Law and Politics People and Community

Law clinic fights for Overtown

The University of Miami School of Law’s Environmental Justice Clinic is helping residents of the historic community reverse environmental injustices that have plagued their neighborhood for years.
Overtown murals with a cement plant in background.
Overtown residents who live in the vicinity of Dorsey Park are concerned about potential environmental impacts from a nearby cement plant, located only a few meters from the historic park. Photo: Robert C. Jones Jr./University of Miami

Overtown opened its arms to Casey Munga nine years ago. That’s when the single mother of one moved to the historic Miami neighborhood after becoming homeless and nearly losing her son to a bout with sepsis that left him in a wheelchair. 

“We were traumatized because of what happened to us,” she recalled. “When we moved to Overtown, no one knew us, but we were never treated like strangers. The people of Overtown were friendly. It was always, ‘God bless you.’ They would pray for my son, give him money for snacks to buy at the store, flag down the bus when they saw us waiting at the bus stop,” she continued. “They became our family—from the lady at the Queen Laundry Service to the bus drivers who honk as they pass. Even the street cleaners.” 

Now, Munga, a longtime asthmatic whose son, Elijah, suffers from the same condition, wants more for Overtown: upgraded parks and remediation of the environmental risks its residents face. 

“We want to make sure that the cement plants that are in close proximity to our parks are complying with their permits and to know whether or not the air we breathe in our neighborhood is safe,” Munga said. 

Students in the University of Miami School of Law’s Environmental Justice Clinic (EJC) have joined the cause. From conducting research on brownfields to filing public records requests, they have partnered with the newly formed Overtown Parks Group (OPG) in its efforts to raise awareness of environmental injustices in and around the community’s public parks and to correct those inequities. 

It is a partnership that took shape last year, when OPG—which is comprised of Urban Health Partnerships, the Overtown Children and Youth Coalition, Catalyst Miami, and community activists—approached the clinic seeking its help. 

As part of the alliance, students also have hit the pavement, going door to door in the community to question residents about their concerns. They started with homes surrounding Dorsey Park, where Negro Leagues baseball teams played during the Jim Crow era. Today, two cement plants border the historic park, which features colorful murals honoring the famous Negro Leaguers. 

“We’ve been knocking on doors and asking broad questions, not necessarily related to just the parks but also about the way in which neighbors engage with them and if they’ve noticed any environmental hazards in their area,” said Abigail Fleming, EJC’s associate director. “The canvassing showed us that, with the cement plants, there were concerns about dust and noise levels.” 

Chris Mader, senior director of software engineering at the University’s Frost Institute for Data Science and Computing, flew a fixed-wing drone over Dorsey Park, capturing detailed aerial images that showed the cement plants’ proximity to the park. During an in-person meeting with Overtown residents in June, Fleming and her students displayed enlarged images of Dorsey Park taken by the drone, giving residents a bird’s-eye view of just how close the cement plants are located to the park. 

Students also have canvassed homes near Henry Reeves Park. And this fall semester, a new group of EJC interns will question residents who live near three other Overtown-area parks: Theodore Gibson, Rainbow Village, and Williams parks. They also will distribute a health questionnaire for residents to fill out. 

Training sessions, where EJC interns teach residents how to lead policy campaigns and how to access public records, also will continue, according to Fleming, who has applied for an EPA grant to keep the partnership afloat. 

“Our goal is to build relationships with City of Miami elected officials and to try to navigate the maze of tackling some of the issues that concern residents,” she explained. “This is as much an initiative to give voice to the people of Overtown as it is about raising awareness of some of the environmental injustices that continue to plague their community. We want to help ensure that residents can be part of the decision-making process when it comes to industry and green spaces. This is about identifying the amazing assets within Overtown, which has such a rich history.” 

Known as “Colored Town” during the Jim Crow era, Overtown is the second oldest continuously inhabited neighborhood in Miami after Coconut Grove. Black workers who built Miami’s section of the Florida East Coast Railway settled the community. Residents built shops, grocery stores, and theaters; and during segregation, entertainers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong stayed in Overtown after performing in Miami Beach. 

But when interstate highways were built through the community in the 1960s, displacing thousands of residents, Overtown experienced economic decline. 

Today, it bustles once more, thanks to renewed development that includes everything from the creation of community gardens to a renovation of the historic Lyric Theatre. 

“Now, environmental injustices are the challenge for us,” said community activist Keith Ivory, who grew up in Overtown and still lives there. 

“Part of what EJC has helped us with is research—looking at how other communities have dealt with cement plants in their neighborhoods and how residents responded,” Ivory said. “We’ve learned that some communities have formed committees to become part of biannual and annual inspections of those plants. That’s our goal. We want residents to be privy to their [the cement plants’] reports—the same reports on emissions that county and city officials get.” 

Residents also are concerned about new housing projects that could threaten the future of Reeves Park, noted Wren Ruiz, community planning program manager for Urban Health Partnerships, which is part of the Overtown Parks Group. 

“Beyond that,” said Ruiz, whose mother grew up in Overtown and who still has relatives living there, “we’ve looked at certain aspects of the parks that need to be addressed: such as some crosswalks no longer being visible, the mural at Dorsey Park honoring the Negro Leagues Baseball players now fading, the need for better equipment at some parks, and the need to increase programming and activities, particularly for seniors.” 

Ruiz said they are working with the City of Miami’s Parks and Recreation Department to address those issues. 

“Yes, Overtown is a place with its issues. But we are working on them as a community,” Munga said. “It’s accepting, tight-knit, and open-minded. For me, right now, it’s home.”