On Saturday, July 19th, with a full tank of gas, I grabbed a friend and headed down to the 4th Annual Overtown Music & Arts Festival (OMAF). One of Miami’s earliest historically black communities, Overtown grew and developed into a vibrant town. The Overtown Music and Arts Festival presented an opportunity to celebrate the area’s rich heritage.
Established in 1896, Overtown area’s first settlers were black workmen who followed Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast (FEC) railroad south as it was extended from Palm Beach to Miami. The locations designated for black workers were assigned by law and restricted to “every person having one-eighth or more African or Negro blood.” For more than 50 years, black workers arriving from Southern States, the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and other areas throughout the Western Hemisphere were the primary work force in Miami.
In its heyday, black entertainers made their way across the railroad tracks to Overtown’s hotels and nightclubs. Residents enjoyed “jam sessions” by Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Aretha Franklin. The community flourished. Most of the goods and services were produced by residents. The area was frequented by black & white tourists alike, fine restaurants, a privately owned tennis court and several first-class hotels all called Overtown home. The Mary Elizabeth Hotel was “host to such notables as United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; Congressman Adam Clayton Powell; labor leader A. Phillip Randolph; educator, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune; Dr. Carter G. Woodson, and W E B. DuBois“.
Today, the lone surviving building in the district known as “Little Broadway” is the Lyric Theater, a 400-seat theater built in 1913 by Geder Walker. Once a month, the Lyric hosts Lyric Live, a variety show similar to The Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night at the Apollo MC’ed by comedian Chello with music by the Deep Fried Funk Band.
Upon arriving at OMAF, the streets were already lined with vendors selling conch salads, conch fritters, ribs, barbecue, refreshments, art, fashion accessories, etc. People mingled about dancing, talking, and all baking underneath the South Florida sun. With a line-up that featured Teedra Moses, Jaguar Wright, R&B singer Case, Keke Wyatt and Grammy nominated soul singer Raheem Devaughn and others… we were happy to bake.
Additional photos from the 2014 Overtown Music & Art Fest can be found on Storify.
- Paying A Local Price For I-95’s Global Promise (NPR)
- Overtown’s Heyday (Miami-Herald)
- Miami’s Overtown: A Celebrated Past (Learning From Miami)
- Institute for Public History Communities: Overtown (University of Miami)
- Ten Great Moments in Black Miami’s Music History (Miami New Times)
- Tracing Overtown’s Vernacular Architecture (FIU)
- Whitney Houston at the Lyric Theater (The Black Archives)
- Overtown Music & Arts Festival | Celebrating Its Rich Music History (OUCHGirlBlog)