Saviors of Virginia Key

The moment Athalie Range approached the podium and began to speak, it was all over. Anyone at Miami City Hall who had been hoping for an uneventful meeting and a quick vote was about to be sorely disappointed.

The 83-year-old matriarch, who in 1965 became Miami's first black commissioner, returned to Dinner Key this past March 10 to address a meeting of the Waterfront Advisory Board, a group that makes recommendations to the city commission regarding use of publicly owned land. The subject that Wednesday night was Virginia Key, the bedraggled 1000-acre island between the mainland and Key Biscayne. More specifically the subject was a preliminary proposal for commercial development of portions of the land.

But Range, whose pioneering contributions to public service have included appointments to important state and federal posts, wasn't there to offer her opinion on zoning changes, use permits, or lease agreements. She was there to reminisce. After some official business and a presentation by representatives of a Virginia Key advisory committee, the waterfront board chairman respectfully acknowledged Range's presence in the audience and invited her to be the first to comment on the committee's presentation.

"I knew it as Bear's Cut," she said. "As a child here in Miami, when segregation was at its very peak, there was an understanding that the races did not mix. So there was no waterfront for us." Thus began a stirring personal recollection by one of Miami's most respected civic leaders of the days when South Florida blacks were universally prohibited from setting foot on public beaches.

And thus ended any thought of proceeding with a development plan for Virginia Key that did not pay homage to its unique heritage. In 1945 after a group of black residents staged an unprecedented act of civil disobedience by trespassing on whites-only Haulover Beach, the Dade County Commission designated an oceanfront park on Virginia Key as the only beach open to black people. A county brochure later touted "Virginia Beach" as being "exclusively for Negroes."

The esteemed Ms. Range was followed by other citizens who spoke eloquently in favor of an idea that lately has captured the local imagination. As one person phrased it, this was nothing less than a battle "to reclaim Miami's forgotten past." The once-segregated Virginia Beach may not hold the archaeological import that rallied thousands to save the mysterious Miami Circle, but with the same newfound respect for history, it has inspired its own circle of impassioned advocates.

And now, after it appeared there would be no stopping a controversial plan to allow commercial development on that part of Virginia Key, there seems to be no stopping a burgeoning movement to preserve that land and create on it a civil rights park, a lasting monument to the national struggle for equality as it played out here in Miami.

As this movement has gained momentum, the wider planning process for Virginia Key has virtually ground to a halt, an unexpected turn of events that has pleased environmentalists and parks advocates who long have fought to protect the island from commercial development.

For those who have sought to exploit the key as a revenue source for the financially beleaguered City of Miami, the injection of race relations into the debate has changed everything. They now find themselves in the precarious position of appearing bigoted if they raise objections.

And in an ironic twist to a tale that is full of them, all this drama surrounding the fate of Virginia Key has been orchestrated not by concerned black Miamians, but by a small cadre of white activists. Athalie Range herself appeared at the March 10 meeting only after one of these activists contacted her and explained the proposal for a civil rights park.

While earnestly hoping to deflect any perception of having cynically manipulated a sensitive black issue, the activists cannot escape this further irony: Overwhelmingly white as a group, their cause -- preservation of Virginia Key -- owes this boost in its fortunes to the very people who suffered from the discriminatory practices of white society.

Before Athalie Range spoke, the Virginia Key Ad Hoc Citizens Committee presented a set of recommendations regarding commercial development on the island. For eight months committee members had worked diligently preparing their suggestions, a project that had been prompted by the city's continuing interest in the island's earning potential. Committee members were appointed by the mayor and commission (with an additional member coming from the Waterfront Advisory Board), and over the months they considered options for two specific areas of Virginia Key: the dilapidated Miami Marine Stadium and its adjacent waterfront, and the old county park along Bear Cut. (The county deeded the parkland to the city in 1982 with the stipulation that it be kept open and maintained as a park, though since then it has only been open for special events.)

In the years following Hurricane Andrew, which severely damaged the marine stadium, both areas have been eyed hungrily by city officials. But an earlier offer to lease the marine stadium drew no private-sector interest, and voters narrowly rejected a 1995 ballot measure calling for a $12 million "eco-campground" on 153 acres along the Bear Cut shoreline, land that included the old county park.

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