Community Voices

Black African-American writers group now meets throughout South Florida

Benjamin Cowins Sr. and Ralph Hogges, co-founders of the The Ralph Hogges and Benjamin Cowins Writers Group of South Florida.
Benjamin Cowins Sr. and Ralph Hogges, co-founders of the The Ralph Hogges and Benjamin Cowins Writers Group of South Florida. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

Why write? Why not, answer two black retired college professors, Ralph Hogges and Benjamin Cowins Sr., who both have a passion for writing. While they recognize that in this age of social media and advanced technology the traditional art of composing and presenting one’s thoughts in written form can be lost, they continue to write and, as volunteers, encourage others to do so.

Hogges, a writer of diverse genres, is the author of 16 books. Cowins has authored/co-authored five. Their individual and collective writing, publishing and administrative experiences qualified them to launch a community writers group, and to plan an annual book festival and writers conference. They present writing as an intellectual process with organized procedures resulting in the celebration of products that never existed before, the creation of books that becomes available to the world.

Nearly a year ago, Hogges and Cowins declared their intent to create a South Florida writers group. While visiting Miami’s Colored Town they shared their plans and solicited my input. Their enthusiasm and determination was and still is contagious. Colored Town, renamed Overtown, was once the cradle of business and culture for black people in South Florida.

I research the social and intellectual activities in Miami’s Colored Town from the city of Miami’s 1896 incorporation through the end of the 20th century.

My findings reveal that the Bible, read within family, church and masonic groups, was the main literature of the black people who lived in the Colored Town area adjacent to downtown Miami. Black men stood for the city’s incorporation, worked on the railroad and provided the labor that built Miami’s tourism and business infrastructure. Black washerwomen kept Miami clean and fed.

In the 1940s and 1950s, black celebrities vacationed in Miami’s Colored Town. Poet Langston Hughes, scholar W.E.B. DuBois and others from the Harlem Renaissance were among frequent visitors. There is no evidence that the people of color had a writers community during that time, although then and now book clubs popped up.

In the 1990s, literary agent Janell Agyeman moved to Miami. She kept us connected through the work of William J. Faulkner, a minister and folklorist who from 1934-53 was a dean at Fisk University. Later, he relocated to Miami to be with his daughter, Marie Faulkner Brown.

In a recent email, Agyeman enthusiastically embraced the establishment of a black African-American writers group in South Florida, “for the purpose of encouraging our own.”

“When I was relatively new in Miami, I interacted with an effort sparked by E. Claudette Freeman, the playwright. This is all so very needed, as are more quality book publishers who are able to effectively produce, market and distribute our work,” she said.

While the historical background was being confirmed, plans for the establishment of the writers group developed. The inaugural meeting was held Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, in Richmond Heights at the home of the Founder/President Ralph Hogges, with co-founder/Vice President Benjamin Cowins and the support of 17 charter members. Since then, the membership has nearly tripled. Subsequent meetings have been held throughout South Florida including the Old Dillard Museum in Fort Lauderdale and Pentecostal Tabernacle, Pen Tab Academy in Miami.

Members select the genre (writing interest or specialty) of their choice either fiction, nonfiction, poetry or drama. Beginning and experienced writers are invited to join corresponding critique groups, to receive technical support, review and feedback from peers.

At past monthly meetings, the authors/speakers have included Shelly Cameron, “Success Strategies of Immigrant Leaders in the United States”; Vernell Everett, “Stories of Young Black Men of the South”; Cowins, “High Hopes and Challenging Realities Defeating Racial Problems at Florida International University, 1972-1982”; Patricia Reid-Waugh, “Retirement, A New Adventure”; Indiana Robinson, “The ABCs of APA: An Incoming Student Inspiration Guide”; Tameka Bradley Hobbs, “Democracy Abroad, Lynching at Home: Racial Violence in Florida”; and Hogges, “Inspired by the Harlem Renaissance and Poetic Splendor of the Morning.”

Mostly self-published, some authors already have experience in marketing and selling their own books. Hogges’ 16 books produced by Publish America, renamed America Star Books, are available at Barnes and Noble.

Hobbs’ book on lynching is published by the University Press of Florida and is available from Amazon.com. Assistant professor and university historian at Florida Memorial University, Hobbs is the 2015 recipient of the Florida Book Award for Florida Non-Fiction and the 2016 recipient for the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Award from the Florida Historical Society.

Hogges and Cowins have established an annual award to honor the best books written by its members. Selected in the year of publication, winning books shall be chosen from the categories of the critique groups.

Reaching beyond their community of writers a call went out for published books appropriate for students in the sixth through 12th grades. In addition, Willie Logan, a charter member of the writers group and founder of the Opa-locka Community Development Corp., will host a free creative writing summer camp for fourth and fifth graders. Titled “The Page Slayers,” this 2016 Knights Foundation Arts Challenge award program is intended to build literary youth communities in Opa-locka and, eventually, Miami.

In less than a year, The Ralph Hogges and Benjamin Cowins Writers Group of South Florida has made tremendous strides.

“The community should know about the mere existence of this group and what it brings to the table,” said retired educator Delores Smiley, a charter member and group secretary. “The sharing involves a myriad themes and topics that the writers highlight in their presentations, and provide the opportunity for attendees to know more through purchasing the books. Through the sharing of lived experiences and through in-depth research, one is able to find something that they can relate to that encourages, enlightens, and more.”

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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Ralph Hogges can be reached by email at ralphhogges@bellsouth.net

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