Every Thursday morning, Miami musician and civil rights pioneer Ruth Greenfield gathered fellow creatives at her home for her weekly Waffle Club sessions.
These meetings and learning groups proved a watershed for arts advocate Mark Nedlin.
Sitting at Greenfield’s round dining room table and eating family-recipe waffles, Nedlin said, he got to meet people from “all walks of life.”
At one Waffle Club meeting, Nedlin met some of the folks at the South Florida Symphony Orchestra and, from that initial encounter, was hired as the development officer, his role for the past five years.
“Ruth really honestly opened up a whole world to me that I did not know that would come from those initial visits,” said the 56-year-old Nedlin. “Ruth had an ability to see talents within people that they didn’t necessarily know existed themselves.”
Greenfield died on Thursday, July 27, in her Miami home. She was 99.
Music to bridge Miami’s racial divide
Greenfield, born in 1923 in Key West, was a concert pianist and teacher whose approach to education and life was ahead of her time. Segregation and racism in the South were rampant when she was growing up, but she saw music as a way to bridge the racial divide.
In 1951, eight years before Orchard Villa Elementary School in Liberty City became the first school in Miami-Dade to desegregate in 1959, Greenfield founded the Fine Arts Conservatory, one of the first racially integrated theaters and arts schools in the South. The conservatory began by teaching music classes — and eventually dance, drama and visual arts — to Black and white students together, taught by Black and white teachers. Greenfield was the director and taught some piano at the conservatory.
“I think when you look back at it, she was someone who likes to right wrongs,” said her son Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, 71. “And I think to begin with, the conservatory was that.”
During the early years, the school didn’t have its own space and “counted on the kindness of strangers,” Greenfield-Sanders said. Greenfield’s conservatory moved between Black and white neighborhoods, holding classes in private homes, a Masonic lodge, a YMCA, even a funeral home in Overtown in a room that used to store caskets and reeked of formaldehyde.
Greenfield got backlash for the work she was doing. She was called a “communist sympathizer and blackballed from nearly every professional music association in Miami,” according to a Miami Herald profile in 2012.
“She was a very strong and determined person, but at the same time she had sympathy for people and their problems,” said son Charles Greenfield, 72. “It was a pretty, pretty extraordinary set of qualities.”
A music teacher’s association was hosting a recital featuring local composers, and Greenfield wanted to enroll James Ford, a young Black piano student from Overtown whose mom, a close friend of Greenfield’s, helped establish the conservatory.
At first, the group’s president was excited to feature the young composer. But she changed her mind when she learned Ford was Black.
Greenfield wasn’t discouraged. She called the Miami Herald, and columnist Jack Bell wrote about what happened. After the story ran, James Ford was allowed to play.
“I think there were people who were very supportive and there were people who hated [my parents],”Greenfield-Sanders said. “Hated what they were — what they stood for.”
“For nearly 100 years, Ruth Wolkowsky Greenfield was Miami’s musical sweetheart,” Dorothy Jenkins Fields, historian and founder of the Black Archives at the Historic Lyric Theater in Overtown, said in an email. “I was one of her students at the Fine Arts Conservatory. My friend, Ruth Greenfield left Miami a legacy of love for music, a love for human rights, a love for civil rights and a love of her adopted home, Miami.”
By 1961, the conservatory had a permanent home near 60th Street, a white neighborhood near Liberty City. The conservatory grew to six branches throughout Miami-Dade County, but it closed in 1978 because the county began incorporating arts education in public schools.
Greenfield continued her teaching at Miami Dade College, where she taught for 32 years and was music department chair.
Bringing what she saw abroad to Miami
In 1949, Ruth Greenfield left Miami to study composition in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, who also taught Aaron Copland and Astor Piazzolla. She got married in the City of Light to Miami attorney Arnold Merrin Greenfield, a graduate of Harvard Law School. They were married until Arnold’s death in 1996 and Greenfield never remarried.
Seeing Paris’ racially integrated lifestyle was a defining experience — it’s what inspired Greenfield to create the conservatory when she returned to Miami.
When Greenfield went on sabbatical from Miami Dade College in the 1970s, the family moved to England for six months. While in London, she visited St. Martin in the Fields, a church that held a free lunchtime concert series.
She brought that idea back to the tropics when she returned from England. Inspired by what she saw, she founded Miami Dade College’s Lunchtime Lively Arts Series, which not only included music but also theater and literature.
The wide-ranging list of artists who performed at the series include Isaac Bashevis Singer, Dick Gregory, Odetta, The Ink Spots, Virgil Thomson and Gwendolyn Brooks. In the fall of 2011, the college rededicated its Wolfson Campus auditorium in Greenfield’s honor.
“When you think about how the lunchtime series [and how it] started from a little idea that she saw in London,” said Greenfield-Sanders, “I think there are lots of things that you learn when you travel that you could bring back to your own community. And Ruth was very open to things as well. She was enormously perceptive.”
The family also had a camper for road trips. Twice they went across the country from Miami and back — once to California and another to Washington state.
“Travel and education were the most important things to them,” said daughter Alice Greenfield, 65, about her parents.
A trailblazer for women
Greenfield began playing piano when she was 5 and played for the rest of her life.
She graduated from Miami Beach High School in 1941. At a time when higher education was an uncommon feat for women, Greenfield spent two years at the University of Miami before going to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to get her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music. But she didn’t stop there. She went back to school and obtained a PhD from the University of Miami.
“I always think she felt that she should push herself,” Greenfield-Sanders said. “It was certainly an inspiration to have a mother who was so successful.”
She was “a trailblazer and for women as well,” Alice Greenfield said, “but I think beyond that is the ability that Ruth had to make everybody in the room feel like they were at home.”
Greenfield’s family is planning to have a celebration in November to mark what would have been her 100 birthday.
Greenfield’s survivors include her children Charles Greenfield, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Frank Greenfield and Alice Greenfield; grandchildren Isca, Liliana, Alexander, Benjamin, Tyler, Adam and Henry; and five great-grandchildren.
The family encourages donations in Greenfield’s memory to Enriching Lives through Music, an arts school in San Rafael, California, founded by one of Greenfield’s students, Jane Kramer. Donate at http://www.elmprogram.org.