The Biscayne Times

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Written by Margaret Griffis, BT Contributor   
July 2018

Race plays a starring role in Lummus Park history

ILummus_1n the quiet Spring Garden neighborhood, just west of downtown Miami, multimedia visual artist William Keddell works on his latest stereogram. But his focus often turns to Lummus Park, where history, he feels, has been rewritten to assuage prejudiced sensibilities.

In 1999, Keddell moved to a house on NW 4th Street, just around the corner from Lummus Park (404 NW 3rd St.). The New Zealand native had arrived in Miami from New York City in 1989, following his Dominican wife (now ex-), who wanted to move closer to family here. He became enchanted by the park while on his daily dog walks and recognized the rich history of the buildings, particularly the building designated as Fort Dallas, a 95-by-17-foot, one-story “longhouse” made of oolitic limestone.

While researching the historic buildings, he was surprised to learn of the longhouse’s connection to slavery and an interracial marriage connected to the nearby historic Wagner House. Keddell tells Biscayne Times he feels the buildings’ true origins have been whitewashed through the years.

“I just want the truth, not this current, dented history,” he says. “The problem goes back to when Julia Tuttle bought the property. She referred to her home as a former military officer’s building and the other as a barracks. But they were both there before the Army used those buildings.”

Tuttle was likely following local convention. After the last Army occupation, the property was commonly known as Fort Dallas, as evidenced by a brief mention in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1871: “The old garrison of Fort Dallas is in full view as we approach. The neat cottage-barracks, with broad verandahs, arranged pleasingly around a fine sloping parade -- tall cocoas, lime-trees and rich groupings of poincianas and elders loaded with their brilliant blossoms -- altogether form a cheerful scene of much beauty.”

Charged with a passion to bring awareness to another side of history -- and one that may have been seen as so distasteful to previous generations that they tried to revise it -- Keddell sought help. In 2004 he obtained a “Learn & Serve” grant from the Florida Department of Education to develop “Love & Slavery in Miami,” a project he implemented with the assistance of Troy Community Academy. The Academy serves Miami youths who are involved in the juvenile justice system and are at risk of failing in a traditional school setting. The group worked on creating visual aids and performances based on a corrected history.

So what’s the story? In a 1961 issue of the University of Miami’s historical journal, Tequesta, history professor Nathan Shappee wrote an extensive history titled “Fort Dallas and the Naval Depot on Key Biscayne, 1836-1926.” He discovered that the U.S. Navy had been tasked to prevent trade between the Seminole Indians and the West Indies after the Second Seminole War began in 1835.

Shortly after the Cape Florida Lighthouse was attacked in 1836, the Navy established Fort Dallas as a depot on Key Biscayne and named it after Commodore Alexander J. Dallas. Soon it moved across Biscayne Bay to property at the mouth of the Miami River, first on the south bank and later on the north. Both parcels were owned by Richard Fitzpatrick.


As the war was winding down, Fort Dallas was closed in January 1841. Fitzpatrick left the area and sold the property to his nephew, William F. English, who wanted to establish a town at the mouth of the Miami River. English got as far as platting out a city and even sold lots, but there was little interest in the new town.

However, it was at this time that English also rebuilt the plantation and added two limestone structures. One building was the main house (now demolished), and the other was built as slave quarters (the longhouse).

Fitzpatrick reportedly owned as many as 60 slaves, while English expanded that number to about 100. It is unclear how many slaves actually lived in the longhouse or for how long. That knowledge is lost to history.

It is known that the slaves also had other living quarters before the longhouse was built. According to a claim that the Fitzpatrick/English heirs filed in 1884 with the U.S. government, hoping to recover some loses related to the use of the land during the Seminole Wars, there were “12 negro houses” on the property. The plantation grew sugar and other tropical crops, including bananas, limes, and coconuts. Ducks, hogs, and poultry were also listed in the claim.

