A Historic Dip

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

Some elderly black Miamians remember riding fishing boats to Virginia Key around 1920 to picnic and bathe on a beach known as Bear Cut, which is also the name of a channel on the Key's southern edge. Eighty-three-year-old Athalie Range, Miami's first black city commissioner, says Bear Cut was the first place where she waded into the ocean. "It was dangerous swimming. I remember parents would stand guard over their children so we'd hardly get in more than ankle deep. It dropped off quickly," she recalls. Fishing boats ferried swimmers from the P and O Steamship Company's dock downtown. "In those days [the boat ride] was a lot of fun to me. I don't know whether I'd enjoy it now, but it was quite a bit of fun. Families would pass lunch baskets and take the children over," she says. "Other than [Bear Cut] we had to go all the way to Hallandale or some of the beaches up in the north area. And we were certainly not welcome there."

John Johnson, an 85-year-old retired lawyer and judge, also remembers visiting Bear Cut. Johnson, who became the second black Miami Municipal Court judge in 1955, recalls that city officials closed it sometime in the Twenties. "They said it had soft spots and sinkholes and various other things," he adds. In the late Twenties and early Thirties, Johnson describes going to a place called Community Beach in the vicinity of what is today the southwest edge of Miami Beach near Alton Road and Fifth Street. He remembers friends and relatives parking their cars on land that is today the U.S. Coast Guard station, then taking a ferry for the last few hundred yards. "I believe the beach was privately owned," he says. "That was ours until it closed down sometime in the early Thirties."

Others found pools of inland water. Coconut Grove blacks swam at a pond they referred to as "the hole," recounts David White, a 67-year-old retired high school administrator. Today a canal runs through its location opposite the Riviera Motel on South Dixie Highway in Coral Gables. "The hole was dangerous for us, but we had no other place to go," White says. "We had no lifeguards, no protection. The larger boys looked out for the smaller boys."

By the Forties city and county officials had barred black residents from all Dade beaches. That meant those who wanted to take a dip in the ocean would have to journey to Broward or Palm Beach, where there were designated Negro beaches. Of course anyone who wanted to risk being arrested or shot could splash into Dade County salt water illegally. Retired dentist Edward Braynon, Jr, age 71, remembers that when he was a senior at Booker T. Washington High School in 1944 he knew boys who frequented the beach where the Fontainebleau Hilton Hotel is now situated. "Once you turned that corner where the Fontainebleau is now, there was nothing for miles and miles but deserted beach. They would go up there and swim. But if they were caught they'd be in big trouble," Braynon recalls.

Leome Culmer, the 73-year-old widow of civil rights activist Rev. John Culmer, says beach outings to locations north of Dade were a rare thrill: "We used to have a big picnic every year and we would go up to Broward County. I was a teenager.... Just about everybody in the community we now call Overtown would go up there. We'd charter buses. The only place to swim was up there. It was a worthwhile day's outing. I can remember that I would come home and I would be so sunburned. My nose would be red. And the next day I would begin to peel, because we just didn't have the opportunity to go often enough. We knew we could really go to swim in the ocean only once a year."

Restriction of beach use was one of a host of apartheidlike measures that ruled the lives of Dade County blacks in the Thirties and Forties. Public parks were also off-limits. And some housing projects in Colored Town (then a common name for Overtown) were squalid and plagued by tuberculosis. Culmer, a black minister at St. Agnes Episcopal Church, led the outcry for better living conditions. Culmer frequented dentist Ira P. Davis's Second Avenue office, then a mecca of civil rights discussion. The city's first black police officers operated out of Davis's building. And lawyer Lawson Thomas was a frequent guest.

In May 1945 Davis's office served as a command center for an assault on a whites-only beach called Baker's Haulover. "That was the little meeting place," Eugenia Thomas says. "Father Culmer was over there every day, and [my husband] Lawson was over there every day. They would sit there and plan and plot about what they were going to do or what needed to be done."

The group's first strategy was simply to drive to white beaches, stop as if they planned to swim, and then motor off without leaving their cars, according Annie Coleman's typewritten 1974 two-paragraph note. "It must have scared [white beachgoers] to death," Thomas says with a laugh.

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