The Bahamian Influence on the South Florida Shotgun House
By Denise Andrews
The Africans who eventually were enslaved came from a vast area encompassing almost 4,000 miles of coastline, but they were not without a basic unity. Much of western Africa shares the same rectangular gable-roofed house form. Despite their linguistic and social differences, most enslaved Africans could have considered rectangular plantation cabins a logical solution to the problem of shelter.
If you ask someone to draw a house, it's likely the person will start with a simple square topped with a triangle. This is a basic outline of a shotgun house when seen from the front; when viewed from the side, it is long and narrow.
Miami was chartered as a city in 1896, and as the tourist industry grew neighboring communities such as Coconut Grove became home to many pioneer families. The Grove primarily was occupied by Bahamian immigrants. The "Mariah Brown" house, on Charles Avenue, is the oldest building in the area. The Browns a Bahamian family, built the house in 1897. Made of Florida pine, resistant to termites and cut in various widths, the house now shows the different periods of repair and additions.
Some of the Conchs and Bahamians moved to the Florida Keys to grow pineapples, a remarkable commercial venture. They cut down virgin mahogany and dogwood forest of the upper Keys to plant pineapples. There were stories told in Coconut Grove by a local historian and native, the late Esther Mae Armbrister, about the selection of a special mahogany tree used as coffins and the burial practices of black people. These people made up the bulk of the labor force in this lucrative industry as more migrated from the Bahamas to the Florida Keys. As the 19th century grew to a close, black workers in the Keys were looking north for new jobs.
As Henry Flagler pushed his railroad south into the Keys, some of the heavy clearing and grading work was assigned to skilled Bahamians, along with other groups of West Indian laborer migrants, especially Cayman Islanders. On March 31, 1896, Flagler dispatched his top foreman, John Sewell, and 12 handpicked black men as laborers and three white men to clear the mangrove hammock on Biscayne Bay.
Flagler's supervisors encouraged black workers to attend the city's incorporation meeting. Miami was incorporated on July 28, 1896 by 367 votes, 162 were black. Women were disenfranchised at the time and were not included in the vote to incorporate the city. By 1900, the population had increased by 1,681, including a sizable number of black immigrants from the Bahamas. Over the next twenty years, the Bahamian influx helped to swell the population. By 1920, when Miami's population stood at 29,571, the foreign-born made up one-quarter of the total population. More than 65 percent of Miami's foreign born residents were blacks from the West Indies. Black islanders, almost all from the Bahamas, totaled 4,815. They comprised 52 percent of all Miami's blacks and 16.3 percent of the city's entire population. Black immigrants from the Bahamas, in particular, gave immigration to Miami its special character in the early years of the twentieth century. The Bahamians thought that Miami was a young Magic City where money could be 'shaken from trees.'
Although British officials preferred to keep Bahamians on the island to maintain population stability, it was not to be. The Bahamian economy was in the midst of a big squeeze, as new citrus and vegetable production in Florida competed with the output of the Bahamas. Rising American import duties on Bahamian agricultural production, as well as on sisal (hemp) and sponges, caused these industries to fall on hard times. New economic opportunity beckoned in Florida, by the early twentieth century regular steamship service between Miami and Nassau made the trip to Florida cheap and convenient for Bahamians. It was a classic case of immigration prompted by the same kinds of economic forces that lay behind the massive European migration to the United States during the same era. The changing economic pattern had a powerful impact on Bahamian migration trends.
In order to see more clearly just how an African architectural legacy influences the formation of the shotgun house we must understand the shotgun house as a product of discernible cultural process rather than an accident of history. The Bahamian islands, as a physical environment, were similar in climate to Africa. Africans brought to the Bahamas, quickly developed resilience, knowledge and pride in their collective cultural selves, which transcended and survived the psychological and emotional devastation of forced servitude. As people on the move, the migration to the Americas brought Bahamians face to face with other displaced Africans. The strength of the Bahamians was asserted in their numbers and willingness, demonstrated determination to master this new environment. It must be remembered that Bahamians came to South Florida voluntarily seeking a better life for themselves not as enslaved humans forced to create wealth for a master. There is heartiness in the spirit of a people who decide to leave their homeland and venture elsewhere. It is this heartiness and resilience that form the bedrock of the contribution of Bahamians to African-American culture and to the Florida way of life.
Adair, Christina V., "The Shotgun Houses of John Biggers: African American Vernacular." The Web Life: The Art of John Biggers (1987): America Online. Internet.18 Feb. 1999. Available artednet.getty.edu/artsednet/Resources/Biggers/Shotgun/index
Ambrister, Ester. Personal Interview by author. April 1997.
Dunn, Marvin. Black Miami in the Twentieth Century. Florida: University of Florida Press, 1997.
Mohl, Raymond A. "Black Immigrants: Bahamas in Early Twentieth- Century Miami." Florida Historical Quarterly 49 (1989) : 273.
Reid, Ira De A.The Negro Immigrant: His Background, Characteristics and Social Adjustments (1899 -1937): New York: 1939. 184-85.
Richardson, Bonham C.. Caribbean Migrants: Environments and Human Survivors on St. Kitts and Nevis. Knoxville: 1983. xi, 6, 172-73.
Vlach, John Michael. "Sources of the Shotgun House; African and Caribbean Antecedents for Afro-American Architecture." Diss. Indiana U, 1975.