Overtown

Final phase of upgrades finished at Overtown’s historic Lyric Theater

 

Special to The Miami Herald

At the beginning of the 20th century, before the United States entered World War I, Overtown’s original Lyric Theater building was described in a 1915 advertisement as,” possibly the most beautiful and costly playhouse owned by colored people in all the Southland.” The theater was built for silent movies — cowboy flicks were especially popular —traveling troupes and vaudeville shows. It served as a symbol of black economic influence, culture, entertainment and job opportunities.

One hundred years later, at the beginning of the 21st century, the historic Lyric Theater has evolved into the premiere venue for black culture in South Florida. Now adjacent to the theater is the Black Archives headquarters, offices and Welcome Center, creating an arts and humanities complex for tourists, visitors and residents. The theater is open to the public and provides opportunities for film-makers, dancers, rappers, musicians, and spoken-word artists. Parties, family and class reunions, plays, receptions, weddings, other social and civic events can be hosted there at 819 NW Second Ave.

Timothy Barber, a graduate of Miami Central Senior High School and Florida A&M University, is the Executive Director of the historic Lyric Theater, Black Archives and Welcome Center complex. The historic Lyric Theater is an Outreach Program of The Black Archives. Tickets for upcoming events may be purchased online at www.theblackarchives.org. For more information, email lyriclive@theblackarchives.org or call 305-636-2390.

My research shows that Overtown’s pioneer businessmen would be proud of the ambitious programs planned by Barber and his staff. When the Colored Board of Trade organized in Miami’s Colored Town, now known as Overtown, entrepreneurs including D. A. Dorsey and Dr. William B. Sawyer also had a strong desire to succeed. They owned numerous parcels of land and several hotels. Other members owned businesses and real estate in Coconut Grove, Lemon City, Liberty City, Perrine and throughout Dade County, in areas with without restrictive clauses in deeds.

The 1915 ad’s banner headline read, “Colored Town Section of the City of Miami is a Thriving Community.” Each column was filled with pride, describing numerous successful businesses located then in Colored Town. They existed in spite of the humiliation of legal segregation under Jim Crow. The black community developed in spite of limitations. The ad and other documents reflect strong civic satisfaction and value in various activities in business, school, church, fraternities and other societies. Overtown evolved a distinct “sense of place.” The atmosphere encouraged tourists to relocate to Miami.

The ad gives special praise to Geder Walker, the businessman who built the Lyric Theater “for providing the community with such a beautiful building for pleasure.” Walker, a man of little or no education, owned considerable real estate and several businesses. His wife, Henrietta, was known as being fashionable, wearing long fancy dresses and bouffant wigs. Walker and his wife lived on Northwest Eighth Street, southeast of Avenue G (now Northwest Second Avenue). Before World War I, they traveled to France.

When the Walkers returned to Miami they bragged about the European sites visited, especially the Opera House of Paris. Intrigued by its architecture and grandeur Walker created in Overtown his version of the opera house in Miami’s Overtown. Built in 1913, the Lyric Theater opened in 1914. The ad boasted that the theater was equipped with everything needed for modern theatrical performances of that day and it was managed and operated by residents. Walker added an ice cream parlor and café next door in 1919. The exterior of the original theater, made of brown stone and reinforced concrete, and the interior compared favorably with the big theaters in other metropolitan cities.

The historic Lyric Theater is Miami-Dade County’s oldest movie and performing-arts theater, followed by the downtown Olympia at the Gusman Performing Arts Center built in 1925.

After Geder Walker’s death, his widow, Henrietta, inherited the theater and continued to hire residents for management and operations. She added talent shows, the Mickey Mouse Club and other programs for children. During the 1930s, the Great Depression affected all segments of life. Movies and programs at the Lyric Theater nearly came to a halt. At the end of World War II business picked up when groups of actors, singers and dancers booked performances.

Upon the death of Henrietta Walker, Wometco Enterprises purchased the Lyric for its chain of movie theaters. In the 1960s, a church, the House of Prayer for All People, bought the theater and held services there for nearly a decade. The church congregation founded by Bishop C. M. Grace, also known as”Daddy Grace,” developed a religious empire that was known for feeding, clothing and elevating the poor.

When a new church was built in another part of Miami, the Lyric Theater site stood vacant for many years. In the 1970s, the doors hung open and the inside was used as a dump for discarded furniture, garbage and mattresses piled high. Even with half a roof, some people used it as shelter.

In 1974 I was a Dade County school librarian and reading teacher preparing for America’s Bicentennial. Looking for book jackets from biographies and autobiographies written by local blacks, I was told that the downtown library only had a folder with obituaries about black people. The answer given: “I guess those people have not thought enough of themselves to write their history.” Shocked and in disbelief that anyone would think this, I made the answer a personal challenge.

Looking for evidence on how to document generations of pride, I returned to graduate school earning certification in archives administration, training in historic preservation and a degree in public history. I established the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida in 1977, saved the Lyric Theater from the wrecking ball, led the Black Archives Board to purchase the Lyric in 1988 and began Phase I restoration. The theater reopened in March 2000. Once a drummer at the Lyric, Clyne Killens, Overtown’s entertainment entrepreneur made program suggestions.

The need for dressing rooms and expanded lobby led to the construction of a Welcome Center in 2005, completing phase II. As the potential for programming continued to develop, we added rigging and an expanded stage, more dressing rooms, a loading dock and banquet rooms, and we moved the Black Archives collection and offices, all as part of the final Phase III.

During a recent visit, I saw many young people from the neighborhood stop by to inquire about jobs. Some are already working at the theater with “Expressions” and “Lyric Live,” two signature programs. The multifaceted cultural complex can provide job opportunities and nurture careers for diverse current and future generations. Sponsors include the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency, Miami-Dade County, The Knight Foundation, Coca-Cola, Macy’s, The Design Group, and Miami & Drummer Boy Sound. Pride will only carry the program so far, increased community and corporate support is needed to continue this important work. For more information on The Black Archives of South Florida visit www.theblackarchives.org.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to djf@bellsouth.net.

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