Saviors of Virginia Key

The ad hoc committee was somewhat vague in its endorsement of commercial development at the marine stadium site, but was more specific in resurrecting the idea of a (scaled-back) eco-campground. It would be owned and operated by a private business; it would aspire to ecological sensitivity; and it would spread over some 80 acres of the very same land Athalie Range would so movingly describe.

Not only would that proposal seem disrespectful of South Florida's black heritage, but the committee itself drew criticism at the March 10 meeting. Its members were exclusively white and middle-class -- no Hispanics, no blacks, no poor people. Worse, in their months of deliberations, they hadn't even considered anything like a civil rights park, and their presentation to the waterfront board made no explicit mention of it.

In fact Virginia Key's history as a refuge for South Florida's blacks became an issue for committee members only after it was forced upon them this past January by two outspoken citizens, Greg Bush and Nancy Lee, who are as white and as middle-class as the committee itself.

Bush, a 49-year-old associate professor of history at the University of Miami, had taken a sabbatical for the 1998-1999 school year. With an abiding interest in public parks generally and Miami particularly, he had intended to use his time off to work on an oral-history project exploring local residents' relationships to their parks.

Instead he found himself fighting for parks, not chronicling their history. First came his involvement in the failed effort to save from development the Coconut Grove property known as Commodore Bay. Then he jumped into the fray over the Miami Circle, a move that coincided with his becoming president of the Urban Environment League of Greater Miami, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote enlightened city planning.

Just as the archaeological site began garnering publicity, Bush and some like-minded cohorts formed the Public Parks Coalition of Miami-Dade County, an offshoot of the Urban Environment League, whose mission is to "preserve, beautify, maintain, enhance, promote, make usable, and secure urban public parks in Miami-Dade County." With that objective in mind, Bush began attending meetings of the Virginia Key Ad Hoc Citizens Committee this past January.

"I'd been reading [FIU professor] Marvin Dunn's book Black Miami in the Twentieth Century," Bush recalls. "I've done oral histories of black Americans for many years, so I was aware of the history of Virginia Key, and I was aware it was overlooked by the ad hoc committee. That angered me. I knew others had worked very hard to try to preserve that public parkland, but nobody had put an emphasis on creating a space that would preserve the old African-American beach." To Bush it looked like another attempt to "dispense with a piece of public land without understanding its historical relationships."

Bush huddled with Nancy Lee, a noted Virginia Key preservationist and avid windsurfer whose activism was sparked by the January 1997 closing of that portion of the island's beach favored by windsurfers, which the city did in order to save money. (Virginia Key is considered to be one of the best windsurfing spots in the world.) Lee, too, was keenly aware of the area's place in local black history and shared Bush's belief that it should not be ignored by the ad hoc committee.

Bush insists his push for recognition of Virginia Key's black heritage arose from his interests as a historian, not from strategic political concerns he may have had as a parks advocate. "It was not simply a desperate move by environmentalists," he says. "It was something more than that; it was a genuine idea that came out of my head: Such land simply should not be disposed of without thought and consideration.

"Here's a city that has had Lummus Park [downtown along the Miami River] closed since 1992," he continues. "Bicentennial Park is closed. Virginia Key has been closed how many years? Is there a pattern here? People's memory about those parks could grow dim. Perhaps some officials hope they grow dim so they can sell them off. But a number of African Americans do remember and say, 'We don't want this sold off.'"

Among those taking an interest was Dorothy Jenkins Fields, founder of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida. "Mabel Miller had mentioned it on and off over the last several years," Fields recounts, referring to one of Virginia Key's staunchest defenders. "But the real impetus came from Greg Bush recently. I had no idea there was an advisory committee in place. I was just asked to support [the idea of a civil rights memorial on Virginia Key]. I took it to my board, which is made up of individuals who have lived in Miami as adults 50 years or more. Of course it's very important and needs to be preserved and identified as a civil rights site."

Fields had a suggestion for Bush: Rather than designate the site as a memorial, why not simply call it a park, a civil rights park?

In late January Bush and Lee put together a presentation for the ad hoc committee that emphasized the endorsement of the Black Archives Foundation and suggested as a model the new, open-air memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Washington, D.C.

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