunn, p.7.
6 Dunn, p.18.
7 Dunn, p.14.
8 Dunn, p.63.
9 Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.2.
10 Dunn, p.2.
11 Dunn, Understanding Our Past, p.2.
12, 13, 15 Dunn, Understanding Our Past.
14 Dunn, p.1.