A Historic Dip

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

But blacks increasingly flocked to Crandon Park and other beaches. Virginia Beach had reached its high-water mark. During the Sixties and Seventies it gained a reputation as a place for bonfire parties and nude sunbathing. In April 1982 the county transferred the beach property to the City of Miami, which agreed to maintain it for use as a public park. In exchange the city gave the county a small chunk of land near Dodge Island to help expand port facilities. Virginia Beach has been closed ever since. "I really think they never should have closed Virginia Beach. But that was the price of integration," remembers Thelma Gibson, the civil rights leader's widow. "The county just wanted to have the upkeep of the one beach and felt we could all just go to Crandon Park."

Priscilla Stephens Kruize, an elementary school teacher and president of the Black Heritage Museum, thinks blacks should have fought to keep Virginia Beach: "Integration has really ruined everything so far as I'm concerned. And I was an activist for integration so I feel very comfortable saying this. I've lived in both systems. Black people lost so much. What we should have done is build instead of throwing away. And Virginia Beach would be one example. We should have kept that because it was a beautiful place."

Athalie Range also laments integration's impact on Virginia Beach: "It began to deteriorate and nobody was doing anything about it. The road into the beach was always very rocky to drive. So that is probably one of the reasons people began going over to Crandon. But [Crandon] was never the same. Because the folks you'd meet at Virginia Beach were your good friends, your neighbors, your church people. It was more like a family affair than it would be over at Crandon Park, where there'd be a splotch of black people here and a little further down a couple of black people in a spot.... In integrated places now, you don't always feel welcome even though people smile and shake your hand."

Today many residents of Miami-Dade County don't know there was once a blacks-only beach on Virginia Key. As 85-year-old Lawson Thomas told the Miami Herald in 1985, four years before his death: "You'd be surprised how many white people didn't know that there wasn't any public beach that black people could go to without being disturbed."

Ironically a group of whites originated the proposal to preserve the Virginia Beach area as a civil rights park. Most of them are members of Sierra Club Miami Group, Friends of Virginia Key, and the Urban Environment League. They suggest that Miami violated the 1982 agreement with the county, which required the city to "keep the property open to the public, provide maintenance, and a level of services equal to or exceeding that which was provided by the county." Because the city has not followed that accord, preservationists argue, it should return the approximately 77 acres in the Virginia Beach tract to the county.

On April 14 at 5:00 p.m., the city Waterfront Advisory Board will consider proposals to develop the old country park. A citizens committee has recommended an eco-campground that could cost guests $125 to $250 per night.

"Things didn't get the way they are without a struggle. And the people who made that struggle ought to be commemorated," attests Walter Anders, referring to the protesters who helped create Virginia Beach. The retired county social services worker remembers the place fondly. "We had a lot of fun there," he says.

Enid Pinkney and artist Gene Tinnie are trying to rally other blacks and Miami city officials behind the cause of preserving Virginia Beach as a public park. In a recent letter to Mayor Carollo, she wrote: "Keeping Virginia Beach as a public beach could be a memorial to those brave African Americans who stood up for the right to enjoy God's ocean, sand, and sun.

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