Cemeteries are one of the few places in the city that prompt visitors to look to the past. In a way, they are a collection of lives — a collection of stories. And when it comes to stories, Miami City Cemetery has one of the city’s most impressive collections. It was born in tandem with the city and serves as the resting place for some of Miami’s most important luminaries.
Miami was founded on July 28, 1896. Despite its small population, the fledgling city needed a space to bury its dead. A local newspaper, the Miami Metropolis, clamored for the creation of a burial ground for residents, resulting in the purchase of ten acres of “rocky wasteland” from Mary Brickell. Miami City Cemetery was founded in 1897, one year after the birth of the city.
The first person to be buried at the newly created cemetery was an elderly African-American man, whose name and life story remain a mystery. The cemetery was segregated from its founding, with whites occupying three-quarters of the burial ground and people of color confined to the cemetery’s western perimeter wall. In fact, many Black Miamians were later disinterred and relocated to newly opened Black cemeteries in order to make room for white interments.
For its first few decades of existence, Miami City Cemetery was an unsightly dirt field littered with weather-worn tombstones — very spooky, by all accounts. Many residents did not want the cemetery to continue accepting burials. In the 1910s, privately owned companies began creating lush and scenic burial grounds inspired by the landscaping philosophies sweeping the United States at the time. These luxury cemeteries drew a lot of business away from City Cemetery, which continued to slump along until the 1920s.
In the 1920s and ’30s, the graveyard began to resemble what it looks like today. This was thanks to a new sexton, Alex Korsakoff (AKA the “Mad Russian”), and his collaboration with famed explorer and horticulturist Dr. David Fairchild, which brought about the introduction of exotic trees into Miami City Cemetery’s landscaping.
By the middle of the 20th Century, Miami City Cemetery was a gorgeous garden. Sadly, several hurricanes — most notably Andrew — have toppled many of the cemetery’s tallest and most colorful trees. The cemetery is also nearing capacity, with over 9,000 of the 10,000 available burial plots in use.
Given that more than 9,000 people are interred at Miami City Cemetery, there are, theoretically, more than 9,000 stories to be told. What follows are the stories of seven trailblazing Miamians whose remains are interred at the storied burial ground.
Julia Tuttle; c. 1890s
Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida
Julia Tuttle is perhaps the most important person buried at Miami City Cemetery. Being noted as the only woman to have founded a major city in the United States, she is frequently referred to as the “Mother of Miami.” Julia, widowed, moved to the north bank of the Miami River in 1891 with her children. At the time, Miami was an untrodden, isolated wilderness. The area was practically inaccessible by land, and the bay could only be navigated by small vessels because of how shallow it was. To move to Miami was to move to an uninhabited pineland forest hundreds of miles away from any substantial city. Many wrote the area off as a mosquito-ridden bog.
Tuttle, however, saw a tropical paradise of untold beauty and untapped potential. She envisioned a beautiful city nestled along the mouth of the Miami River, with Biscayne Bay as its skyline. She tirelessly petitioned investors and Guilded Age industrialists to invest in the area to no avail. Until, of course, fate took its course.
In 1894 and 1895, a terrible freeze swept across Florida and decimated its citrus industry — an industry on which the state’s economy was dependent. Miami, because of its southern location, was unscathed by the freeze. Though historically inaccurate, the story goes that Tuttle took a fresh orange blossom from a tree in her grove and had it speedily delivered to Henry Flagler, the millionaire railroad tycoon. It was proof that Miami’s citrus fields could flourish when the rest of Florida’s could not. She enclosed within the package a proposal. She campaigned for Miami’s viability as having a self-sustainable agricultural economy with the potential for investment in tourism because of its idyllic settings and weather.
Flagler took the bait and extended his railroad to Miami, triggering the city’s founding a few months later, on July 28, 1898. Seven hundred people voted to incorporate: 400 white and 300 black — all men. It is both revealing and depressing to understand that when Miami voted to incorporate, Julia could not vote because, well, she did not have the right to. It is hard to imagine how Julia Tuttle must have felt.
Julia Tuttle died a mere three years later and was the 12th person buried at Miami City Cemetery. Her tombstone stands to this day as a monument to a woman who stood up and declared that paradise could be found in a swamp.
Richard E. S. Toomey
Richard E. S. Toomey holds the distinction of being Miami’s first black attorney. Furthermore, he was a poet, orator, soldier, and political activist. Toomey was born in Maryland in 1862, one year after the Civil War began, to a family of oyster farmers. He enlisted in the Army and served during the Spanish-American War, where he was assigned to the “8th Immune Regiment.” (African-Americans were often assigned to these “immune regiments” because of the mistaken and racist belief that black soldiers were immune from tropical diseases.) During the war, Toomey was promoted to first lieutenant.
