MIAMI — Performances of blues, jazz, gospel, poetry and African dance were presented on stage at Miami’s Joseph Caleb Center Auditorium during a memorial celebration in honor of the life and achievements of Chief Sandrell Rivers.
The 62-year-old Miami native lost her battle with ovarian cancer on Jan. 1, one day after her retirement from the Miami-Dade County Parks and Recreation Department.
The celebration, held on Jan. 8, was emceed by gospel legend Bobby Jones of the Bobby Jones Gospel show on BET. Jones is a longtime companion of Rivers.
“We were friends since our days at Tennessee [State University] and have been together on many occasions,” Jones said. “She was a great person who loved life.”
The multi-talented Rivers left Miami more than 30 years ago to pursue a career in theater arts.
She earned both a bachelor and Master of Science degree in speech and theater communications from Tennessee State University (1971). She later taught the arts at institutions including Kennedy-King College in Chicago, Miami Dade College, the University of Miami, Cleo Johnson School of the Arts in Chicago and Alabama State University.
Rivers also traveled abroad as an entertainer for a U.S.O. tour in Europe. Throughout her career, she directed more than 100 plays and produced numerous events. She acted in stage plays, commercials, radio, TV and film.
“She should have been a wealthy woman,” said Talmach White, a longtime friend and educator. “But she chose to be about the community instead. And then there was her African connection, in which she took great pride.”
Rivers traveled extensively to Europe, the Caribbean and Africa, where she, in 2004, was conferred with the title of African Chief – the Gbesiewu of Badagry by His Majesty – the Akran of Badagry De Wheno Aholu Menu- Toyi 1, of Lagos State, Nigeria.
The conferment was in recognition of her outstanding community leadership, service and for her quest to reconnect African Americans and the African Diaspora with the Motherland.
Rivers wanted, after her retirement, to live part time in Africa, White said. The pair traveled together to Nigeria in 2005.
White, who now lives in Washington, D.C., described Rivers as a “teacher, educator and artist who wore African garb every day,” and said that she “forced people to be better than they realized they could ever be.”
White said he met Rivers in 1978 when she returned to Miami from Chicago. “She’d had enough of the weather and wanted to get back into the arts in Miami.”
According to White, he and Rivers soon started a theater company named Kalimba.
Jack Kardys, director of Miami-Dade County Park and Recreation Department, said that the Caleb Center was “Sandrell’s home. She had an unstoppable commitment to the arts, and you could see her touch on every production.”
Beginning in 1988, Rivers served as the arts administrator for Miami-Dade County, where she, as area-wide arts supervisor, managed the arts program in the Parks Department and the Joseph Caleb Center Auditorium.
Rivers brought talent to Caleb’s stage, including Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Hugh Masekela.
Marlon Hill, a Miami attorney and patron of the arts, said Rivers was an “unabashed advocate for all interests related to the African Diaspora, our arts, our culture, our business interests and beyond.”
Hill described Rivers as “kind and stateswomanly,” and said that she was “fierce in all her efforts. The void in her leadership with the Diaspora Arts Coalition and other initiatives she embraced will be felt for generations.”
Rivers served as the coalition’s president emeritus. The coalition is a grassroots organization that serves as an arts support network in the African-American community.
Among the many awards Rivers received are the 2000 African-American Achievers; National Association of Counties Achievement Awards (1990, 1994); Outstanding Achievements in the Arts, Florida House of Representatives Award (1996); Pillars Award – Black Affairs Heritage; “MAXIE Award” for outstanding service to the Miami Arts community (1996).
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Jordan said she has known Rivers “so long that I can’t remember.”
Jordan said that the Caleb Center would “not have and arts program without Rivers. She will be missed.”
Photo: Sandrell Rivers