Searching for Black Voices in Vizcaya’s Construction

Black and white photo of eleven men around a trolley of gravel.

By Trevor Bryant

Trevor Bryant is a PhD Candidate in Atlantic History at Florida International University. During his internship at Vizcaya during the Fall 2020 semester, he researched Vizcaya’s connections to Caribbean and Bahamian immigration in South Florida in the early 20th Century.

Central to creating Vizcaya

Vizcaya could not have been built without Black migrant workers, particularly Bahamians, yet we are only now beginning to uncover the true extent of their contributions. One factor that significantly limits our knowledge of who worked to build this Estate is that the laborers were not listed by name in most documentation that exists today. People in leadership were named in the numerous photographs depicting their work, but Vizcaya’s architects and supervisors were more concerned with completing their daily tasks than keeping detailed records of the individuals who worked countless hours building the Main House, gardens, and Village. Despite this, careful examination of photographs and work forms reveal how central Black men from the United States and the Caribbean were to Vizcaya’s history.

Black and white photo of eleven men around a trolley of gravel.
Group of men around trolley of gravel. In this image, some men are in jackets and others are in overalls.

History captured in photography

From 1914 to 1921 James Deering and his project leaders commissioned photographs be taken of Vizcaya during its construction so that he could measure its progress. Black men were present in almost every image, doing everything from installing detailed stonework on the Main House to cutting limestone in the quarry that supplied the construction site. Moreover, we see that each man most likely performed a specific task for every project, a task that could be determined through the type of clothing they wore. One question these images raise is if clothing signified one’s job or status – if men who wore aprons were stonemasons or if men with jackets were workgroup supervisors. Yet, we need to be careful taking these images at face value. It appears that many people were posing with tools as props, which could lead us to misinterpret the type of work they did. Moreover, because these photos focus on the labor of Black men, we cannot forget that Black women also were important to the building of Vizcaya, often in roles outside the scope of these photographs.

Black and white photo of three workmen pose for the camera wearing aprons and overalls while holding different tools.
Three workmen pose for the camera. We can clearly see that they are wearing aprons and overalls while holding different tools.

Clearly, the people who built Vizcaya were skilled laborers who brought their construction expertise to South Florida and became an integral part of Vizcaya’s, and Miami’s, history.

This resource has been made available in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this web resource do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.