An ample zoo, a cheerful carousel, a tranquil beach area that boasted pristine sand: components of the once-popular Crandon Park area on Key Biscayne. A site that for many years was a bastion for white Miamians. In the intervening years, the zoo moved to its current address, and the carousel fell into disrepair, only to be recently revitalized. The beach -- now open to everyone -- remains.
In the Miami of yore, blacks who wanted to swim in the sea couldn't. Segregation laws forbade them from setting foot on so-called white beaches. By the 1940s blacks were protesting that fact, and pushing to test those laws in court. But they didn't have to go to court. All they had to do was stage a wade-in at Haulover Beach. A brave few did, and they didn't get arrested.
They got a beach. Soon the county handed the black community its own half-mile strip of sand and surf on which to frolic, just north of Key Biscayne on Virginia Key. One problem: In 1945 there was no bridge across to those barrier islands. To reach Virginia Key, one had to own a boat or board a ferry. At their destination black beachgoers met the fierce currents of Bear Cut. But they also became acquainted with each other and established a place of their own, where they could truly relax.
Miami beaches were desegregated in the late 1950s, but Virginia Beach lived on. More than just a place to swim, the beach hosted its share of baptisms, holiday services, dances, and barbecues. The Sixties saw the addition of a waste dump and construction of a sewage treatment plant on the key, while Key Biscayne, immediately south, remained unspoiled. In a 1982 land swap, Virginia Key became property of the City of Miami. The beach was closed and city bureaucrackpots salivated at the thought of owning property ripe for development. Another problem: The aforementioned switcheroo was made with the stipulation that the land would remain as a public recreation area.
A financially strapped city was indifferent to that restriction. In 1995 the idea for a recreational campground, rife with RVs and concession stands, was shot down by voters. More recently a plot for a luxury eco-campground was hatched, meaning another private development, not a park. Individuals, notably environmental activists and members of the black community, got wind of that plan and would have nothing of it.
"I don't think I've seen any one issue that resonated in quite the same way, because it was such a common denominator for so many people," says artist Gene Tinnie, a Miami resident since 1979 and vice chairperson of the Virginia Key History Task Force, about the united action taken by the black community on this issue. "Having a sense of history is a necessity of life," he notes. "When we destroy old landmarks and fail to make connections with the past, we're not creating a healthy social environment. Younger generations need to know what went on before."
The task force intends to aid that effort by helping to restore the park as a site for sun and fun and building a museum to honor the civil rights struggle. This Sunday they'll host a Family Reunion and Historic Tree Planting as a symbolic gesture of Virginia Key's renewal. Activists and government officials, including Congresswoman Carrie Meek, will be on hand, and the public, black and white, is encouraged to share memories and memorabilia.
Although the task force has busied itself with studying and planning, the city commission has yet to grant its seal of approval. Nevertheless hope persists. "There's this idea that parks are a luxury item that are expensive to keep up, and then there's the notion that the parks are supposed to be making money," says Tinnie. "[We want to] bring the place back to life in all the ways that it can be. It has an interesting story to tell."