Seventy-five years ago this week, a uniquely bold and courageous action by African American citizens of Miami changed the course of South Florida history, and today the City of Miami’s Virginia Key Beach Park Trust is reaching out to families, descendants and friends of those who participated, to help tell their heroic stories to present and future generations, especially since the wisdom of remaining sheltered from the COVID-19 pandemic means that there can be no public gathering to observe that anniversary.
It was on May 9, 1945, that an intrepid group of protestors dared to “wade in the water” at the site of present-day Haulover Beach, to demand, and successfully garner the establishment of a public bathing beach for Dade County’s Colored population, in keeping with the separate-but-equal laws and customs of Jim Crow segregation.
A version of what happened on that historic day was reported by The Miami Herald on May 10”
NO ARRESTS: Negroes Test Beach Rights At Haulover
A group of negroes [sic] testing their right to use county owned bathing beaches trooped up to Baker’s haulover area Wednesday afternoon to splash in the surf off the proposed county park. They advised Sheriff Jimmy Sullivan’s office in advance of their intention. White officers, called also by neighboring residents, went to the scene and questioned some of the 50 or 60 bathers but made no attempt to arrest them. The bathers arrived in a motorcade, stayed about an hour and departed. Sheriff’s Deputy R.O. Scruggs said he had been told of the negroes’ plans, but had advised that there was no law under which they would be subject to arrest. Judge Henderson, president of the Negro Citizens Service league, said the affair was arranged under the auspices of the league strictly “as a test of our rights.” “We weren’t arrested, so as far as I know we will be going to the beach from now on,” he commented. “If they arrest us, we will appeal to the courts.” Henderson said negroes have no bathing beach available to them now, and plans for establishing one on Virginia Beach have not shown any progress. He declared Wednesday’s move was not taken with the idea of causing trouble, but only as a step to obtain some bathing beach facilities.
The rather casual tone of that report, however, masks how truly significant that incident was, and would become.
To begin with, the fact that the sheriff was notified in advance meant that this was an act of Civil Disobedience (consciously breaking laws that are unjust and being willing to accept the punishment), fully a decade before such tactics would become the main strategy of the Civil Rights movement, but unlike protesters of that later time, those who braved the waters in 1945 faced the daunting consequences of having an lifelong arrest record, even though Attorney Lawson E. Thomas, one of the main organizers, was ready with “a bag of cash” on the scene that had to be raised to pay bail money and avoid their actual detention in jail.
Moreover, in 1945 South Florida was still enough part of the Old South for there to be no guarantee that the protesters would have been met by the sheriff; Ku Klux Klan thugs might have been an equal possibility, which added to the bravery of those who were willing to risk even that potential outcome.
Most importantly, however, the protest accomplished its mission, which was a commitment from the County to open Virginia Key Beach on August 1, and for it to be as nearly equal as possible to the County’s White Only Beaches like Crandon Park on Key Biscayne, all of which in turn reflected the degree of mutual respect that existed between Miami’s Black community leadership and the downtown Powers-That-Be, as week as the community’s thriving economy both because of and in spite of segregation.
The result was a new County Park featuring a half mile of palm-fringed shoreline which, by the 1950s would boast a stylish bathhouse an concession stand, a carousel and Mini-Train amusement rides, rental “cottages” and cabanas, and other amenities unheard of in segregated Colored parks elsewhere in the South, as Virginia Key Beach became a famous hub of South Florida Black life attracting locals and visitors alike, including nationally renowned celebrities.
The story of this remarkable cherished historic, natural and cultural landmark would continue through the post-segregation era to the modern day, as plans move forward to make it an indoor/outdoor interpretive museum experience combining fascinating information with fun and recreation.
None of this promise for future generations would have been possible without the courage of past generations to provide the legacy we enjoy today, which is why this such a special effort has been launched in this 75th anniversary year to capture and preserve their stories.
For further information, please call 305-960-4614 and/or visit the www.virginiakeybeachpark.net .
Contacts: Kechi Okpala, Marketing Liaison: 718-213-1702, email@example.com