By Kitty Oliver, Author/Oral Historian
As a journalist, I once wrote stories about how Black schools in Northwest Pompano Beach had to close so that children could pick beans during harvest time. About political tensions between lifelong residents of “old Pompano” and “beach” transplants, the newer arrivals. About the election of its first Black city commissioner who later became the first Black mayor. About the first round of hopeful redevelopment plans.
And now, as an oral historian, several decades later, I’ve been revisiting the city’s re-envisioned, re-vitalized, and culturally-gentrified “town center” feel with homages to its Black history sites as well.
The Historic Ali Cultural Arts Center in Pompano Beach (Ali Cultural Arts) has become a base for community arts groups that are educating and inspiring today’s youth to achieve. It’s only fitting.
The 87-year-old building was once the home of Frank and Florence Major Ali, an industrious, creative couple of Cuban and Bahamian descent, respectively, who made their historical mark as the first African American business owners in Pompano Beach. The center also features educational exhibits like the upcoming one on African American Women Changemakers running February 21- April 10 featuring information on historic icons and national civil rights leaders as well as Emmy-winning actress Esther Rolle who grew up in Northwest Pompano and Blanche Ely, a local legend.
The Blanche Ely House Museum has had a somewhat fitful history, opening for a period in the early 2000s, languishing for a while, then re-opening in 2019. But now it is emerging as a center for the preservation of aspects of school and community life that inspired Black youth to achieve in the past.
Located near her namesake high school, the building was once the home of Ely and her husband Joseph, both prominent educators and social activists during the era of racial segregation. Collections and displays of photographs, letters, artifacts, and memorabilia reflect ceremonies and traditions and visitors get insight into some of the fondly-recalled rituals of daily life within similar Black communities in the South. But Blanche Ely’s Race and Change story was multilayered.
The toll of the struggle to hold onto some cornerstones of history amidst the wide sweep of integration was evident when we talked by phone in the 1980s, late in her life after she had long stepped away from the public eye. I was co-producing a slide projector program on women across cultures who had made a significant impact on Broward County’s development and had broken barriers.
Despite the cajoling of a couple of her former students, she refused my request for a face-to-face interview. Her distrust and anger seeped through the conversation as I listened. But I found a way to at least acknowledge her legacy in the project, anyway.
I also remember a second conversation months later - the hesitancy, then surprise in her voice when I called again to invite her to a reception to view the premiere of the program with the other women featured at a reception where they would all be honored. And she accepted it all - with quiet grace on the dais that day.
The slide projector program was recently rediscovered in the historical archives and, thanks to the help of volunteers, modern technology has made her excerpt accessible again. Like Frank and Florence Ali, Blanche Ely continues to be a vital piece of Broward’s Black historical tapestry.