‘White sand, black beach’: The black history of Virginia Key

On May 9, 1945, two black women and four black men arrived at “whites only” Haulover Beach Park and took off their street clothes to reveal bathing suits underneath. They were about to boldly swim into the waters that were forbidden to them simply because of the color of their skin.

Nearby, black attorney and civil rights activist Lawson Thomas waited for them to be arrested. He had $500 in his pocket, ready to bail them out.

His wife was waiting nervously at home, worried Thomas might not come back alive.

It was a wade-in. And it’s what would begin the process of equalizing access to Miami’s greatest gem: the water.

When the county’s sheriff finally showed, it was clear he wasn’t about to cause a scene. Miami was making the big bucks off of tourism. Arresting a couple of black swimmers on a white beach might be fine just in the South, but the county didn’t want vacationing northerners and Europeans to start turning their heads.

“The city that depended on tourism needed to avoid ugly public racial squabbles,” wrote Gregory Bush in his recent book “White Sand Black Beach,” a chronology of the civil rights, public spaces, and Miami’s Virginia Key.

So the sheriff simply left. And the rogue swimmers followed, a bit of an anticlimactic ending.

But it started something. A month later, county commissioner Charles Crandon met with several African American leaders and decided to designate an island further south, Virginia Key Beach, a “colored beach.”

Just like that, of the county’s 28 or so public beaches, blacks living in Miami finally had one they could call their own.

Rewind a bit

Before this, blacks had access to little or no public space in Miami — let alone access to the water, which had been increasingly privatized during the building boom of the 1920s.

Public parks had been off limits to blacks since the 1890s, which meant that they could only convene in the streets, and conduct their business in bars, barber shops, and homes. Though they helped build Miami from a swampland into a metropolis, they remained largely invisible and politically marginalized.

  • In 1885, the state constitution formally separated blacks and whites,
  • In 1887 they were ordered to sit in separate railroad cars and in 1909 separate jails.
  • In 1913 it became unlawful for whites to teach in black schools (and vice versa)

By the mid-1920s the Ku Klux Klan was demonstrating actively in Miami, their parades attended by many as a form of entertainment. They sold out performances at Bayfront Park through the 1930s, according to the book.

When blacks would rent in white neighborhoods, they were often terrorized or pushed out. In Coconut Grove, Bahamians were confined to a specific district, with the Ku Klux Klan routinely parading down Grand Avenue, according to “White Sand Black Beach.”

In 1918, Dana Dorsey, a black carpenter turned real estate agent from Georgia who was one of Miami’s first black millionaires, purchased 18 acres on what is now Fisher Island. He wanted to develop the city’s first black beach and resort. The plan failed after just two years because the location was only accessible by water and most black residents didn’t have a way to get there.

Meanwhile, white hotel developers and residents started having conversations about giving black Miamians a place to swim — not for altruistic equality but rather a selfish sense of preservation.

Hotel developer Carl Fisher is quoted in Bush’s book saying: “The best way to keep them off our beach…is to give them a place of their own.”

By 1932, the Great Depression had slowed all industry in Miami. President Roosevelt’s New Deal Programs helped Miami-Dade residents, but it also heightened racial tensions. At the time, many black people were living in Overtown in one-story shacks without toilets or bathrooms.

Federal and local officials decided to build the Liberty Square housing project, which opened in February 1937.

“The plans originally included a swimming pool but the amenity was cut after a white physician expressed his concern it might spread venereal diseases,” the book reads. “others said it was ‘frivolous,’ even though Dade County had 20 public pools exclusively for whites.”

By 1938, the Dade County Planning Board called for a colored part of the county beaches and a public bathing beach for blacks, but still nothing was done to increase access. Black workers on Miami Beach had to get a pass to work there, and they would have to go to the police department to renew their pass every January.

Some black residents still found their way to the water before policies caught up.

Preservationist Enid Pinkney said authorities would allow black people to go to 36th street and swim off the causeway. That’s where she was baptized. And before the creation of Virginia Key Beach formally, there was a spot on Virginia Key called Bears Cut, which though rocky, was a popular spot. Many also swam in rock pits in Coconut Grove and secluded parts of Homestead. It was always dangerous, but they had nowhere else to go.

A “colored” beach

 

But with Thomas’ 1945 wade-in, the wheels started turning. The new beach, which was on county-owned land, was created just east of Key Biscayne on August 8, 1945, “far from the gaze of white tourists,” according to the book.

“You could argue it’s all about real estate. They said ‘Okay we’ll give them a beach but it won’t be close to our house or development’,” Bush suggested.

For the first two years, the beach was tough to get to — the Rickenbacker hadn’t been built yet and it could only be reached by ferry. African Americans used a boat operated by the county to get there.

They’d catch it at NW 7th Street and NW 7th Avenue, then sail down the Miami River. The boat was always packed, squeezing in more than 100 people at a time. And it’d make two to three trips a day to get everyone. Some managed to rent private boats. Others even used makeshift rafts.

By 1947, the commission convinced the federal government to help the build a bridge to Virginia Key Beach. They envisioned the island could be used as a navy training facility.

Heyday, demise, and resurgence

Many blacks who served in World War II and returned after fighting “racist regimes in Europe” grew more and more upset about the lack of access to basic freedoms in their own home.

Now they finally had a beach of their own. It became a new free space for leisure, community building, solidarity and experiencing the natural world, Bush explained.

Once the causeway was built, blacks finally had complete access to the water. Every weekend the parking lot was filled with cars, and the 46-acre beach was packed.

The beach had large, shaded picnic areas with barbecue pits, cottages, a boat ramp and a mini-train and carousel rides. It was where many Caribbean, South American, and Cuban immigrants also bathed, because it was the only beach they could swim in at the time, as well.

It was a place for baptisms, Fourth of July celebrations, first kisses and dates, church gatherings and family outings.

There was no toll or turnstile and no one was counting, so we don’t know exactly how many people visited Virginia Key Beach, but oral histories and photos show that it was bumpin’ — both here and around the country. Famous musicians and civil rights leaders at the time like Nat King Cole, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, and Martin Luther King Jr. would often come when they were in town.

The eventual integration of beaches in the 1960s, however led to Virginia Key Beach’s demise, as black families could now swim freely in other parts of Miami-Dade. In 1982, the City of Miami closed the park because it was too expensive to operate and upkeep. A few years later, the city was facing a fiscal crisis and considered developing the land — but local activists demanded it be preserved as a site of historical significance.

In 2000, the Miami City Commission established a Virginia Key Beach Park Trust and two years later the beach was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Eight years later, the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park re-opened to the public with many of the amenities it had before, plus an ecosystem restoration project and a cultural center still under construction, according to Gene Tinney, the trust’s chairman.

You might even recognize the flowing palm trees, white sand, and crystal blue Atlantic waters in a little movie called “Moonlight,” when Chiron, a young black boy from Liberty City finally learns how to swim.