Overtown, Miami’s historic black neighborhood, has never celebrated its birthday. This week, 126 years later, a local art gallery based in an old hotel that served people of color is having a party.
And yes, there will be a birthday cake.
Hampton Art Lovers, an African-American arts support organization, operates its art gallery in the Historic Ward Rooming House, hosts Overtown’s first Born Day celebration on July 30. The party will include food, drink, an art exhibit and performances by a local poet and band, said Chris Norwood, the founder of Hampton Art Lovers and an alumnus of Hampton University, a historically black from Virginia.
The holiday is a chance for locals to celebrate and learn about the contributions of Overtown, a part of Miami’s history that is often overlooked, Norwood said. Hampton Art Lovers had celebrated Miami’s birthday at the Ward Rooming House in the past, but this year it’s all about Overtown.
“[Overtown] merit,” Norwood said. “Because the pioneers who created Overtown are the pioneers who helped create Miami.”
The City of Miami was officially incorporated on July 28, 1896. Overtown, which is within Miami’s city limits, was officially designated as a separate 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 commemorated on the Born Day event.
About 44% 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, has been decided.
“Literally, there would be no city of Miami without black people,” Norwood said.
The Historic Ward Rooming House, a cornerstone of Overtown’s history, is an ideal place for a celebration. The 1920s hotel is a quaint two-story cream-colored building modeled after iconic Key West homes. Despite its historical significance, the house can be easy to miss, especially if you’re heading to the nearby Red Rooster restaurant.
A Bahamian couple who moved from Key West to Overtown built the hotel and provided room and board for Bahamian immigrants, rural African Americans on business trips, and Native Americans traveling to trade goods. The humble 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 redeveloped and renovated by the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency, executive director James McQueen said. The celebration is part of ARC’s vision for Overtown: better housing for long-time residents, new businesses and more arts programs.
“It feels really good,” McQueen said. “It really makes us feel like we’re getting the real revitalization of Overtown.”
From hotel to gallery
The building was eventually redeveloped as an art gallery and museum. Hampton Art Lovers took the helm in December 2018, and Norwood has been hosting exhibitions and events ever since.
“Starry Crown: Art of #BlackGirlMagic”, the latest exhibition presented at the gallery, is an ode to black women. The exhibit includes works by artists Norwood has called “masters of African-American art of the last century,” such as Elizabeth Catlett, Barkley Hendricks and John Biggers. Artwork ranges from a photographed portrait of a Senegalese woman wearing traditional patterned clothing to a framed graphic design of Dora Milaje’s costume, the fictional warrior women of Wakandan, signed by “Black Panther” costume designer Ruth E Carter.
“This exhibit was curated to feature portraits of black women, sculptures of black women to show them in their most esteemed and regal ways,” Norwood said.
The exhibit includes works from Norwood’s personal collection of vintage art exhibition posters signed by famous Black American artists. The exhibit’s namesake is a poster promoting a landmark 1980s African-American art exhibit that was signed by Biggers himself.
Featured on the poster is Biggers’ “Starry Crown,” an elaborate piece that depicts three women – a young woman, an older woman and an ancient spirit – weaving together. It’s not the true “Starry Crown” coin, but it’s the next best thing, Norwood said.
In addition to viewing the art exhibit, guests will be able to hear a performance by REMYZ, a genre band with retro sound. The band members met at Miami Palmetto Senior High School when they were college students and started skipping class to jam together, lead singer Avery Davis said.
He said he hoped the band’s performance at the celebration would help spread awareness of Overtown’s culture and significance.
“We’re going to make people dance,” he said. “We’re going down and we’re going to represent.”
Alongside REMYZ will be a performance by Christell Victoria Roach, a poet with a special connection to the Ward Rooming House. The hotel was built by his great-great-great-grandfather Shaddrack Ward.
Roach, a poetry fellow at Stanford University and recent graduate of the University of Miami, said she plans to perform a handful of poems about her family’s legacy and “black resilience in Miami.” . A celebration dedicated to Overtown is long overdue, she said.
Growing up in Miami, where everyone seems to be from somewhere else, Roach said she felt disconnected from her family’s roots in the Bahamas. But after years of research and word-of-mouth accounts, she feels “deeply rooted” in the neighborhood her ancestors helped establish.
“I’m grateful to Overtown because it gave me my roots,” she said. “It gave me my story when I didn’t think I had one.”
As longtime black Miami residents are pushed out of their neighborhoods, Roach said there are many families like his who “are descended from the black pioneers of Miami, and they don’t even know it.”
“We live history,” she said.
If you are going to
What: Celebrating the day of the born above the city
When: July 30, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Where: Historic neighborhood rooming house. 249 9th Street NW, Miami
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 with the financial support of the Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism grant program. The Miami Herald retains full editorial control of this work.