MIAMI – In the early 1900s, Black businessman Geder Walker from Georgia had a vision: Overtown should be the entertainment hub of Miami for African-Americans.
In 1913 he built the historic Lyric Theater for music and cultural arts performers to showcase their talents in front of a Black audience. It quickly became a crown jewel in the Black community.
Whether it was jazz, rhythm and blues, stage plays or events to celebrate the achievements in Black history, the Lyric Theater played host to decades of social gatherings free of discrimination.
On Nov. 18 the historic venue at 819 NW 2nd Ave. celebrated its 110th anniversary. It was another milestone as the theater continues to serve as a symbol of Black economic influence.
People filled the 309-seat venue dressed in 1940s Harlem Nights attire to reflect the heyday of Overtown and the theater, which is the anchor site of the Historic Overtown Folklife Village.
Performers included recording artist Raheem DeVaugh, the Melton Mustafa Orchestra led by Melton Mustafa Jr., and singer-songwriter and reality show star Keke Wyatt.
Local government officials also celebrated the milestone.
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson presented a congressional proclamation for 110 years of service to the community.
City of Miami Commissioner Chair Christine King also recognized the 110th celebrationtate Rep. Ashley Gantt provided a video tribute of the history and accomplishments of the theatre.
Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava also joined the celebration by naming Nov. 18, 2023 as Lyric Theater Day.
Awards were given out by the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida, which purchased the theater in 1988, to honorees who made significant contributions to the Lyric and Miami.
King and Miami-Dade County Commissioner Keon Hardemon received the Black Archives Lion Award for community leadership and advocacy.
Former Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmonson was honored for securing the $10 million general obligation bond which helped finance projects including restoration at the Lyric Theatre.
Jo Marie Payton, a Miami native who once starred in the ABC/CBS sitcom “Family Matters,” also received the community advocacy award for leadership.
Kamila E. Pritchett, executive director of the Black Archives, said Payton was honored for being supportive of the theatre when it reopened in 2014. "He’s a TV mom to many but a second mom to me," Pritchett said. "She’s been supportive when we host youth ﬁlm festivals and has been a mentor to young actors."
Miami Herald columnist Bea Hines was the recipient of the community advocacy award for Journalism for her stories on the history of Blacks in Miami.
Dr. Dorothy Jenkins Fields, founder of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation, received the Eternal Roar Lifetime Achievement Award for her efforts to save the theatre from being demolished and preserving it as a historic landmark.
On Jan. 4, 1989, it was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places Jenkins said Overtown and the Lyric Theatre have much deeper roots in Black History dating back to the 1920s.
She told the South Florida Times that the theatre hosted junior high school graduations for Black students who were not allowed to continue their education and instead were forced to work for white people as maids, nannies, in gardening and construction.
Jenkins said Black students in Miami and living in other southern states had to work after graduating the eighth grade, some in the sixth grade, in the 1920s.
She said whites didn’t believe Black children deserved an education beyond the sixth grade, claiming the students they couldn’t comprehend studies taught in high school.
Jenkins said that was unacceptable for Black parents including her grandmother who decided all of children would get the opportunity to ﬁnish high school but had to do so far away from home.
Jenkins said some Black parents made a difﬁcult decision to send their children off to HBCUs including Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU), Spelman and Morehouse Colleges in Atlanta, and Tuskegee University in Alabama, which at the time provided a campus to teach high school students.
Parents said their tearful goodbyes when they sent their children by train and buses to the HBCUs and only saw them once a year until they got their diplomas.
Jenkins said her aunt went to Spelman for two years and transferred to FAMU where she graduated high school, and another relative attended Morehouse.
"Black kids had to go away to ﬁnish high school because there were no high schools for Blacks at the time," she said. "Black parents didn’t accept Black children getting out and working, they wanted their children to continue with their education. Black struggled to send their kids away."
For Walker, Fields said she interviewed pioneers who interacted with him and they expressed pride that a Black man had the ﬁnancial ability, mentality and spirit to want to build the Lyric Theater.
She said D.A. Dorsey was the ﬁrst Black millionaire in Miami who owned Fisher Island and Walker was also wealthy and invested in real estate in Miami and owned a cafe and ice cream parlor adjacent to the Lyric Theater.
Walker died in 1919 but wife Henrietta took over operations of the Lyric Theater which was also used as a community auditorium and later a movie theater.
In 1959, when it became a church of the General Assembly of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith and when Overtown began to deteriorate in the 1960s the Lyric Theater closed and remained shut down for years.
The Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc. acquired the Lyric Theater in 1988 and was restored in different phases over the years before it reopened in 2014.
Prichette said her vision for the Lyric Theater includes adding a research lab and additional space to continue to expand to support the Black Archives when African-American history seems less important in Florida schools.
"Making Black excellence more attainable is our purpose to make stories more relevant like Blacks’ contributions to the incorporation of the city of Miami," she said.