William B Sawyer


William B Sawyer


Philanthropist and Activist for the African American Community


Dr. William B. Sawyer (1886-1950), the first black medical professional in southern Florida, has been recognized as an important figure in the early 20th century development of Miami’s African American community. Born in northern Florida, Sawyer pursued a B.A. at Atlanta University. While there, Sawyer became an understudy of W.E.B Dubois, who was a professor of history, sociology, and economics. Dubois encouraged Dr. Sawyer to continue his education beyond his bachelor’s degree, which served as the catalyst for Sawyer’s entry into a M.D. program in Tennessee. 

After studying to become a doctor, Sawyer migrated to Miami in 1908 and opened a small practice in “Colored town,” today known as Overtown. Not only did he serve his community as a medical professional, but he was also quickly to become an influential philanthropist and activist. He encouraged the black community to invest in order to gain new levels of economic freedom, and to participate in community events and sponsorships. Moreover, Sawyer was an active participant in the “Colored Board of Trade,” where influential black entrepreneurs and leaders would represent their section of Miami-Dade county. Dr. Sawyer used this as an avenue to better the quality of life for his historically under-served and under-represented community members.

To understand the nature of neglect that the black community of Miami faced, it is necessary to trace the community’s historical trajectory. In the early 20th century, many immigrants from the Bahamas came to the city in search of  new economic opportunities.  Many of these immigrants however, were only able to find back-breaking work on the new railroad system being developed there by Henry M. Flagler. In southern Florida, black individuals were frequently dehumanized, and imagined simply as tools to use for the development of the city. Despite the importance of their work, the minority status of these immigrants left them vulnerable to rampant abuse and exploitation. They were often overworked and not given a voice within Miami-Dade County. Dr. William B. Sawyer was able to petition for representation of this minority group because of the platform he had taken on as an influential civil rights activist within the segregated northwest section of Miami, Florida. For reference, this was the Jim Crow Era in the United States, an era of strict segregation and racial terrorism. Lynching was a scare tactic frequently used by white citizens, and black Americans were continually denied the right to share their grievances. Dr. Sawyer often attempted to remedy this by speaking up for the African Americans of Overtown in meetings with predominantly white legislators.

Moreover, African Americans in this period were far more vulnerable to the effects of Florida’s natural disasters than were their white counterparts. Hurricanes brought destruction to black individuals' houses and black families. The most notable occurrence was the “Great Miami Hurricane of 1926.” White men from more elite neighborhoods like Coral Gables and Pinecrest intentionally rounded up black men in Northern Miami to repair damages in their neighborhoods. Black Miamians needed an advocate and Sawyer was the community member that many of them looked to. Dr. Sawyer had always been a medical professional that kept up to date on medical practices and offered exceptional care to his community.  Despite the lack of resources available to black Americans at this time, and the fact that Sawyer’s medical practice kept him extremely occupied, he nevertheless found ways to uplift his community. 

With the help of donors, Dr. Sawyer, Dana Dorsey, and Dr. S.M Fraizer raised funds to establish the first hospital in Overtown. In 1920, The Christian Hospital opened its doors. Dr. Sawyer headed the board of this institution. The Christian Hospital was revolutionary in southern Florida because of its accessibility to black individuals. Medical treatment was provided for the community immediately. Prior to the opening, major surgeries were performed out of state. However, this opened a door to allow working individuals the opportunity to receive care in their own neighborhood. The opening was revolutionary in its capacity to give to the black community a basic right: access to health care. Dr. Sawyer made other efforts to bolster the  health of the black community as well. One example is when he worked closely with The University of Miami Medical School in hopes of opening a medical school for Black Miamians. Despite the fact that this specific project was unsuccessful, Dr. Sawyer nevertheless inspired many in his community to pursue degrees in medicine. 

