Making History with Marvin Dunn

February marks Black History Month. This month and every month, Marvin Dunn works to remind us that Black history is Miami history.

Marvin Dunn is a professor emeritus at Florida International University. His books and documentaries explore Florida’s Black history
Marvin Dunn is a professor emeritus at Florida International University. His books and documentaries explore Florida’s Black history.

“I’ve lived here most of my life and had no idea that these things happened.” That’s what author Marvin Dunn says most locals say to him after they read his book, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, which recounts local Black history, from the proud heritage of the city’s Black community to Black pirates in Biscayne Bay, the glamorous but problematic heyday of Overtown, and the civil rights movement in Miami. 

“When I did that book, I was hoping that it would do just that: help folks who are new to the community know our history, as well as remind those of us who have lived through it what that history is,” says Dunn, who is a professor emeritus at Florida International University. 

Dunn is considered by many to be the forefather of Miami Black history. Born in DeLand, Florida, in 1940, he attended segregated schools, dealt with being called racial slurs, was kicked off busses and out of bars, and witnessed a KKK rally. In addition to his lived experiences, Dunn’s historical research is exhaustive—informed by newspaper clippings, eyewitness accounts, cemetery monuments, and more. He published History of Florida: Through Black Eyes in 2016 and has produced three documentary films including Rosewood Uncovered (detailing  the 1923 Rosewood massacre), Murder on the Suwanee: The Willie James Howard Story (exploring the lynching of a 15-year-old in Florida in 1944), and Black Seminoles in the Bahamas: The Red Bays Story (telling the stories of enslaved people in Florida who escaped to the Bahamas in the 1800s). 

“All my books deal with the same sort of issues, and the work needs to be absorbed quietly and alone,” Dunn says. “I urge people to turn this private learning into private growth: to try to apply what they read to what they’re doing and how they’re living their lives.” 

While many of the events Dunn recounts are deeply troubling and painful, he urges Miamians to take pride in inspirational Black leaders, including M. Athalie Range (the first Black person to serve on the Miami City Commission), Reverend Theodore Gibson (a former president of Miami’s NAACP chapter), and Dr. John O. Brown (a leader of peaceful protests at Miami’s segregated lunch counters and beaches in the late 1950s and early ’60s). Dunn, too, has looked to inspire the community by  co-founding the Academy for Community Education, an alternative high school for students who are at risk of dropping out. 

As Dunn sees it, progress has a lot to do with perspective. “Being 83 years old gives you a perspective on history and on life that people who are not at this age don’t have so much,” Dunn says. “I can look way back in my own life and see things have changed for the better.” 

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