A Historic Dip

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

Virginia Beach was also a sacred place. Churches held baptisms there, remembers Enid Pinkney, the 67-year-old president of the Dade Heritage Trust. After the beach was opened in the Forties, she watched her father Henry Curtis, a minister at the Church of God, dunk white-robed adult members of his congregation in the sea. "They would sing songs like 'Take me to the water!/Take me to the water!/Take me to the waaaater, to be baptized,'" she recalls. "They'd duck you under the water, all the way under the water, and bring you back up. There'd be somebody there with a towel or whatever to wipe your face. And people would come back up with the spirit of the Lord and they'd be hollering and shouting and crying. It would be a very emotional experience!"

Virginia Beach was soon a nationally known tourist destination for middle and upper-class African Americans. Lottie Houston, age 78, a retired junior high school counselor who lives in Richmond Heights, first went to Virginia Beach in the late Forties, when she began traveling from Quincy, Florida (northwest of Tallahassee) to spend winters in Miami: "To tell you the truth I never went in. I was afraid of water.... I sat on the edge and observed and enjoyed the breeze.... I used to go in the cabanas and put my bathing suit on and sit down in the sand and probably let my feet touch the edge of the water.... The [cabanas had] two rooms and there were faucets all over the place and showers and everything.... It was well taken care of.... You'd take your lunch and your suit and your sandals and sunglasses and stuff and your music and have a big day. You had radios. And they had barbecue pits out there."

Encouraged by their foothold on a long-denied slice of paradise, some blacks set about challenging segregation. In the late Forties they targeted recreational venues such as golf courses and the Orange Bowl. In the Fifties they went after schools, buses, and lunch counters. Virginia Beach remained a tropical sanctuary with picnics and church baptisms by day, dancing and romancing by night. Even a carousel and minitrain-ride were added.

Houston's daughter Priscilla Stephens Kruize, age 60, glimpsed Virginia Beach for the first time as a girl in the Fifties: "I [remember] the dance floor, the jukebox, and all the beautiful palm trees. Some of them were slanted so you could easily climb them and take a photograph, which was a popular thing in my family. It was a wonderful experience. In fact the only beach that I've found like it since that time is in Bimini. And I've been to beaches in many places. Actually Ghana's beaches are nice, too."

These days nostalgia for the blacks-only Virginia Beach is mixed with lingering resentment. "There was nothing wrong with it, only it was segregated. [Whites] were trying to satisfy us so we wouldn't want to come to their beach," Lottie Houston says. "It didn't make any difference, because we felt that we had a right to go to all of them. We enjoyed [Virginia Beach], but we didn't like the idea that we had to go there and nowhere else. To tell you the truth I enjoyed being among my own. But you want to know ... you can integrate if you feel like it, that you don't have to stay there. That you have a sense of freedom."

In November 1959 a group of blacks decided it was time for another wade-in, this time at Crandon Park, just over the bridge from Virginia Beach, on Key Biscayne. Among the protesters were Episcopal minister and future Miami commissioner Theodore Gibson, Dr. John O. Brown, Miami Times publisher Garth Reeves, and Athalie Range's husband Oscar. On November 25 they waded into the water just a mile from the blacks-only beach. Dade police arrived but didn't impede the swimmers, according to witnesses and news accounts. "From that day on black people have been using Crandon Park," Brown told author Marvin Dunn in 1996.

Black families continued to frolic at Virginia Beach well into the Sixties. Rev. Willie Sims, who now works at the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board, preferred the blacks-only beach even after Crandon Park was integrated: "I didn't want to go to the other beaches. I enjoyed Virginia Key. All of the sisters out there were so fine. And the brothers ... it was a neutral place ... there wasn't no turfing. We'd get out there from different neighborhoods. We'd dance against each other. There wasn't no fighting. You met a lot of people. The food was phenomenal. It was just a positive atmosphere. We got down, soul food. When we had picnics, we had barbecue ribs, collard greens, potato salad, pigeon peas and rice.... One of the guys who did a lot of the top barbecues out there was one of our radio disc jockeys named Butterball. He'd go out there with his boat. Not a lot of blacks had boats back then. Butterball used to water-ski and he'd teach the kids. He'd put on the disco [dances] out there and play all of the music and we just had a ball."

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