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 throwing a party.
And yes, there will be birthday cake.
Hampton Art Lovers, an African American arts support organization runs its art gallery in the Historic Ward Rooming House, is hosting the first Overtown Born Day Celebration on July 30. The party will include food, drinks, an art exhibition and performances by a local poet and band, said Chris Norwood, the Hampton Art Lovers founder and an alumnus of Hampton University, a historically Black university in Virginia.
The party is an opportunity for locals to both celebrate and learn about Overtown’s contributions, a part of Miami’s history that’s 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] deserves it,” Norwood said. “Because the pioneers that created Overtown are the pioneers that helped create Miami.”
The City of Miami was officially incorporated July 28, 1896. Overtown, which is within Miami’s city limits, was officially designated as 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 commemorated during the Born Day event.
About 44 percent of the signatures on Miami’s charter were from Black residents, an extraordinary accomplishment at the time, Norwood said. That same year, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court case that ruled in favor of segregation laws, was decided.
“Literally, there would be no city of Miami without Black folks,” Norwood said.
The Historic Ward Rooming House, a cornerstone in Overtown’s history, is a fitting venue for a celebration. The 1920’s hotel is a quaint, cream-colored, two-story building designed after Key West’s iconic homes. Despite its historical significance, the house can be easy to miss, especially if you’re driving to nearby restaurant Red Rooster.
A Bahamian couple who moved from Key West to Overtown built the hotel and provided room and board to Bahamian immigrants, rural African Americans on business trips and Native Americans who traveled to trade goods. The humble building was the only hotel that accepted people of color, Norwood said.
After it’s heyday, the building eventually fell into disrepair. The hotel was one of several buildings revamped and renovated by the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency, said executive director James McQueen. The celebration is part of the CRA’s vision for Overtown: better housing for longtime residents, new businesses and more arts programming.
“It feels real good,” McQueen said. “It really makes us feel like we are getting the real revitalization of Overtown.”
From hotel to gallery
The building was eventually repurposed as an art gallery and museum. Hampton Art Lovers took the helm in December 2018, and Norwood has been curating exhibitions and organizing events ever since.
“Starry Crown: Art of #BlackGirlMagic,” the latest exhibition on display at the gallery, is an ode to Black women. The show includes works from artists that Norwood referred to as “the masters of African American art in the last century,” like Elizabeth Catlett, Barkley Hendricks and John Biggers. The artworks range from a photographed portrait of a Sengalese woman wearing traditional patterned clothes to a framed graphic design of the costume for the Dora Milaje, the fictional Wakandan all-woman warriors, signed by the “Black Panther” costume designer, Ruth E. Carter.
“This show was curated to present portraiture of Black women, sculptures of Black women to show them in their most esteemed and regal manner,” Norwood said.
The show includes works from Norwood’s personal collection of signed, vintage art exhibition posters of famed Black American art
ists. The namesake of the exhibition is a poster promoting a pivotal African American art show from the 80s that was signed by Biggers’ himself.
In 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 actual “Starry Crown” piece, but it’s the next best thing, Norwood said.
Besides viewing the art show, guests will get to hear a performance from REMYZ, a genre-bending band with a throwback sound. The band members met at Miami Palmetto Senior High School as students and got their start skipping class to jam out together, said lead singer Avery Davis.
He said he hopes the band’s performance at the celebration can help spread awareness for Overtown’s culture and importance.
“We’re gonna get people dancing,” he said. “We’re gonna get down, and we’re gonna 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 her great-great-great grandfather Shaddrack Ward.
Roach, a fellow in poetry at Stanford University and recent University of Miami graduate, said she plans to perform a handful of poems about her family’s heritage and the “resiliency of Black folks 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 origins in the Bahamas. But after years of research and word-of-mouth storytelling, 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 Miami’s longtime Black residents are priced out of their neighborhoods, Roach said there are many families like hers who are “descended from Miami’s Black pioneers, and they don’t even know it.”
“We’re living history,” she said.
If you go
What: Overtown Born Day Celebration
When: July 30, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Where: Historic Ward Rooming House. 249 Northwest 9th Street, Miami
tory was produced with financial support from The Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.