The year was 1896. Warmth filled the July air as hundreds of people gathered to hold a historic vote.
Many were on the fence about whether Miami should become a city. Then, a Black man named Alexander C. Lightburn began speaking.
He gave the most impassioned speech in favor of incorporation, and the crowd was left in awe – both white and Black alike.
But almost 125 years later, history seems to have forgotten about Lightburn.
About one-third of the men who voted to incorporate Miami were Black. However, this instance of racial equality was a rare event in 19th century South Florida. Black men slowly lost their civil rights to Black codes and Jim Crow laws after Reconstruction.
So despite their contributions, Miami’s Black pioneers lived, died and were largely forgotten – until recently.
Local historian Enid Pinkney has dedicated the last 21 years to making sure these pioneers live on in the memory of the city they helped create, especially Lightburn.
“It’s important to remember him because back in 1896 when there was this discussion as to whether Miami should remain a village or become a city, it is recorded that A.C. Lightburn made the most eloquent speech,” Pinkney said.
“You could consider him to be like the father of Miami, but a lot of people have never even heard his name,” she added.
Buried in the Miami City Cemetery, Lightburn was born in 1846 and died in 1908. He emigrated from the Bahamas in 1865, which was an English territory at the time. After entering through the port of New York, he made his way down to North Florida, where he worked as a teacher in the Freedman’s Bureau, an organization dedicated to helping former slaves after the civil war.
According to historical documents, Lightburn was a well-spoken and educated man. He could read and write, skills somewhat unique for Black men back then.
Lightburn’s political involvement began early. In 1865, he served as the sergeant at arms of the Florida House of Representatives. Soon after, Gov. Harrison Reed appointed him as a justice of peace in Gadsden County. Other involvements include participating in Knights of Labor, becoming a local Republican leader and serving on the state’s executive committee.
A husband and father of nine children, Lightburn moved his family to Miami in the 1890s. They were one of the first Black families to settle near the mouth of the Miami River, which lies between present-day Brickell and Downtown Miami.
A devout Christian, he also helped found Greater Bethel A.M.E Church in 1896, by holding the first services in his home. That church is still standing today, as one of the oldest Black congregations in South Florida.
“It needs to be known because people have tried to minimize the part Black people played in the development of Miami,” Pinkney said.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘those Black people didn’t know what they were doing,’” she said. “But that’s not true.”
When Pinkney discovered that many of the Black pioneers were buried in the City Cemetery, she began working on a project to keep their legacies alive. She also started a similar project for the Lemon City Cemetery.
Pinkney’s organization, the Lemon City Cemetery Community Corporation, petitioned the city of Miami to sponsor special headstones and honor the pioneer’s living relatives at a special ceremony in 2000.
The event was a success, except for the fact that no living relatives could be found for Lightburn. Not only was this forefather forgotten in history, it seemed that the Lightburn bloodline had also died out.
“The Lightburn, or Lightbourne, name disappeared in the year 1915,” said AnnMarie Henry, a local journalist and filmmaker.
Early historical documents have a different spelling (Lightburn) of the family’s last name, compared to later documents (Lightbourne). This posed an issue to Henry and her partners, who started researching Lightburn while making a docuseries on Black history in Miami.
“Even though his family couldn’t be located, I didn’t stop looking,” she said. “It took a long time of pouring through thousands of genealogy records to find anything.”
After following every breadcrumb, and searching documents for varying versions of the last name, Henry finally discovered that he had living relatives.
“I had spent months holding my breath because I didn’t know what happened to this family,” she said. “I was really emotional when I found them and made contact.”
Meet Allison Lightbourne-Jones, a travel and hospitality professional, born and raised in New York City. She is Lightburn’s great-great-great granddaughter, through her mother’s side.
“Growing up, I didn’t know much about my mother’s side of the family,” she said. “But my mother’s grandmother was alive, and whenever we visited her in Chicago I would overhear her talk about Jacksonville, Florida.”
Lightbourne-Jones says she never heard anything good about Florida from her family. They always spoke of the oppression they faced, which is why they left. However, she always found herself drawn to the state.
She visited Miami often and decided to move to South Florida in 2015. While driving around one day, she asked herself, ‘Why am I really here?’
“AnnMarie contacted me a few months later,” she said. “It was a very spiritual experience because it almost felt like I was being called there by some greater force.”
After Lightbourne-Jones learned about her family’s role in establishing the city, it all started to make sense. Now, she’s also dedicated to making sure her great-great-great grandfather gets the recognition he deserves.
“I feel like it’s an injustice because no one really knows about the Black incorporators,” she said. “I think that African Americans need to know about their families. If I had known, it might’ve steered my life in a different way.”
A lot of Black history has been erased over the past 100 years, according to Pinkney. That’s why she was so happy to hear that Henry had found one of Lightburn’s living relatives.
All three women are now in contact and working together to “right the wrongs” against Miami’s Black pioneers.
On Feb. 11, the Miami City Commission presented a proclamation to Lightbourne-Jones as a part of Black History Month festivities. The trio is over-joyed that their hard work has paid off.
“It feels fantastic,” Lightbourne-Jones said. “This is long overdue, and I plan to continue my grandfather’s legacy in Miami.”