Once the conflict ended, Toomey garnered a national reputation as an apt poet and was nicknamed “The Soldier Poet.” His poetry condemned Southern racism and violence while also embracing a sense of patriotism for one’s country. Subsequently, he graduated from Howard Law School in 1906.
When Richard Toomey moved to Miami in 1913, it marked a changing tide in Miami’s social fabric and represented an era of growth for Overtown’s professional community. The Miami Chamber of Commerce invited Toomey to open a law firm in Miami, marking the first of its kind in southeastern Florida.
Due to the iron fist of Jim Crow, Mr. Toomey was not allowed to make appearances in local court to represent his clients. Unfazed by the blatant discrimination, Toomey would provide his client’s legal cases and his personal research to a white attorney, who would speak in the courtroom in Toomey’s absence. Toomey would continue to practice law in such a manner until his death in 1948, only a few years before the Civil Rights Movement picked up steam in the United States.
William M. Burdine
Another Miami luminary buried at Miami City Cemetery is none other than William M. Burdine, founder of the once-fabled department store, Burdines. Burdine was born in 1843 and spent a great deal of his life in the citrus industry. The Great Freeze, which decimated Florida’s agricultural industry, led to the birth of Miami and resulted in the birth of Burdines. With the citrus economy up in flames, William Burdine decided to try his hand at owning and operating a dry-goods store.
William opened the first Burdines in 1896, 123 years ago, in Bartow, Florida. Business was initially slow — the collapse of the citrus economy was pervasive in how it affected entire communities, not just those who dealt with the crops directly. Burdine was made aware of a new and fabled city called Miami, where the growth was staggering and the economy was booming. In 1898, funded with $300 in start-up capital and housed in a 1,250-square-foot building off Miami Avenue and Flagler Street, the first Burdines (then called Burdine & Son) opened in Miami. The population of the young city was 1,200.
The Burdines of the 1890s and the first decade of the 1900s was a very different sort of store than the Burdines most of us grew up shopping in. Burdines was, for its first 14 years of its existence, a dry-goods store. It very much resembled a frontier trading post. It offered a limited selection of clothing, shoes, fabrics, curtains, table linens, and umbrellas. The store catered to local construction workers, soldiers stationed in Miami during the Spanish-American War, and natives from the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes.
William Burdine passed away on February 1, 1911, and was buried in Miami City Cemetery. His son, Roddey Burdine, took over the family business and shaped Burdines into the fashion-savvy store it would eventually become known for. Roddey passed away 25 years later, in 1936, and was buried next to his father at City Cemetery.
Dr. James Jackson; 1885
Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida
Dr. James Jackson
Dr. James Jackson holds the distinction of being Miami’s first physician and would eventually have Jackson Memorial Hospital named after him. Like many of Miami’s pioneers, Jackson moved to Miami following the freezes of 1894 and 1895. When he first arrived in Miami in 1895, one year before the city was founded, he found the settlement lacking — dirt roads, unimposing wood-frame structures, and a general lack of infrastructure. Vacancy for newcomers was scarce, resulting in Jackson having to sleep on a moored steamboat his first few nights.
Disappointed and generally repulsed by the fledgling settlement, Jackson decided he had no interest living in Miami and decided to catch the next boat to Fort Lauderdale. Destiny, however, had different plans for the physician. He was informed that there would not be any transportation out of Miami for a few days. While he was stranded in Miami, he began to fall in love with the community and the charisma of the people who populated. He wrote his wife, explaining that he had a change of heart towards Miami and that he had become infatuated with the settlement’s spirit. “This Miami spirit is a great thing. It is infectious,” he wrote. He had decided to stay.
The James Jackson lore is nothing short of cinematic. The man spent his first few years crisscrossing all of Miami (which very much a wilderness at the time) making house-calls in his horse and buggy. Dr. Jackson is said to have always been smoking a cheap cigar, and, as legend has it, he would leave the lit cigar on the porch railing when entering a patient’s house and would often forget it on his way out.
Jackson would help the young city navigate a yellow fever outbreak in 1898 and later spearhead the creation of Miami City Hospital during an influenza epidemic in 1918. When Jackson died in 1924, the Miami City Commission voted to rename the hospital James M. Jackson Memorial Hospital — it lives on as Jackson Memorial Hospital today. James Jackson was buried at Miami City Cemetery, with one of the city’s most iconic tombstones adorning his grave: a post with a ring to tie a horse to.
