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.

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.

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."

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."

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.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...