Another project that Sawyer implemented to uplift the community was the founding of The Mary Elizabeth Hotel in 1921.  Standing three stories tall, the Mary Elizabeth Hotel was the largest building in Overtown. Upon its opening, The Miami Times noted this achievement. It was a hotel that contributed to the social and cultural scene of Overtown. W.E.B Dubois stayed there while visiting, demonstrating that it was a space for Black intellectuals, artists, and so on, to gather and collaborate. As hostelries throughout southern Florida did not provide lodging for minority groups, The Mary Elizabeth Hotel was revolutionary in its capacity to invite minority groups to enjoy southern Florida. Dr. Sawyer contributed to the liveliness of his city and encouraged other African Americans to visit the Magic City. In a similar vein, In order for Dr. Sawyer to build and empower the black community it was imperative that he fund it, he invested money into Overtown starting up a $500,000 housing project to create more houses while developing their structure and security.

Concurrently, Dr. Sawyer engaged in important political movements in Miami-Dade County. In 1932, black Miamians were unable to vote in elections. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) noted Dr. Sawyer as a civic leader and reached out for his opinion on the matter. Sawyer spoke about the struggle of African Americans to gain adequate citizenship rights, and their various attempts to participate in politics. 

In the 21st century, the various contributions that Sawyer made to Miami are still visible. Sawyer was, in large part, a voice for creating Jackson Memorial Hospital in North Miami. Ultimately, Sawyer was a public servant, deeply embedded in, and dedicated to, his community. Speaking for the political interests of minority people groups by collaborating with fellow influential black Miamians, raising funds for projects like the Christian Hospital, and most importantly lending hope to a community that was continually abused after a long legacy of slavery.


Fleischmann, Thomas F. "Black Miamians in The Miami Metropolis, 1896-1900." Tequesta 52 (1992): 21-38.

Dunn, Marvin. 1997. Black Miami in the twentieth century. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=54975.

Connolly, N. D. B. 2014. A world more concrete. Chicago, Ill: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Waters, Roderick. "Dr. William B. Sawyer of Colored Town." Tequesta 57 (1997): 67-80.

Mohl, Raymond A. "Black Immigrants: Bahamians in Early Twentieth-Century Miami." The Florida Historical Quarterly 65, no. 3 (1987): 271-97. Accessed June 3, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30147810.

Shell-Weiss, Melanie. "Coming North to the South: Migration, Labor and City-Building in Twentieth-Century Miami." The Florida Historical Quarterly 84, no. 1 (2005): 79-99. Accessed June 3, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30150917.

Wikimedia Commons contributors, "File:Miami Overtown FL Mt Zion Baptist sign01.jpg," Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Miami_Overtown_FL_Mt_Zion_Baptist_sign01.jpg&oldid=464220887 (accessed June 3, 2021).

Pessar, Phillip. Welcome to Historic Overtown. Photograph. Flickr. Miami, 2013. https://www.flickr.com/photos/southbeachcars/9108300685. 


Further Reading:

Connolly, N. D. B. "Colored, Caribbean, and Condemned: Miami's Overtown District and the Cultural Expense of Progress, 1940-1970." Caribbean Studies 34, no. 1 (2006): 3-60. Accessed June 3, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25613509.

Waters, Roderick Dion. "Sister Sawyer: the life and times of Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry." PhD diss., The Florida State University, 1994.

Smith-Cavros, Eileen, and Emily Eisenhauer. "Overtown: neighbourhood, change, challenge and “invironment”." Local environment 19, no. 4 (2014): 384-401.

Barnes, Germane. "Black Miami's Resiliency: A Photographic Essay." Anthurium A Caribbean Studies Journal 16, no. 1 (2020).


Caroline I. Miles

Birth Date

November 23, 1886


Waldo, Florida

Death Date





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Caroline I. Miles, William B Sawyer

Cite As

Caroline I. Miles , “William B Sawyer,” Virtual Museum of Public Service, accessed June 28, 2022, https://vmps.omeka.net/items/show/755.