Overtown, Miami’s historic black neighborhood, has never celebrated its birthday. This week, 126 years later, a local art gallery is throwing a party at an old hotel that served people of color.
And yes, there will be birthday cake.
Hampton Art Lovers, an African American arts patronage organization that operates its art gallery in the Historic Ward Rooming House, is hosting the first Overtown Born Day Celebration on July 30. The party includes food, drinks, an art exhibit and performances by a local poet and band, said Chris Norwood, founder of Hampton Art Lovers and a graduate of Hampton University, a historically black university in Virginia.
The party is an opportunity for locals to both celebrate and learn about the contributions of Overtown, a part of Miami history that’s often overlooked, Norwood said. Hampton Art Lovers has celebrated Miami’s birthday at the Ward Rooming House in the past, but this year it’s all about Overtown.
“[Overtown] deserves it,” Norwood said. “Because the pioneers who created Overtown are also the pioneers who helped create Miami.”
The city of Miami was officially incorporated on July 28, 1896. Overtown, which is within Miami city limits, has been officially designated a segregated black neighborhood, Norwood said. At the time, Miami needed its black residents to sign the charter in order to have enough male voters to incorporate the city. The first person to sign the charter was Silas Austin, a black man from Overtown who will be memorialized during the Born Day event.
About 44 percent of signatures on Miami’s charter came from black residents, an extraordinary achievement at the time, Norwood said. That same year, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court case that ruled in favor of segregation laws, was decided.
“Without black people, there would literally be no city of Miami,” Norwood said.
A cornerstone in Overtown’s history, the Historic Ward Rooming House is a fitting place for a celebration. The 1920’s hotel is a quaint, cream colored, two story building modeled after the famous Key West homes. Despite its historical importance, the house can easily be overlooked, especially if you drive to the nearby Red Rooster restaurant.
A Bahamian couple who had moved to Overtown from Key West built the hotel and provided lodging and meals to Bahamian immigrants, rural African Americans on business trips, and Native Americans traveling to trade goods. The modest building was the only hotel that accepted people of color, Norwood said.
After its heyday, the building eventually fell into disrepair. The hotel was one of several buildings remodeled and renovated by the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency, Executive Director James McQueen said. The celebration is part of the CRA’s vision for Overtown: better housing for longtime residents, new businesses and more arts programs.
“It feels really good,” McQueen said. “It really makes us feel like we’re getting the real Overtown revival.”
From the hotel to the gallery
The building was eventually repurposed as an art gallery and museum. Hampton Art Lovers took over the helm in December 2018 and Norwood has been curating exhibitions and organizing events since then.
Starry Crown: Art of #BlackGirlMagic, the gallery’s newest exhibition, is an ode to black women. The exhibition features works by artists whom Norwood called “masters of African American art of the last century,” including Elizabeth Catlett, Barkley Hendricks and John Biggers. The artwork ranges from a photographed portrait of a Sengalese woman wearing traditional patterned clothing to a framed graphic design of the costume for the Dora Milaje, the fictional all-female warriors from Wakandan, signed by Black Panther costume designer Ruth E. carter .
“This exhibition has been curated to present portraits of black women, sculptures of black women to show them in their most respected and regal way,” Norwood said.
The exhibition features works from Norwood’s personal collection of signed vintage art exhibition posters by famous black American artists. The show’s namesake is a poster promoting a landmark 1980s African-American art show, autographed by Biggers himself.
The poster features Biggers’ ‘Starry Crown’, an artistic piece depicting three women – a young woman, an elderly woman and an ancient spirit – weaving together. It’s not the actual Starry Crown track, but it’s the next best thing, Norwood said.
Besides touring the art exhibition, guests can hear a performance by REMYZ, a cross-genre band with a retro sound. The band members met as students at Miami Palmetto Senior High School and began skipping class to jam together, lead singer Avery Davis said.
He said he hopes the band’s performance at the celebration can help raise awareness of Overtown’s culture and importance.
“We’re going to make people dance,” he said. “We’re going to come down and we’re going to represent.”
Alongside REMYZ there will be a performance by Christell Victoria Roach, a poet with a special connection to the Ward Rooming House. The hotel was built by her great-great-great-grandfather, Shaddrack Ward.
Roach, a poetry fellow at Stanford University and a recent graduate of the University of Miami, said she plans to perform a handful of poems about her family’s legacy and “the resilience of black people in Miami.” A celebration in Overtown’s honor is long overdue, she said.
Growing up in Miami, where everyone seems to hail from somewhere else, Roach said she feels disconnected from her family’s Bahamas origins. But after years of research and word-of-mouth, she feels “rooted” in the neighborhood her ancestors helped build.
“I’m grateful to Overtown because it gave me my roots,” she said. “It gave me my story when I thought I didn’t have one.”
As Miami’s longtime black residents are forced out of their neighborhoods, Roach said there are many families like hers who “descended from Miami’s black pioneers, and they don’t even know it.”
“We live history,” she said.
when you go
What: Birthday party in Overtown
When: July 30, 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m
Where: Historic Ward Rooming House. 249 Northwest 9th Street, Miami
The information: Free for the public. https://www.eventbrite.com/e/hampton-art-lovers-presents-overtown-born-day-birthday-celebration-tickets-385894419597
This story was produced as part of an independent journalism grant program with financial support from the Pérez Family Foundation in association with Journalism Funding Partners. The Miami Herald retains full editorial control of this work.