The Story Behind Miami’s Colored Beach

Entrance sign / circa 1940s

Historic Virginia Key Beach celebrates courageous 75 year history, bright future.

Such fond memories could come from only one place in the world, and indeed only one place in the segregated South during the Jim Crow era, when Miami’s uniquely thriving African American community turned racism on its head and prospered despite, and because of racist restrictions, due to a combination of savvy political consciousness, professional and business achievement, and raw confidence and courage to “speak truth to power.”

This was certainly the case in 1945 as World War II was winding down. The African American national “Double V” campaign — for victory over fascism abroad and victory over discrimination at home — energized renewed demands around the country for social justice and equality. This was especially true for Colored soldiers and sailors returning home after suffering countless bitter indignities during the war despite their patriotism and heroism.

Miami’s African American community leaders targeted the glaring absence of any place among the miles of sandy beaches where white people from around the world were being welcomed. On May 9, 1945, a full decade before peaceful civil disobedience protests would become the primary strategy of the Civil Rights movement, an intrepid group of Colored bathers, including two women, Ms. May Dell Braynon and Ms. Mary Hayes Sweeting, and two sailors who eagerly joined the effort, left Overtown and dared to “wade in the water” at the site of present-day Haulover Beach. The group, having alerted the sheriff to their presence, intending to be arrested. Attorney Lawson E. Thomas was on hand with cash to immediately pay their bail, for their case would come before the courts and possibly lead to more sweeping legal changes.

Their bold action successfully forced the County leaders to avoid any such embarrassment and commit to the opening of 80+ acres and a half-mile of shoreline on Virginia Key as a Dade County Park “for the exclusive use of Negroes” as early as August 1.

On that date “more than 100 Negroes” according to the *Miami Herald,* arrived by boat, making use of the temporary buildings that had been built for the occasion, with the promise of future improvements that would make the park very nearly equal in its amenities to the much larger White-only beach on neighboring Key Biscayne.

That promise would be kept, especially after the completion of Rickenbacker Causeway in 1947 made the park accessible by automobile, with the construction of a permanent park superintendent’s residence, rental “cottages” and cabanas, popular concession stand, small park office and first-aid station, picnic pavilions, and most notably, a merry-go-round and Mini Train amusement rides, features unheard of in typical segregated Colored parks of the South.

Little wonder then that it would become such a cherished destination for visitors, including nationally known celebrities, as well as South Florida locals who made the beach a hub of African American social, cultural, romantic, spiritual, and family life during its heyday of the 1940s and ‘50s.

In 1959 another bold wade-in demonstration at White-only Crandon Park took place, this time by community leaders Mr. Garth C, Reeves, the Rev. Canon Theodore R. Gibson, and Mr. Oscar Range, which brought a quiet but effective end to the segregation of Miami’s beaches. County authorities, seeing no further need of maintaining two separate beaches, closed Virginia Key. It was not long before popular demand forced the reopening of the beloved park with its shady picnic areas, which would now welcome people of all ethnicities and begin a vibrant new life, leading up to the memorable Splashdown Parties of the 1970s.

In 1982, after ownership of the park changed from County to City, the Miami City Commission, citing high operating costs, closed the park once again. So it would remain for more than two decades, except for a few special events (including movie shoots) and police training exercises, its old but solid structures slipping into neglect and disrepair.

By 1999, with the City in another of its recurring financial crises, a plan was launched for private developers to lease the abandoned site for construction of an exclusive resort. This immediately became controversial as it would have deprived the public of public use of public land, was being planned with little or no regard for the project’s impact on the fragile barrier-island environment, and, most notably, would have bulldozed the historic a historic site with so many stories to tell.

Fortunately, a broad coalition of people who had been brought together by the need to save the 2,000-year-old Native American Miami Circle learned of these plans for Virginia Key and quickly went into action, expanding its numbers to include more of the African American community who rallied to the cause, with beloved longtime community matriarch Mrs. M. Athalie Range, a former Miami City Commissioner herself, emerging as the appropriate, eloquent and persuasive spokesperson for the whole effort.

The Commissioners, ably guided by the late, Arthur E. Teele Jr., readily embraced the community’s vision of more intelligent use of the land by restoring the park to its former splendor as a Civil Rights memorial and environmental landmark.

The City established first a community Taskforce which would eventually become the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust. Chaired by Mrs. Range, who was vital in obtaining funding from the County Commission, With the help of then-Chairperson Dr. Barbara M. Carey Shuler dollars were secured to support the construction of a Museum as part of the park, to tell its stories.

With those commitments in place, the Trust began its work of reclaiming and restoring the old historic park, including necessary environmental improvements made possible by Federal support through former Congresswoman Carrie P. Meek.

The park reopened in grand style in February 2008, beginning appropriately with a Native American Blessing by spiritual leader Mrs. Catherine Hummingbird Ramirez, a longtime supporter, the distinguished Dr. Joseph Lowery, a co-founder, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), as Keynote Speaker.

Today, the Trust continues its work in daily management and operation of the park and, more notably, the planning and design of an indoor/outdoor historical/environmental museum on track to be constructed within the next three years.

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