The Army rented the property again in 1849 and into 1850. Then the property was unoccupied until 1855, when the Third Seminole War began. At this time, the Army renovated the stone buildings and undertook new construction.

A hurricane in 1874 demolished much of it except the stone buildings, and the property went through several owners before Julia DeForest Tuttle bought the property and moved into the main building in November 1891. She named her real estate company the Fort Dallas Land Company and set about becoming “the mother of Miami.”

Somehow both buildings survived until 1925, when the land was sold during the real estate boom in order to build a hotel. The main building was razed, but the Miami Woman’s Club and the Everglades Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution were given the slave quarters/barracks if they would move it off the lot within two weeks. They raised $7000 for the work, and the City of Miami donated the space in Lummus Park.

With the move, the longhouse became Miami’s first structure specifically marked for preservation, and the D.A.R. continued to use the building as a meeting house until the 1980s.

Lummus Park is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Miami’s first park was created in 1909 and named for J.E. Lummus, the city’s second mayor, whose home stood just south of the park. The neighborhood boasted some of the finest addresses of the time, in stark contrast to what it became in the 1980s. Over the years, the neighborhood fell into disrepair, and the park was a considered a dangerous place. It eventually closed and only recently has been reopened to a changing neighborhood that boasts luxury condos just steps away.


The Wagner Homestead has an interesting history, as well. In 1982, Margot Ammidown, also writing in Tequesta (“The Wagner Family: Pioneer Life on the Miami River”), noted that the Wagner Homestead started out in the mid-1850s as a residence connected to a coontie mill on Wagner Creek (now Seybold Canal). William Wagner was a New York-born veteran of the Mexican-American War who may have moved to Florida from South Carolina to follow financial opportunities at the start of the Third Seminole War. Or he may have been looking for a home where he could finally live openly with his mixed-race wife and their children. Probably both.

Eveline Aimar was described by family friends as French Creole. The U.S. census recorded that her mother was from the West Indies and her father from England. It is suggested that the mother may have escaped the slave revolt in Haiti by fleeing to Charleston. Eveline also appears to have been 15 years older than Wagner. The couple’s relationship drove some Miami neighbors to demand confirmation of their marriage. Otherwise, they seemed to be a welcome and important part of the early community.

The mill closed in the 1880s, and Julia Tuttle owned the property for a few years before it returned to the Wagner family. They eventually sold the property so it could be redeveloped into what is now Spring Garden, where Keddell now lives.

Thanks to the efforts of the Dade Heritage Trust, the Wagner home was restored and moved to Lummus Park in 1979. The Trust has taken a more active role in the buildings’ welfare under Christine Rupp, executive director since 2015. The locks were changed, and a new educational program was launched without Keddell, though the buildings are still closed to the public.

Hoping to spur fresh activity and an influx of cash at the site, Keddell applied to the “Public Space Challenge” program at the Miami Foundation, writing that “in downtown Miami’s Lummus Park are two very significant historical landmarks. Both are still closed to the public. This project is to make these buildings open on Saturdays with myself as a tour guide to their unique histories.” His proposal wasn’t selected for funding, but Rupp tells the BT that she likes the idea of reopening the buildings to the public. Even so, it will take more time to develop public programming, and funding and planning for the buildings’ upkeep and repairs, among other issues.

“This educational program only kicked off in November,” says Rupp. “We’ve proven ourselves [to the city] for half a school year. We had to get insurance, and I’m not ready to take on a weekend liability. I don’t have the staffing or the budget to promote weekend tours. I know he’s really anxious, but it has to be done in a thorough, thoughtful manner, so it’s successful.”

Rupp says she’s thrilled with the success of the new educational program. “Historic Places, Green Spaces” is free for students K-8, and Rupp is hoping to expand it to K-12 next school year. During the three-hour field trip, kids tour Lummus Park and learn about the history of Miami, including the slavery aspect. They gain connections to the green space while developing an appreciation for Miami in general.


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