The Black Archives History & Research Foundation

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By: Shayne Benowitz

Overtown is one of Miami’s most historic neighborhoods and the Black Archives History & Research Foundation of South Florida is dedicated to preserving its history and revitalizing the neighborhood. Located just northwest of Downtown Miami, the community was first established as a neighborhood that housed Black laborers working on construction projects for oil tycoon and railroad magnate Henry Flagler at the turn of the 20th century.

By the 1930s, the neighborhood hit its heyday – one that that would last through the 1950s – with a bustling music, culture and nightlife scene that rivaled the Harlem Renaissance. Often called the “Little Broadway of the South,” stars such as Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker not only performed in Overtown, but also spent the night because of segregation laws in Miami. Unable to stay the night in Miami Beach after a gig, they went “over town” to hotels in this predominantly Black neighborhood, thus earning its name.

In the 1960s, the Historic Overtown neighborhood experienced a sharp decline due to the construction of two major highways through its center, demolishing more than 20,000 homes and displacing more than 40,000 residents. The result was a population that dwindled to less than 10,000 in this area.

Lyric Entrance
Experience art & history at The Black Archives Historic Lyric Theater

The Black Archives & Historic Overtown's Revitalization

Founded in 1977 by Dr. Dorothy Jenkins, an archivist and historian, the mission of the Black Archives is to preserve the documentary and photographic history of Black South Florida and Miami, as well as to enrich the present and protect the future through the revitalization of Historic Overtown.

Its extensive archives include manuscript, typescript, print, machine readable, electronic media, photographs, microform, artwork and films. For the professional or amateur researcher or historian, the archives are open to the public by appointment. There’s also an extensive inventory of searchable material available online through their website.

Lyric Sign
Catch a performance at The Lyric Theater

Arts & Culture

The Black Archives acquired the historic Lyric Theater in 1988, spearheading its restoration and designation on the National Registry of Historic Places. It reopened to the public in 2014 with the addition of a Welcome Center Complex and art gallery. Originally constructed in 1913, the 400-seat theater was once the venue for countless shows by legendary performers.

Today, the theater produces a series of musical performances, including Lyric Live, which features a comedian, live band, DJ and Bahamian Junkanoo group. It also hosts visiting artists, and the entire space is available to rent for private events. “If These Streets Could Talk: A Visual Exploration of Black Miami,” is currently on exhibition through 2023 exploring the culture and legacy of Historic Overtown and Miami’s Black community.

The Black Archives also helped develop the Overtown Folklife Village, which runs along NW 3rd and 2nd avenues between 8th and 10th streets. Here, you’ll find Gibson Park, surrounded by the mural art of Purvis Young, Historic Overtown’s artist of the streets, with crosswalks painted in colorful designs. There’s also a community green space and playground near the Frederick Douglas Elementary School and the Culmer/Overtown Public Library branch.

oxtail
Make your heart & stomach happy at Jackson Soul Food

Where To Eat

While visiting the Black Archives and Lyric Theater, don’t miss the opportunity to dine in Historic Overtown. Established in 1946, Jackson Soul Food is one of the oldest restaurants in the area and a cornerstone of the community. This is where visiting dignitaries eat when they’re in the neighborhood, including President Joe Biden. Moore’s Grocery & Bakery is another neighborhood institution for cakes and homemade pies. And celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson recently opened an outpost of his iconic Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster.

Historic Churches

Historic Overtown’s churches are also thriving today, including Historic Mount Zion Baptist Church and St. John Baptist Church. The Black Archives hosts a variety of events and concerts in the neighborhood throughout the year at these institutions, many of them paying homage to local musical and cultural history while also looking forward to the future of this important Miami community.

mural
Don't miss murals celebrating Historic Overtown’s legendary visitors

Black Luminaries In Historic Overtown

In its heyday, Historic Overtown and its theaters played host to Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Sammie Davis Junior, Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and Lena Horne. Through the decades, distinguished African American intellectuals have visited the neighborhood, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., W.E.B. Dubois, author Zora Neale Hurston and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Sports celebrities, including Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson were all visitors to the bustling neighborhood.

Today, much of Historic Overtown’s rebirth and progress is thanks to the work of the Black Archives. It’s a thriving community steeped in history and culture with wonderful dining and entertainment destinations.

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