Thanks to Dr. Dorothy Jenkins Fields, the cultural heritage of the African American community of Miami was collected and now has a home in the Black Archives. Dr. Fields, a Miami-born public school teacher and librarian, was surprised at the lack of local black history material available for research when she was preparing her Miami students for the bicentennial. She began researching her own family history and then collecting oral histories of older African Americans from Overtown. In 1977 she founded the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation to establish a photographic and manuscript repository for the African American community of Miami, and to identify and preserve historic Overtown sites.
Looking to better the economic situation for their families, black workers from the Bahamas and the Southern states came to build the railroad, the hotels, and streets of Miami in the late 1800s. Their assigned living area, “Colored Town”, was just north and west of Miami, and on the other side of the railroad tracks. Later called Overtown, it is one of the oldest communities in the Miami area. Despite the Jim Crow laws and all the challenges this community faced, Miami’s Colored Town developed to a vibrant and thriving center of commerce and entertainment.
Many businesses were owned and operated by blacks. Blacks from Coconut Grove and Lemon City, as well as Seminoles, would go “over town” – to Colored Town -to shop or trade. Businesses, schools, churches, and libraries flourished. There were fine restaurants and several first-class hotels, as well as many nightclubs. The Lyric Theater, built and operated in 1913 by Overtown resident Geder Walker, was described in the Miami Metropolis in 1915 as “possibly the most beautiful and costly playhouse owned by colored people in all the Southland.” This vibrant area, known as “Little Broadway”, was frequented by blacks and whites to enjoy the entertainment and exotic foods.
Legendary entertainers, like Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, and so many more, would cross over the railroad tracks to stay at Overtown hotels after performing in Miami Beach because they were not allowed to lodge in Miami Beach (or in any white community for that matter.) Clyde Killens, Overtown resident and entertainment promoter, would book these performers at Overtown clubs and at the Lyric Theater. Some Overtown hotels had their own clubs. The fashionable Mary Elizabeth Hotel, where many dignitaries stayed, had the Flamingo Room and the Zebra Lounge. Another hot spot was the Sir John Hotel and its Knight Beat Club. Nights in Overtown were jamming to some of the best music of the times. Black luminaries like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. DuBois would also frequent Overtown. Miami’s Colored Town was experiencing its own social and artistic explosion like the Harlem Renaissance.
In the 1960s Overtown experienced serious decline as a result of urban renewal. The construction of two expressways tore apart the community; its population plummeted. Businesses, including the Lyric Theater, were shuttered and remained so for decades.
In the late 1980s Overtown began a redevelopment, partially due to the newly constructed Miami Arena just blocks away, and the development of Miami’s new rail transit systems. Through Dr. Fields’ work, the community of Overtown was designated a National Trust “Main Street” community and is now officially named the Historic Overtown Folklife Village. In 1988 the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation bought the Lyric Theater, rescuing it for reconstruction. Efforts to restore other historic sites followed. The 1915 Dorsey House, home of one of the first black millionaires, Dana A. Dorsey, has been rebuilt and is open to the public. Dorsey, son of former slaves, came from Georgia around 1896 to work as a carpenter for Flagler’s East Coast Railway. Recognizing the housing need for black workers, he bought land for rent and reinvested on more land. At one point he owned the barrier island now known as Fisher Island which he wanted to turn into a “colored resort.”
The Ward Rooming House, a 1925 home for blacks and Native Americans, has also been restored and designated a historic site.
The Black Archives collection provides a rich repository of African American culture from 1896 to present. It occupies two vaults in the Historic Lyric Theater complex, and one off-site. Oral histories, manuscripts, the Dr. Dorothy Jenkins Fields Papers, photographs, LPs, local newspapers, yearbooks, and artifacts are just some of the many diverse materials that can be found here. The Clyde Killens Papers include documents and memorabilia from the 1930s to 1960s nightlife scene, including lovely 8×10 b&w portrait photographs of entertainers, like Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Billie Holiday, and many more. The Clyde Killens and Sammie Rabin Billboard Collection contains 116 brightly colored billboards (approx. 4 ft. tall) commissioned by Killens and created by Sam Rabin advertising Overtown shows. The Archives also hold over 400 pieces of art by Overtown artist Purvis Young – some are on display at the Dorsey House.
A more somber holding is that of one of the two crosses burned by the KKK in front of the Miami Shores Community Church in 1949. The crosses were torched the night before Brotherhood Sunday when Rev. Edward T. Graham, pastor of the historic Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Overtown, was scheduled to speak. Another cross was burned in front of Rev. Graham’s home. Telephone threats were received by Miami Shores pastor Donald Douds resulting in the cancelation of the event. But Douds, who had invited Rev. Graham with the support of the majority of his board, persevered with his vision – and eventually he prevailed. A year later, Rev Graham did preach at the Miami Shores church to a large congregation. Douds published an article reflecting on the events: “It Happened in Florida,” published in The Christian Century, May 31, 1950. He states: “As a few who loved prejudice more than their church left, scores replaced them, over 50 joining in the first two months. In the year which has passed since the action, 140 new members have joined the church.”
Today the Black Archives Historic Lyric Theater Cultural Arts Complex is at the heart of the Historic Overtown Folklife Village. It provides exhibitions, adult and youth programming, and cultural experiences, as well as empowering the community through training and assistance in career paths in the arts and cultural events. The adjacent African-themed Ninth Street Pedestrian Mall offers year-round events including family and class reunions, and festivals. The cultural heritage of Miami’s African American community has been preserved and continues today thanks to Dr. Fields’ vision, and the ongoing work of the Black Archives, other organizations and volunteers.
Historic Lyric Theater Cultural Arts Complex
819 NW Second Ave.