Black Archives revives cultural arts at Ward Gallery
By Derek Joy
It was cultural arts get down in Miami’s Overtown.
Music – live and recorded – wrapped around creative presentations of the spoken word came alive beneath a waxing Super Moon.
And so it was . . . an evening at the Ward Rooming House and Tourist Gallery. A dynamic program of entertainment presented by the Black Archives under the theme, “EXPRESSIONS” – an evening of Spoken Word and Live Jazz.
“This is a part of the program we will have at the Lyric Theater, a monthly spoken word program. The Ward House is a part of the Lyric Theater. It’s owned by the Overtown CRA and managed by the Black Archives, “said Kamila Pritchett, development coordinator of Miami’s Black Archives.
“It’s bringing arts and culture back to Overtown. This is a taste of what we’re going to have.”
DJ Bama opened the evening with his unique blend of recorded hit tunes from the distant and not too distant past. Jody Hill and The Deep Fried Funk Band enhanced the opening with its performance.
Then came the presentations of Rebecca “Butterfly” Vaughns, Bertrand Boyd II, Camelia “red Writing Hood” Brown and Bird Sanders. Each put on a show, as did the musical entertainers.
“In case you are not aware, Overtown was the place to be for entertainment,” said Rebecca “Butterfly” Vaughns, a 1990 graduate of Miami Northwestern, who has excelled as a spoken word artist since 2002.
“We have a powerhouse of poets who are going to take you on a ride emotionally, mentally, creatively and physically.”
Passersby could only enjoy a portion of what the audience embraced in and outside of the Ward House, whose walls are adorned with an artistic display of photographs of entertainers who appeared in the night clubs that once brought the social scene alive in Overtown.
Billie Holliday, Nat King Cole, Patti LaBelle and the Blue Bells, Etta James, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Dionne Warwick, Sam and Dave, Mary Welles and others were just a few of the artists who appeared in Overtown.
Yes, they were the big names that who appeared at such hot spots as the Harlem Square, the Night Beat, Club Calvert and the Island Club among others. Many stayed at the famed St. John’s Hotel and Mary Elizabeth Hotel.
“Basically, we found different pictures of the night life in Overtown,” said Ryan Smith, an archivists for the Black Archives. “Overtown was considered the Harlem of the South in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. We’re trying to bring back the cohesiveness of Overtown.”
As conveyed in photographs and newspaper articles on the walls of the Ward House, “The hub of entertainment and class. Overtown was the place to see and be seen.”
Smith, like Pritchett, said the credit for this kind of success belongs to Timothy Barber, executive director of the Black Archives.
Barber and his staff are bringing to fruition the work started by Dr. Dorothy Jenkins Fields – an Overtown native – when she founded the Black Archives in 1979, while working as a social studies teacher for the Miami Dade Public Schools.
This night, which was marketed by the Circle of One, incorporated efforts beyond the obvious of cultural arts. It was an economic infusion as the Black Archives employed neighborhood residents for security, parking attendants and cleanup crews.
Jackson’s Soul Food prepared the meal, while Heavenly Hands Catering and Dazzling Divas Delight Costume jewelry were special guest vendors.
Smith’s mother, Errolee Burrows Smith, a retired educator, added a bit of detached perspective to the evening.
“They have a monthly program called Community Conversations. I always come. I like it. I think it gets you in touch with your roots, your culture, especially for people who grew up over here. I wish they did something like this in Liberty City.”