Dana Albert Dorsey began his career with a single lot on which he constructed homes, rented them, and re-invested his profits, repeating the process over and over. Dorsey, a carpenter by trade, built a real estate empire in a handful of years. Thanks to his various business activities, including banking, he would become Miami’s first Black millionaire and a civic leader and philanthropist in the Black community. And he accomplished all of this while living in segregation during the Jim Crow era when Black people were restricted in every aspect of life.
Dorsey, sometimes known as D.A. Dorsey by locals, was born into a sharecropper’s family. He was born in Quitman, Georgia, in Fulton County, to former slaves in 1872, but relocated to Miami in 1896. He only had a fourth-grade education and was self-taught at the time. He, like everyone else, had relocated to Miami in quest of a better life. Miami had only recently emerged as a thriving city. He went to work for Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railroad there, but while there, he saw a housing shortage for his fellow Black workers.
So he bought a piece of land in Overtown and constructed a house on it. He used the rental income from that house to purchase a second lot on which to construct a second home, and so on.
“When he arrived in Miami, he started amassing his fortune in real estate. He began to buy, sell, and rent property, eventually amassing a fortune of well over a million dollars, making him Miami’s first black millionaire,” said Timothy Barber, executive director of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida, which restored Dorsey’s home for use as a museum.
Dorsey constructed the historic home in 1915 when Black people were largely excluded from the housing market. In the midst of segregation, Dorsey gave land to the city of Miami to be used as a park for Black inhabitants while he built a significant portfolio of property. He also established a library for Black people in Miami and donated vast quantities of land for Black students’ schools, as he was a strong believer in the value of education. In fact, Dorsey provided land for the construction of Miami’s first Black high school, which is today known as DA Dorsey Technical College.
He also founded the Negro Savings Bank and was the first Black proprietor of the Dorsey Hotel in Miami. He was able to progress despite the difficult business climate for Black business entrepreneurs.
“…It was during a period in our history when Blacks were not permitted to mix with Whites,” Barber told WLRN that Blacks were assigned to a specific region of the city that segregated them from Whites.
Even still, there were wealthy Black folks who required assistance. Dorsey assisted in meeting those needs while also volunteering his time, money, knowledge, skills, and talent to aid others. Dorsey had property in both Miami and Fort Lauderdale, in addition to property in Miami. Fisher Island near Miami Beach was one of the most famous properties held by the real estate pioneer and millionaire. He also owned property in the Bahamas and Cuba.
Dorsey bought Fisher Island, now one of the world’s wealthiest zip codes, to develop a colorful resort accessible only by ferry, boat, or helicopter. Dorsey bought Fisher Island “to form a company for the development of the tract as a high-class colored resort and subdivision with a hotel, cottages for well-to-do men of his own race, and boats to convey them back and forth between the mainland and the island so there will be no conflict of races in the project,” according to the Miami Daily Metropolis in 1918.
However, he only owned the island for a year and a half before selling it to Carl Fisher, who was constructing Miami Beach. Barber told WLRN why Dorsey decided to sell the island.
“There were certain obstacles that prevented him from expanding and building on Fisher Island. One of the things I remember about it was that it was on the east side of a railroad track, and we know that [Henry] Flagler designated the east side for white people and the west side for black people.
“And I believe it was difficult for Dorsey to obtain the people and labor he needed to get over to the island on a regular basis to get this island ready for a resort before selling it to Carl Fisher.”
Dorsey died in 1940, but his influence is still felt today. He is commemorated by a roadway, a park, and a school. His house has been refurbished over the years and is now a museum and a reminder of his accomplishments. He continues to influence a lot of people.
Kevin Smith, a young Black real estate entrepreneur with roots in Miami, told Legacy Magazine in 2019 that “he’s an inspiration because by being a pioneer, it shows us where we can go.”