Whether in the arts or academics, these Broward residents aim to keep black history alive for future generations.
By Julie Levin and Eileen Soler
Special to The Miami Herald
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For many Broward County residents, learning about, and preserving, black history is more than just a past-time. It’s a passion. Here’s a look at a few people who have contributed personally and professionally, through academics, the arts and their own storytelling, to keep memories and experiences alive.
He’s a historian by practice, not necessarily by trade. Whenever information is needed about life in the historically black communities in Northwest Fort Lauderdale, the 81-year-old , who was born and raised in the community, always seems to get the call. It’s an unexpected turn of events for the father of five who has worked as a security monitor at the Old Dillard Museum for the past nine years.
“I have worked security here for nine years, but I was tagged with that historian title a while ago,” Bradley said.
Bradley remembers the days when he was a student at the Old Dillard School. Now a national historic site, the “colored school” was built in 1924 as the first school constructed for African Americans. Bradley considers it his responsibility to keep the stories alive, and to talk to youngsters about the changes he has seen and the barriers that have fallen. He remembers when the main road through town was simply known as Northwest Sixth Street, long before it was renamed for Dr. James Franklin Sistrunk, who delivered one of Bradley’s five children. He has given recorded oral histories with both the Urban League and the Trailblazers of Broward County and plans on telling his stories as long as someone wants to listen.
“It keeps me mentally alert and it keeps me busy,” he said. “It is a blessing to be here.”
Beauregard Cummings is determined to preserve the history of early black pioneers in Fort Lauderdale. Several years ago, he helped form a group known as the Trailblazers of Broward County, a nonprofit group with the mission of researching the history of the black community from the 1800s to the present. The group wants to ensure younger generations have a lasting record of those who came before them.
“We want to make sure the history is told and archived for future generations,” Cummings, 85, said.
A lifelong resident of Fort Lauderdale, Cummings and the other members of the group remember the restrictions and segregation in bathrooms and water fountains, among other places, in Fort Lauderdale. Since the group’s inception, they have recorded dozens of oral histories that will be archived in the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center. They have also been granted money from the city to create a statue that they want to donate to the Sistrunk area, to leave a lasting legacy of the impact of African-American pioneers in the community.
A former Miami Herald columnist, Kitty Oliver holds a doctorate in race and ethnic communications, is a professor of women’s studies and communications at Florida Atlantic University and has long documented race relations, focusing on the years just prior to, during and after the Civil Rights Acts of the mid-1960s.
“They are cross-cultural experiences in race relations and change – painful, poignant and hopeful,” Oliver said. Oliver’s “Race and Change Oral History Project,” 125 taped interviews housed at the African American Research Library and Cultural Center, explores the Civil Rights era through the memories of black, white, Asian, Hispanic and Caribbean residents from Hollywood to Lake Okeechobee. Her books, Multicolored Memories of a Black Southern Girl; Race and Change in Hollywood, Florida; and Multicultural Reflections on Race and Chang, mark the transition from the past to the future.
“Real experiences help us understand the tapestry of a community and all the different pieces that go into making the community. We see how we grow through struggle and how we connect,” Oliver said. Oliver is also known for her 10-part public television series, Crossing Cultures/Changing Lives, which premiered in spring 2008 and now airs in occasional reruns. Her website, http://proteus.fau.edu/raceandchange/projects features radio webcasts, videos, a list of upcoming projects and Oliver’s Race & Change Blog. Inspired by her experiences as one of the first black freshmen at the University of Florida in 1965, Oliver has her own theory about Black History Month. She sees it a metaphor for survival and resilience.
“It is about a group of people who have faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the history of our country and yet we continue to ask ‘how’? That is what history answers.”
William ‘Willie’ Stewart
One life, one love keeps William “Willie” Stewart, formerly of the reggae band Third World, and now with Rhythms of Africa Music Around the World, smiling to the beat of his drums and spreading joy.
“Music is the heart and soul that brings love and peace in the world. It feeds the soul. It inspires greatness,” Stewart said.
Focusing his attention on drumming seminars for kids, college students and businesses out of his corporation Solutions in Music, Stewart puts people in touch with their natural rhythmic ability while teaching about musical roots that originated in Africa.
In 2010, the drummer, born in England to Jamaican parents, became the first man of Jamaican decent to win a $25,000 Knight Foundation grant to bring his education program to hundreds more children countywide. Already, Rhythms of Africa applies learning requirements through Florida’s Sunshine State Standards
“Children learn the names of the drums and where they come from. It’s about music, geography, mathematics, history – and the African rhythms that fuel music worldwide,” Stewart said.
Established in 2003, Stewart’s education programs have been offered at Miramar Cultural Center, all Broward College campuses and YMCAs countywide. Check out www.solutionsinmusic.com.
The next public event, Oct. 14-15 at Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale, will culminate a seven-week educational program for children that will take the audience on a musical journey across continents from Nigeria to Miami.
“When parents come see the kids play music for the first time, we see the community come alive. It’s three generations linked by the past and moving forward – it’s timeless,” Stewart said.
At age 65, Tony Thompson said he feels it’s his life’s work to use the arts to tell the stories of African Americans in Broward County.
In 2003, the Fort Lauderdale-based actor, director and playwright wrote a historical play called Just Us: From Bean Pickers to Presidents, that chronicled the lives of six characters during the early days of Fort Lauderdale. It played at the African American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale to strong reviews.
“I think if you tell a story through the arts, it makes it more accessible to more people,” he said.
Thompson was recently hired by the Trailblazers of Broward County to create a dramatic stage presentation featuring the interviews and oral histories of African-American pioneers in the community. The play will focus on their roles in the community, and how it has affected today’s society. Thompson said remembering history through the arts is a vital way to keep stories alive.
“I think it is important,’’ he said. “There are so many African-American stories that are not told.”