A Historic Dip

Witnesses to the segregated history of Virginia Beach tell a sorry but inspiring tale

On a Tuesday in May 1945 several Miami residents decided to go for a swim in the ocean. Two women and five men, including a lawyer, two grocery store owners, a union leader, and two U.S. Navy sailors, were among them. They left work downtown, climbed into their cars, and drove north to the glorious white sand of Baker's Haulover Beach. Most of them donned bathing attire, waded into the turquoise water, and splashed in the surf. The attorney, Lawson Thomas, remained clothed on the beach. He expected the entire group would be carted off to jail and had $500 in his pocket for bail.

The reason these bathers weren't allowed to swim? They were Negroes.
A few minutes later a soft-spoken, cigar-smoking man named Judge Henderson telephoned the Dade County Sheriff's Office from the Longshoremen's Association on NW Eighth Street and Second Avenue. "He said, 'There are some Negroes swimming at Haulover Beach,'" recalls Janie Reeves, who overheard the call. "That got the ball rolling."

When officers arrived Thomas, who later would become Dade's first black judge, suggested they arrest his wading friends. His widow Eugenia Thomas (Lawson Thomas died in 1989) reconstructs the encounter this way: "Lawson insisted, 'Now you all come out of the water. The sheriff's going to take to you to jail.' And the sheriff said, 'You know I can't do that.' And Lawson said, 'Aren't they disorderly?' And the sheriff said, 'No I can't do that. I can't put them in jail.' Lawson said, 'You all go back into the water.' And they did that three or four times, and the sheriff finally called down to the county and got [Commissioner Charles] Crandon, who told him, 'Tell Thomas to come down here in the morning. We'll work something out. We'll see what we can do.'"

A brief Miami Herald article published the next day mentioned the demonstration, indicating it followed a failed effort by black leaders to gain access to the ocean. The story quotes Henderson, who went to the beach after his phone call: "We weren't arrested, so as far as I know we will be going to the beach from now on. If they arrest us, we will appeal to the courts." Henderson added that a proposal for establishing a Negro beach on Virginia Key had not shown any progress.

The Baker's Haulover wade-in was one of the earliest civil rights protests on record in Florida and the South, but it remains a mystery in many ways. Over the decades historians have collected scant testimony and now most or all of the protesters have died: Grocery store owner Otis Mundy passed away in 1983 at age 85. May Dell Braynon, another grocer, died in 1994 at age 84. Overtown community leader Annie M. Coleman, who perished in 1981 at age 87, also took part, according to a vague 1974 account. Thomas passed on in 1989 at age 91.

Thomas's widow Eugenia, who is 74 years old, did not accompany her husband to Baker's Haulover. She says she probably remained at work in her husband's Overtown law office, which she had managed for five years. She laments not documenting the ordeal. One doesn't always sense the historic nature of an event as it unfolds, she notes. "And then years from now we see that that's history and it should have been recorded as it happened, because it is going to become important," Eugenia says.

One important result of the protest, however, is vividly remembered: Virginia Key Beach, which Dade County officials established a few months after the demonstration. It was the only beach in the area open to blacks from the early Thirties until 1959, when another group forced the integration of Crandon Park. During the past few weeks New Times has interviewed more than twenty people who have memories of the wade-in or the segregated beach.

These memories are the focus of an intensifying debate over the future of Virginia Key. Miami Mayor Joe Carollo favors developing the old county park there into an upscale eco-campground or resort that will put money in city coffers. Environmentalists and activists propose preserving the property as a park that commemorates Virginia Beach's place in black Miamians' struggle for civil rights.

Today the long-closed beach on Virginia Key is a symbol of racial segregation, the black struggle against it, and the need to preserve history.

During the 1800s residents of all races swam freely in the salt water at the edge of the great marsh now known as Miami. Many of the first settlers were blacks who migrated from the Bahamas and were no strangers to the surf. But with the advent of segregation laws during the first part of this century, they and others of African descent found their access to the sea increasingly restricted.

For a while it seemed that relatively affluent blacks would have a beach of their own. In 1918 Dana Dorsey, reputedly Miami's first black millionaire, purchased about 30 acres on what is now Fisher Island, according to an article in the Miami Metropolis. "There is no colored resort in Miami. Dorsey believes he can interest well-to-do colored men of this city and the North to spend their winters on the island and invest in the proposition," the article concludes. But Dorsey sold the land a year and a half later to real estate developer Carl Fisher, for whom the island is named.

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