By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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The idea for the wade-in originated with Davis, Lawson Thomas, and other members of the Negro Service Council, a forerunner of the Urban League of Greater Miami. In 1945 the council had an office above the Economy Drug Store at the corner of Eleventh Street and Third Avenue. "The matter was taken before a meeting of the Negro Interdenominational Alliance [a coalition of black ministers and churchgoers]. They agreed wholeheartedly to induce their members to join in the wade-in or march," Thomas wrote in a brief typed letter, which his widow found after his death and recently submitted to the Black Archives, History, and Research Foundation of South Florida. Eugenia Thomas says her husband wrote the account after reading an inaccurate newspaper story about the wade-in.
But the ministers didn't show up at the protest. "The time came and not one minister or member of this church [group] was there. That thing was carried out by five members of that civic group [the Negro Service Council] joined by two servicemen then stationed on Miami Beach," Thomas wrote.
Eugenia Thomas relates that her husband was upset after returning from the protest. "He said, 'You know not a single one of those [Interdenominational Alliance] people showed up. Not a single one of them. They were just scared to death. So instead we grabbed two sailors and they went with us.'"
Then-Dade County Sheriff Jimmy Sullivan apparently decided not to arrest the protesters. His decision fouled up the plan, Eugenia Thomas recalls. Thomas's husband wanted blacks arrested at Baker's Haulover so he could challenge the action in court.
According to Lawson Thomas's typed account, Crandon met with the waders the next morning. "I was upbraided by Commissioner Crandon for leading and participating in such a racial disturbance," Thomas wrote. His widow chuckles about it now. "[Crandon] dressed him down good for that," she says.
Edward Braynon, Jr., remembers hearing about the wade-in from his mother May Dell, who was one of the protesters. She was treasurer of the local NAACP and owned Eddie's Grocery at NW Seventeenth Street and Fifth Place in Colored Town with her husband Edward Braynon, Sr. Edward Jr. was studying at Fisk University in Nashville at the time of the wade-in and can't name participants other than his mother and Thomas. "It wasn't something that was of real interest to me at the time," he remarks. Now, of course, its place in the civil rights movement is obvious. "It was a milestone in the history of this community," he declares.
On June 5, 1945, according to a Miami Herald article, county park superintendent Don Martin announced plans to open a Negro beach. It would be located on the southern side of Virginia Key along Bear Cut. (Key Biscayne lies just to the south.) Martin said Powell Brothers, a Fort Lauderdale construction company, had submitted the lowest bid to build a departure dock on the Miami River, as well as a wharf and footbridge on the key. Boat service would shuttle passengers between the two points until completion of the Rickenbacker Causeway, which was finished in 1947.
A month later workers completed the pier, bathhouse facilities, and concession stands for the new beach. The first week of August authorities opened Virginia Beach.
"When they gave us the beach, everybody was elated," says David White, the retired school administrator. "It wasn't top quality, but we didn't have anything at all, so we had to take what they gave us."
Problems, including a lack of vessels, soon cropped up. A June 28, 1947, article in the black-oriented Miami Times reported: "More than 1100 picnicers [sic] crowded the sandy strip of beach on Sunday and many more were left on the docks because of inadequate boating facilities to shuttle the throng to and from the beach. Some people who bought tickets at the dock at 10:30 a.m. did not get a seat on a boat until 2:30. Three small boats were used to carry the passengers. It takes approximately two hours for a boat to make a round trip. It is hoped that at least two more boats will be put into service to handle the overflow Sunday and holiday crowds."
Once bathers arrived there were rarely problems, Edward Braynon, Jr., comments. "It was great considering what we had before.... It was a nice cruise over there.... It was a very nice beach. They had one officer who controlled that beach even on holidays, and he kept control of the island. Never had any problems. I remember well because he was a high school classmate of mine and I used to ride with him. Back then they respected police officers. His name was George Busby. He passed about ten years ago."
The county spent substantial money on the beach. A few weeks after the 1947 opening of the Rickenbacker, a freak November storm blew much of the sand off the beach, requiring dredgers to pump it back onto the shore, according to a 1948 Miami Times report. The same year the county constructed a $29,000 parking lot, twelve new cabanas, and added running water.
"It was certainly not anything to compare to Crandon Park," says Athalie Range. But it was better than nothing. "When it was the only beach we had, it was accommodating.... People danced and enjoyed the music. In later years there was a concession stand. Families would go out to have picnics and churches would gather their congregations and go over to Virginia Key and have picnics."