Community Voices

Black in Time: Overtown-born pianist James Ford reunites with mentor Ruth Greenfield

Overtown resident James Ford plays the piano. Above him is a portrait of his teacher, mentor and friend, Ruth Greenfield. Greenfied’s husband, Arnold, painted the portrait in 1990.
Overtown resident James Ford plays the piano. Above him is a portrait of his teacher, mentor and friend, Ruth Greenfield. Greenfied’s husband, Arnold, painted the portrait in 1990.

The hand written invitation from Ruth Greenfield, founder of Miami’s Fine Arts Conservatory, was a reminder of bygone days. She and her late husband, Arnold, often showcased performing artists to community groups at their home. A mystery guest at the March 2015 soiree made it another special evening.

Greenfield presented a musical feast of classical composers including Bach, Mozart, Telemann, Paulsson, Chopin, Pergolessi, Bartok and Gershwin. The selections were performed by eminent artists GianCarlo Calluci, David Goldberger, Brian Neal, Karen Neal, Julia Jakkel, Joseph Talleda, Wayne Bumpers and Adam Chefitz. A monologue was delivered by Aidan Neal while waiting for the mystery artist.

“When one puts a little effort in listening to intricate music with all of one's being, one discovers a whole new world of sound which in turn opens a new view of the world around us,” mused Brian Neal, director of Instrumental Studies at Miami Dade College, Kendall campus. “‘Classical music’ can be found everywhere and there is true enjoyment in being able to hear it in the most surprising places.”

As afternoon faded into evening, a slight chill in the air invigorated the group of nearly 65. Some are retired and others continue in the workforce. Old timers and newcomers, this collective represented Miami’s current diverse community as well as the community once divided by race.

Everyone listened when Greenfield introduced her mystery guest: James Ford, a concert pianist and the son of one of her longtime friends, the late Mary I. Ford Williams. Born in Miami’s Colored Town, now known as Overtown, James by age 13 showed exceptional talent as a pianist. He qualified, was accepted, and attended a summer program in New York at the Juilliard School of Music while his mother studied for a master’s degree at Columbia University in New York. Returning to Miami, his talent was not enough for him to be accepted locally for advanced study. Years later, when the schools integrated, he graduated with honors from the University of Miami.

Traveling to Paris in 1949, Greenfield experienced racial integration. She learned that sharing one’s culture can enrich all. A white woman born in Key West, she became a musician, teacher and activist for social change. Ford Willliams, a black woman born in Florence, South Carolina, was an elementary school principal and mother seeking opportunities to fuel her talented son’s passion for music advancing his piano skills. He was already composing piano sonatas, while practicing those of Mozart and Beethoven.

Greenfield met the Fords in 1951. After reading in the Miami Times about the opening of the Fine Arts Conservatory Ford Williams enrolled her son. The conservatory was originally located in an Overtown business, one block north of the Historic Lyric Theater on Northwest Second Avenue and 10th Street. It was Florida’s sole integrated school of music and the creative arts. The construction of Interstate 95 displaced Overtown’s businesses and residents causing the population to shift to the suburbs. During that time, the school relocated to Liberty City.

Before 1964, black people and white people were separated by custom and law in every phase of life. Miami’s Colored Town music, dance and art teachers offered private lessons in their homes.

The Fine Arts Conservatory was the first and only pioneer private organization to centralize the arts and provide instruction by university faculty. In the midst of racial segregation, the conservatory offered small group and private lessons in music, art, dance, drama and music theory at minimal costs to children of all races, mindful only of their abilities and interests in the arts.

The saga of the conservatory’s 25-year existence was briefly shared with the audience before dinner. At evening’s end, Greenfield — herself an accomplished pianist — played popular melodies and James Ford played themes and variations. She is 91 and he is 77. Both continue to play with enthusiasm and vigor.

Ford says his interest in music and motivation to play the piano began as a child. His first recollection of a piano was age 3 or 4 at his grandmother’s home in Liberty City. “When my brother Bobbie and I went to visit I always headed straight to the piano on the porch and started banging,” he says. Their fraternal grandmother, Isabella Boles Ford, herself a music teacher never interfered or corrected him.

One summer while their mother was attending summer school, Isabella asked Ford’s grandfather to go downtown to purchase a method piano book. John Thompson’s Modern Course for the Piano: First Grade Book had a major impact on his life. According to the forward, “it provides a clear and complete foundation in the study of the piano that enables the student to think and feel musically.” That book was his introduction to Mozart.

When Ford’s mother returned from summer school, she was very impressed with his progress playing music. Whenever possible, she took him to Liberty City to practice on his grandmother’s piano.

Later, his mother bought an old-fashioned upright piano for their home in Overtown. At age 8, Ford started music lessons with community piano teachers Mrs. Nash, Mrs. Mable Dorsett Thompson and Mr. Linton Berrien. By age 13, he had advanced far enough that his talent was accepted at the Juilliard School in New York.

Several other former students of the Fine Arts Conservatory attended Sunday’s soiree including Wendell Graham, a county court judge and two schoolmates: Arnett Clarke Hepburn, a retired entrepreneur and Herman Dorsett, a founding professor emeritus, Florida International University. Several years ago Dorsett developed a mini Conservatory at the Church of the Open Door in Liberty City. James Ford participated there as a mentor and was presented in a well received concert.

Ford credits his success to his grandmother and mother; and equally his teacher, mentor and friend Ruth Greenfield. He said, “I have always known Ruth Greenfield to be a caring person. I thank her for helping nurture my career and my health.” His father, a medical doctor died when James was 20 months old.

Greenfield’s mystery guest is no longer a mystery. Let it be known that in spite of limited opportunities and resources with goodwill from those inside and outside of our community Overtown produced Ford, an accomplished concert pianist.

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