The hidden history of Miami founding father A.C. Lightbourne

MIAMI – It was a day that so many have been waiting for and long-delayed from the history pages but not to be denied. One of the founding fathers of Miami was recognized with a street naming ceremony in Overtown named after Alexander C. Lightbourne.

And, if it’s true that you don’t choose to make history, but it chooses you, then A.C. Lightbourne was handpicked, leading a pack of more than 160 black men, casting a vote to make Miami an official city. Lightbourne was only supposed to be seen and not heard in 1896 but a witness from the meeting said Lightbourne stood up and gave a compelling speech.

“This is 1896. You’re not supposed to take up space as a Black man,” said Ann-Marie Henry, an archivist.

Years ago, Henry, a curious history lover, set out on a journey to make sure history no longer ignores one of Miami’s most founding fathers.

“He was too vocal for city leadership, so he was made to go away,” she discovered.

Even by today’s standards, Henry found that Lightbourne’s life was extraordinary. He was an educator, elected sergeant of arms for the state house in 1869, a justice of the peace in Gadsden County appointed by Governor Harrison Reed. Later, he became a founding member of Greater Bethel AME church in Overtown, with a building today bearing his name.

“He was pushing me to tell his story,” Henry believes. “He didn’t get to finish his story and he wanted me to finish telling his story so that’s maybe I found his descendants when no one else could do it.”

Henry found Lightbourne’s great, great granddaughter Alison who had just moved to Miami from Harlem, New York.

But Henry’s biggest “a-ha” moment came when she learned about a connection with former Miami Dade County Commissioner Barbara Jordan and Lightbourne’s wife, Mary Zigler.

“She told me about his brother, Robert Zigler” said Jordan, now 79 years old. “They lived for a time in Quincy, Fla. My father is from Quincy. And when she gave me the history, and she said names passed down from generation to generation, sure enough, the lineage is there. It’s beautiful.”

Henry said: “They knew nothing about who they were, and that I gave them a part of their history. It’s an honor. I feel it is just an honor.”

Jordan said while the street naming is a great start, there should be something in the City Commission . . . “Where they come back and say, ‘Let’s correct this, let’s acknowledge that this gentleman was a part of the incorporation of the city of Miami.’ "

About the Author:

Five-time Emmy Award-winning newscaster Calvin Hughes anchors WPLG-Local 10's 4, 5, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts.