Social Studies with Amy Rosenberg
Unscripted Buries Its Head
SocialMiami contributor Amy Rosenberg received the Ruth Shack Leadership Award at The Miami Foundation’s “Leave a Legacy” luncheon. Rosenberg received the award for her accomplishments with the Overtown Music Project (OMP), a non-profit founded by Rosenberg created to celebrate the music, history and spirit of Overtown in its heyday. The following is the speech delivered by Rosenberg upon receiving the award demonstrating clearly why she is one of Miami’s rising leaders.
Four years ago, I went on a walking tour through Overtown in an attempt to learn more about the community’s history.
The walking tour … was a disaster. The guide, a normally dynamic man with encyclopaedic knowledge of Miami, had laryingitis. His megaphone broke. An enormous pothole swallowed one of my shoes. And last but not least, a woman on the tour had a seizure.
One would think that these would NOT be the ingredients leading to a powerful and life changing experience.
However, on that tour, I learned that Overtown, one of the most impoverished communities in the United States, was once the musical epicenter of Miami. It was known as the Harlem of the South and it’s history, though rich, was casually discarded and largely unknown.
In the days of segregation, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie would perform for all white audiences in Miami Beach at places like the Fontainebleau and then since they were not allowed to dine or lodge at hotels, they were forced to go “Overtown” to what was then known as “Colored Town.” In Overtown, they would perform, once again, in one of the dozens of nightclubs that lined the streets. They played for packed, integrated audiences into the wee hours of the night.
In place of those nightclubs, I saw vacant lots and crumbling buildings. The silence of the streets was deafening.
That day, I couldn’t hear the music. I felt it. It came to me through the Harlem Square and the Sir John, two popular nightclubs that no longer exist. I could also feel it in my DNA, in the presence of my Grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who brought his family to Detroit in the 50s. He had a black business partner when it wasn’t socially accepted and they later they worked for Diana Ross. Through him, I developed a love for jazz, blues and gospel.
At the end of that tour, I turned to a friend and told her I was going to sell my business and bring the music back to Overtown. Six weeks later, I sold my small business and Overtown Music Project, OMP as we call it, was born.
Over the next few months, I worked on getting buy in from the community. I presented myself at churches, businesses and homes in Overtown. By and large, people were very kind but there were the occasional death threats.
I’m proud to say that four years after its serendipitous birth, OMP is, in fact, bringing music back to Overtown. We are a non profit that believes that the key to Overtown’s economic viability is the creation of a cultural identity that celebrates and capitalizes on the area’s unique musical history. We put on 7 multisensory, sold out events a year that showcase the men and women in their 60s- 90s who played in Overtown’s heyday. These performers played with the likes of Sam and Dave, KC and the Sunshine Band and the Count Basie Orchestra. Most live in poverty and obscurity. OMP shines a light on their talent and helps them make ends meet.
We challenge the status quo by holding events in venues in Overtown, often at night, that bring people from within and outside the community together. According to the City of Miami Police Department, OMP’s nighttime music events were the first to take place in Overtown in over 30 years. We also have a free, after school program in partnership with the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and Frederick Douglass Elementary. We teach 60 kindergarten through fourth grade students to appreciate and play jazz and blues.
I’m proud to say that four years after its serendipitous birth, OMP is, in fact, bringing music back to Overtown. We are a non profit that believes that the key to Overtown’s economic viability is the creation of a cultural identity that celebrates the area’s unique musical history. We put on multisensory, sold out events that showcase the men and women in their 60s – 90s who played in Overtown’s heyday. These performers played with the likes of Sam and Dave, KC and the Sunshine Band and the Count Basie Orchestra. Most live in poverty and obscurity. OMP shines a light on their talent.
We have 11 warm, wonderful board members who roll up their sleeves and act selflessly in the interest of the organization. Many of them are here today. Nathalie Cadet James, Greg Clark, Malik Benjamin, Rebecca Mandelman, Rebecca Fishman Lipsey and Yvette Harris. I’m eternally grateful for all of you. Crystal Connor, Kirk Wagar and Aaron Glickman are honorary board members who are also here and have been true friends to the organization. I can’t let an opportunity go without also thanking my parents who gracefully accepted my taking the path less taken.
What got me through difficult times. and there were many of them, were people people like Ruth Shack and Dave Lawrence. Both of these extraordinary people gave me the gift of taking me and the project seriously. Over very, very early breakfasts at Coral Bagel, Dave offered me wisdom and advice.
I met Ruth as a Miami Fellow. Anyone lucky enough to know Ruth Shack knows how brilliant, compassionate and ethical she is. She has been my guiding star through this project . There is no one I respect in this world more and no honor could ever mean as much to me as the one that bears her name. Ruth Shack exemplifies courage and when mine was flagging, I just had to think of her to keep going.
When this started, a lot of people thought it was an impossible dream. I’ve learned that nothing is impossible when you have the support, wisdom and love of remarkable people who have the passion to push an idea forward. If I can leave anything with all of you it would be this: walk in the footsteps of Ruth Shack and encourage someones impossible dream and then don’t be surprised when it takes root and blossoms.
Amy Rosenberg is an attorney and arts advocate who founded the Overtown Music Project and the Arsht Center’s young patrons group. She is the co-founder of the environmental non-profit Dream in Green. Amy is a member of Art Basel’s Junior Host Committee and sits on the Board of the Funding Arts Network. She also serves on the New World Symphony’s Friends Committee as well as The Wolfsonian-FIU’s Visionaries Committee.