Activists March to Save Site of Fort Lauderdale's First Black Hospital From Gentrification

The Mizell Center
The Mizell Center Google Earth
In 1937, a young black man named John McBride was shot in the stomach by a car full of white men rumored to be members of the Ku Klux Klan. Hospitals in the area near the Pompano Beach shooting at first refused to admit him. A black physician, Dr. Von D. Mizell, ultimately persuaded one of them to take him in. But the hospital later insisted on moving McBride to a rundown sanitarium, where he soon died.

A year later, outrage over that death and others caused by Jim Crow-era segregation led Mizell and another pioneering black physician, James Sistrunk, to establish Provident Hospital in a one-story home at 1409 Sixth Ave. in Fort Lauderdale. For nearly 30 years, it was the only place in the area that African-Americans could receive medical care. After integration was ordered, the hospital was torn down by the city, but the site had a second life as a community center named for Mizell.

Now some residents fear that history could be lost if Fort Lauderdale city commissioners move forward with a plan to tear down the Mizell Center and replace it with a 65,000-square-foot YMCA facility set to receive $10 million in CRA funding. They worry it's another sign of gentrification creeping into the once-bustling, historically black community now named for Sistrunk. After years of decline in the neighborhood near downtown Fort Lauderdale, they'd hoped to see the site turned into a job training center and small business incubator to help those who have long called it home.  

"The ground is sacred to us," says Sonya Burrows, president of the Fort Lauderdale Negro Chamber of Commerce and a longtime resident who was born at Provident Hospital. "The Mizell Center has been a lighthouse to our community."

But Burrows and others who have spoken out against the city's plans over the past few months feel they haven't been heard or kept informed. So at 4 p.m. today, they plan to march and rally at city hall to call for saving the Mizell Center and creating economic development opportunities benefiting the Sistrunk community.

The city did not immediately respond to New Times' request for comment. Records from the Northwest-Progresso-Flagler Heights CRA claim the proposal, which moves the L.A. Lee Family YMCA to the Mizell site from its current home two blocks south, would transform the neighborhood. It "will serve as a catalyst to spur essential community and economic improvements along the historic Sistrunk corridor," according to a memo from a CRA manager.

Plans call for the facility to include retail space, a business incubator/networking space, before- and after-school care, a wellness center, a gym, a pool, community conference space, a roof-top patio for events, and a black box theater. The lobby would pay homage to Sistrunk and other community pioneers.

One of Mizell's descendants, Lorraine Mizell, has become a leading supporter of the YMCA plan, according to the Westside Gazette.

“Sistrunk needs a shot in the arm,” she said, according to the newspaper. “We need revitalization.”

But plenty of others aren't convinced that relocating the YMCA is the right approach. About 20 community members showed up at a March city commission meeting wearing “Preserve Our History, #SistrunkStrong” shirts, and the Negro Chamber of Commerce has hosted multiple meetings on the topic.

"I think that the entire community ought to be concerned — not just the black community — about what is happening here and how so many programs that are supposed to be there to lift up communities that have been left behind oftentimes don't seem to reach the people in those communities," says Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness, who in years past often visited the Mizell Center for meetings of the NAACP, Jesse Jackson's nonprofit Rainbow/PUSH, and other groups.

Some critics are upset the city rejected a plan proposed years ago by the Minority Builders Coalition that would have renovated the existing Mizell Center and turned into a small business hub at a much lower price point. They point out that the YMCA is building another center in nearby Holiday Park. They also question the timing.

"There's an elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about, but everybody sees it," Burrows says, "and that's the quickly changing landscape of our community. And it just seems odd to me that after 60 years of putting no money in our community, that right on the precipice of the community turning over through gentrification, now all the sudden we want to give you a beautiful facility on Sistrunk."

Commissioner Holness says he supports the Y but is concerned about whether it'll be able to help Sistrunk residents as much as the Minority Builders Coalition concept might have because of its focus on job training. He's most concerned about the process the city took and that residents seemingly haven't had a true voice.

"So much of the community's history is tied to that," Holness says. "There's so much that is emotionally vested there by the people of that northwest community that you ought to show more sensitivity to their needs and to what they want to see happen."
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Brittany Shammas is a former staff writer at Miami New Times. She covered education in Naples before taking a job at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. She joined New Times in 2016.
Contact: Brittany Shammas