Historic Ward Rooming House

Overtown

By: Shayne Benowitz

Crossing into Overtown from downtown Miami, visitors are greeted with a mural by Purvis Young on the overpass wall at NW 3rd Avenue and NW 11th Street. It reads “Welcome to Overtown” with shades of yellow, green, pink and blue depicting a neighborhood, as well as some of Young’s signature images, like wild horses and angels. Young is often considered the “unofficial historian of Overtown,” as his folk art verging on abstract expressionism, illustrates life in Miami’s inner city from the 1960s until his death in 2010 for all to see. He’s a symbol for the culture that lived on in this fractured neighborhood after two interstates were built through the middle of it, displacing more than 20,000 black residents in the 1960s.

Prior to that, Overtown was a thriving community once nicknamed “Little Broadway” thanks to the legendary performers who graced its theaters and nightclubs, including James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Ella Fitzgerald. Today, only a few buildings from the neighborhood’s heyday are still standing. The Lyric Theatre reopened in 2013 on its centennial. It’s the oldest theater in Miami and the sight of many legendary performances. Another piece of Overtown history is the Ward Rooming House. Built in 1925 by Shaddrack and Victoria Ward, it served as a resting place and safe haven for both blacks and Native Americans.

Visitor Center & Gallery

The Black Archives History & Research Foundation is on a mission to preserve and revitalize Overtown and they’ve worked closely with the city to restore the Ward Rooming House. It was designated a historic site by the City of Miami in 2006. Today, it acts as the official Visitor Center of Overtown and also houses a gallery and exhibition hall. Its location at 249 NW 9th Street is central to the shopping, dining and entertainment district that Overtown is redeveloping today.

Event Space

With its gallery and exhibition space, the Ward Rooming House often hosts events bringing the community together and sharing it with visitors. The Black Archives puts on a monthly Expressions event, featuring music and entertainment. In April, to celebrate National Poetry Month, Expressions was hosted by poet and spoken word artist Rebecca “Butterfly” Vaughns. The evening featured other local spoken word poets, open mic, live jazz and neo-soul music and a DJ set. Drawing on the culinary heritage of the neighborhood, Jackson’s Soul Food catered the event with a special chicken and waffles dinner. The venue allows for both indoor and outdoor programming, and the Black Archives knows how to take full advantage of the space for a dynamic night of culture and entertainment.

The Overtown Rhythm & Arts Festival is an annual event, now in its third year, anchored by the Ward Rooming House Visitor’s Center and the surrounding blocks on NW 3rd Ave. between NW 9th and 11th St. It’s an all day free festival in late June showcasing music, art, food and an interactive children’s village. The festival is a celebration of the community’s rich musical history.

Overtown Folklife Village

While the Ward Rooming House serves as a reminder of Overtown’s history, it’s also a symbol for the future. Its location in the heart of the Overtown Folklife positions it at the epicenter of commerce and activity in the community today. The village was conceived by the Black Archives as a pedestrian-friendly stretch of blocks, full of shopping, dining and sightseeing. Explore the mural art of Purvis Young at the Culmer/Overtown Public Library, close to the beautifully landscaped Gibson Park. The crosswalks are painted in colorful designs, as well, and there’s a community garden nearby.

Dine at Jackson’s Soul Food for a not-to-be-missed meal combining the flavors of the American South and the Caribbean in this legendary restaurant. Other classic spots to eat include People’s Bar-B-Que, Jerry & Joe’s Pizza and Moore’s Grocery & Bakery.

For shopping, stop by Moselle’s Boutique, Remix Apparel and a variety of barbershops for an authentic experience. Other historical sights, aside from the Ward Rooming House and the Lyric Theater, include Historic Mount Zion Baptist Church, St. John Baptist Church and the Black Police Precinct & Courthouse Museum.

Overtown is a neighborhood with a rich history in the midst of revitalization. Thanks to the ongoing work of the Black Archives, and other groups, like the Overtown Rhythm & Arts Festival and the Overtown Music Project, its rich history is being celebrated today in order to preserve it for generations to come.

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