Hialeah welcome sign featuring Jack Tigertail; 1921.
State Archives of Florida / W. A. Fishbaugh
Jack Tigertail was the first Native American to be buried at Miami City Cemetery. Born in the Big Cypress in 1872, Tigertail was situated within a Seminole culture that was rapidly changing and adapting to life after the atrocities committed against the indigenous population during the three Seminole Wars, which took place from 1816 to 1858. Whereas the Seminole had spent the latter half of the 19th century living off of land and trading with white settlers at the base of the Miami River, the 20th-century Seminole was marked by engagement in the regions burgeoning tourism industry.
Like many other Seminole families at the turn of the century, Jack Tigertail moved his family from Big Cypress to a Native American camp located inside a tourist attraction called Coppinger’s Tropical Gardens. Like the countless others like it at the time, this tourist trap showcased Seminole lifestyles as a roadside attraction to winter visitors from the North. Needless to say, these businesses were not owned by the Seminole and were largely exploitative towards a population that had few other options. Though ethically bankrupt, these tourist Seminole camps foreshadowed the tribe’s eventual role within South Florida’s tourism and gambling industry.
Tigertail was a tall, handsome, and personable man. A natural leader, he acted as a business liaison between many Native Americans and the white community. He stood as a bridge between both cultures. He grew to become a celebrity in Miami, culminating in the creation of the famous 25-foot, cut-out sign of Jack Tigertail, which was placed at the entrance to the newly developed Hialeah.
Tigertail’s untimely death at the South Bank of the Miami River in 1922 would prove to be one of Miami’s most scandalous murders. Though never prosecuted, it is generally accepted that Charlie Veber, a man the Seminole referred to as “White Man Charlie,” shot Tigertail in cold blood after he refused to sell Veber egret feathers he had gathered in the Everglades. Tigertail’s death shook both Miami’s white and Seminole communities. After some discourse as to where his body should be laid to rest, it was decided that he would be interred at Miami City Cemetery. Arrayed in his finest garments, he was laid to rest in a Seminole ceremony at Miami City Cemetery.
Theodore Gibson, 1972
State Archives of Florida
Born in 1915, almost 20 years after the City of Miami was founded, Theodore Gibson was a different kind of pioneer. He was one of the most important leaders in Miami’s Civil Rights Movement during the ’50s and ’60s. Gibson was born and raised in Overtown (then called “Colored Town”) when segregation was law, and the conditions that Miami blacks were forced to live in were nothing short of atrocious. He graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and attended university in pursuit of becoming a preacher.
Gibson spearheaded an effort to desegregate Miami’s beaches. Before his involvement, there were no public beaches in Miami where blacks could visit and swim. In November 1959, he led a group of blacks on a “swim-in,” defying the color ban and swimming in Crandon Park as a form of protest. A pretty early move in the Civil Rights Movement, the swim-in was largely a success. Virginia Key was created as the first public beach assessable to blacks in Miami.
Gibson also took a leadership role in fighting to desegregate Dade County’s public schools by filing a lawsuit on behalf of his son. He was largely responsible for the desegregation of downtown lunch counters and department stores, where blacks were often not allowed to visit, and if they were allowed, they were unable to use the dressing rooms. He fought to improve the housing conditions in Overtown and helped establish the community of Richmond Heights. In 1972, he was appointed to Miami’s City Commission, where he served for nearly ten years. He passed away in 1982 and was buried at Miami City Cemetery, which was 85 years old at the time.
Charles Peacock; c.1890s
Courtesy of University of Miami Special Collection
Charles Peacock is representative of some of Miami’s earliest settlers, which are buried at Miami City Cemetery. He and his wife hold the distinction of operating one of the first and most important hotels of pre-incorporated Miami, the Peacock Inn. Charles moved from England with his family in 1875 at the encouragement of his brother, Jolly Jack. The Peacock family arrived in the area 21 years before the City of Miami was founded and lived in the isolated wilderness which characterized the region before its development. The family was dependent on trade and the land.
When they first arrived, they raised coontie, a native plant which was the region’s most lucrative cash crop at the time. About five years after the family first arrived, they opened what would become known as the Peacock Inn, the first hotel on Biscayne Bay. It had 30 rooms, a separate cottage annex, and hosted many visitors from New York and Boston. The Peacock Inn would be one of the most important community centers for early Miami pioneers, being the venue of choice for holidays, birthdays, and other special occasions. While the hotel was torn down in 1926, it later became the site of Peacock Park in Coconut Grove. Charles passed away on September 23, 1905, and was buried at Miami City Cemetery.