By Nelson Underdew
Photos by Ronald Lyons
A prominent piece of Pompano Beach Black History was revisited on last Wednesday.
The historic Ali Building, a fixture in the community of Pompano and a powerful symbol and reminder of the resonant African American history of South Florida, was reopened with new purpose after decades of vacancy.
The Ali Building was built in 1933 and is located at 357 Hammondville Road (now also Martin Luther King Boulevard) in Pompano Beach. The house was built, owned, and occupied by Frank and Florence Major Ali, an affluent Black couple who had emigrated to Pompano Beach from Cuba and The Bahamas respectively.
Frank Ali first used the two story property as a barbershop as well as a residence. Florence Ali was a skilled seamstress and fashion designer and also operated her business out of the home.
Florence, however, wanted to give Blacks in Broward much more than just hand crafted clothes and haircuts.
During World War II she established the Negro Beauticians of Broward County and successfully lobbied to have county appointed Black inspectors of hair salons and barbershops. She also insisted upon using her own home, affectionately referred to as the Ali Building by neighborhood residents, as a boarding house for Black travelers who couldn’t find lodging in the then segregated state of Florida.
The Ali Building housed famous performers such as dancer Bill Robinson, and trumpeter Louis Armstrong during their visits in Jim Crow’s South Florida.
The Ali couple divorced in 1953. Frank and Florence died in 1966 and 1982 at the ages of 59 and 84 respectively. The Ali Building has remained vacated since the late 70s.
Fast forward to 2007, when a Ms. Hazel K. Armbrister refused to let the history of the Ali Building be destroyed by corporate interests and government short sightedness.
“Pompano Beach decided that it was going to do community redevelopment,” Armbrister recalls “one day I was across the street, [from The Ali Bulding] and I saw the orange netting they use when they’re about to tear something down, and I said Oh my God! They can’t tear it down!
So I went down to [Pompano Beach] City Hall and got a hearing with the city manager and told him you can’t tear it down.”
Armbrister is the president of the Rock Road Restoration Historical group, an organization dedicated to preservation of Broward county’s Black History. Her efforts delayed the demolition of the Ali Building long enough for a partnership between herself and the Pompano Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) to come up with a new plan for the historic structure.
The Ali Building has been completely renovated and will be reopened as the Ali Cultural Arts Center, a multipurpose venue, which will simultaneously serve as a museum to commemorate the history of the building and the community, an educational center where classes will be taught to the children of Pompano with a specific focus on the Arts, and an outdoor performance space which will host concerts and events as it was demonstrated during Wednesday’s soft opening for media and invited guests.
Performers included the Earthquake Percussion section of the Blanche Ely High School Marching Band, appropriately named as the booming from their drums rattled the foundation of the Ali Building as the house itself seemed to dance with the excitement of enjoying the company of its first guests in over 30 years. The opening was headlined by Josh Miles and The Sweet Somethings, a soul and jazz band from Dallas, Tex.
“There will be a community room, with artwork displayed exclusively by artist in this com-munity” said Drew Tucker, a percussionist and the director of the Ali Cultural Arts Center. “There will be dance classes for kids here.”
Tucker continued with his arms spread out wide across the space he was describing; a large room on the bottom level of the building, with beautiful oak finished floors that seem to beg for the tapping and twirling of children rehearsing a dance.
The walls of the Ali Building
are now adorned by beautiful paintings done by local artist, Alice Jones. Among the paint-ings is a massive and stunning portrait of Frank and Florence Ali, a more than appropriate reminder of the origins of the service that building provides.
“This is exciting!” exclaimed Pompano Beach Mayor Lamar Fisher “This is a once in a life-time opportunity to bring cultural arts to our community.”
The Grand opening of The Ali Center will be on November 5th and will include live music, refreshments, and tours of the building.
“If the Alis were to see what has become of their home, I think they would be satisfied,” said Armbrister with a smile.
After a long, rich, and tumultuous history that includes settlement and development, residence and prominence, absence and near riddance, The Ali Building of Pompano Beach will see its own preservation and restoration, and ignite the rejuvenation of the community that it served for over 80 years.