In 1950s Miami, music bridged the racial divide

Ruth Greenfield’s family moved to Miami from Key West when she was 6 months old, but she still calls herself a Conch. It makes sense. Beneath the polished exterior of the Paris-trained pianist, Greenfield, 88, is a renegade, a civil rights pioneer who bridged the racial divide — with music.

In 1953, long before Miami was integrated, Greenfield founded what historians believe was the first interracial school for the arts in Florida. The Fine Arts Conservatory offered music classes — and eventually dance, drama and visual arts — to black and white students together, taught by black and white teachers. Greenfield established it with help from the mother of James Ford, a young black piano student from Overtown. Six decades later, she and Ford remain close.

At the time, Greenfield’s color-blind approach to music was considered scandalous. She was blackballed by many local music societies. But even now, she talks about those days with more bewilderment than anger. Of segregation, she says simply, “I didn’t care for it.”

She grew up in a well-off Miami household with a black, live-in housekeeper. It was only during Sunday visits to her grandparents’ Spring Garden home — the house she lives in today — that she caught glimpses of another world across the railroad tracks in the neighborhood white people called Colored Town, now Overtown.

“We’d come over here, and I would glance at the town that was fairly secret to me,” she recalls, her posture still concert-pianist straight in a flowing red blouse and matching red necklace. “And the women had big water buckets, and they were washing and drying all of the white people’s clothes.”

She studied piano from the age of 5, eventually with well-known New York pianist and composer Mana-Zucca Cassel, who had moved to Miami. By the time Greenfield graduated from Miami Beach High in 1941 – a time when “girls weren’t expected to have titles, unless it was Miss or Mrs.,” she recalled in a 2010 speech — she knew she wanted something more.

After two years at the University of Miami, she left to pursue music at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Those were transformative years for her. She studied with the great pianist Arthur Schnabel. And she dated a young black man from Jamaica, a college classmate. (“My friends almost threw me away.”)

She taught piano at the University of Miami before leaving again, this time for Paris, to study composition with the legendary Nadia Boulanger, whose students included Aaron Copland and Astor Piazzolla.

The city was a revelation with regard to race.

“When I got to Paris it was 1949, and it was so natural that everybody was mixed, and I thought, My gosh, what is it that I lost out on when I was younger?”

There, she married Arnold Greenfield, an attorney and friend of her brother’s from Miami who loved to paint, cook and listen to her play the piano. (A portrait painted by her late husband depicts her with her “favorite things,” she says with a laugh — “chocolate and wine.”)

In Paris they lived in an integrated society with a circle of black friends. At their wedding, Greenfield’s maid of honor was a black pianist from Tennessee. When the couple returned to segregated Miami, she remembers thinking, “Gee, what is this? I don’t think it’s right. So let’s start something.”

As always for Greenfield, music was the vehicle.

Ford, the student from Overtown, had begun studying piano at 5, with his grandmother, but quickly outgrew her lessons. His mother, a high school principal, wanted to enroll him in the Miami Conservatory of Music, but “They weren’t accepting colored, or Negroes,” he says, sitting across from Greenfield in her living room.

Then one summer, while his mother, Mary Ford Williams, was pursuing a master’s degree at Columbia University in New York, he had a chance to study piano at the Juilliard School. Teachers there told him he needed to start again, from scratch.

“It completely deflated me. … So my mother came back to Miami. She looked for somebody she thought was competent to teach me. And she found Ruth.”

The first time the 13-year-old Ford played for her, he chose Beethoven as well as his own compositions. Greenfield immediately took him on as a student.

When a music teachers association announced a recital featuring local composers, she wanted to showcase Ford. Initially, the president of the group was excited to hear about the promising young composer.

“And as soon as I said black, or Negro, she said, ‘Oh wait a minute. I’ll have to call you back,’ ” says Greenfield. “She called me back, and she said, ‘I’m awfully sorry, but he would be so embarrassed to play for all of us white people. It’d be like having my maid in the front row.’ That was the kind of talk.”

Greenfield didn’t leave it at that; she called Miami Herald columnist Jack Bell. After he wrote about Ford’s rejection, the woman called again. “She said, ‘All right, let him play,’ ” Greenfield recalls.

She still has the program from that day in 1953 — and Ford still remembers some of the sonata he composed. As he demonstrates on Greenfield’s Steinway, she beams.

The same year, with help from Ford’s mother and other key figures, Greenfield founded the Fine Arts Conservatory. (Future U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek was a volunteer dance teacher.)

The school alternated between black and white neighborhoods, holding classes in private homes, a Masonic lodge, a YMCA — even a funeral parlor in Overtown, in a second-floor space previously occupied by caskets.

Greenfield’s oldest son, Charles, an arts reporter and the keeper of many of his mother’s stories, interjects: “I think you should talk about the smell.”

“I wasn’t into smells,” she replies, a little wryly.

“Formaldehyde!” he exclaims.

In 1961, the conservatory raised enough money to buy its own building around 60th Street, a white neighborhood near Liberty City. “It was just a little old cottage with a beautiful tree in the front and a big yard perfect for chicken dinners,” remembers Greenfield. But to her, “that was absolutely Juilliard.” (The conservatory, which closed in 1978, eventually had six branches throughout the city.)

Greenfield was increasingly considered a radical. She says she was called a Communist sympathizer and blackballed from nearly every professional music association in Miami. An interracial concert series she hosted in her Palm Island home prompted neighbors to seek a cease-and-desist order, she says. When a Miami Beach detective came to serve the papers, she says she thanked him politely — and then asked him to help her move the piano onto the stage. “He said, ‘I’d be delighted.’ ”

Greenfield carried on with her teaching — at the conservatory and also at what was then Miami-Dade Community College, where she taught for 32 years and was music department chair. She continued her own education, too, earning a doctorate of musical arts from UM in 1976.

Last fall, Miami Dade College rededicated its Wolfson Campus auditorium as the Dr. Ruth Greenfield Auditorium. And although she is retired, she is ever the teacher, the coach, the advocate.

She turns to Ford, who became a math teacher. He’s 74, and much of his vision is gone. But Greenfield focuses on what he is doing now: learning to read music in Braille. That makes her “so proud,” she says, in part because he will still be able to pass on his musical knowledge to others by teaching.

He says he’s not sure he could find such a specialized job, but Greenfield makes no concessions. For her, as always, it is about the music: “It doesn’t matter whether they’re hiring. The main thing is to get more people to get into that class.”