On May 9, 1945, the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, then called Baker’s Haulover, was being developed by Dade County for “Whites Only.” On that day a group of courageous African Americans engaged in a bold act of civil disobedience, fully a decade before such tactics became the emblem of the Civil Rights movement, by “wading in the water,” with the intent of being arrested and thus bringing public attention to their demand for a bathing beach for the Colored population.
This year is the landmark 70th anniversary of the official opening of Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, Miami’s only “Colored Beach.” An informal Remembrance of the courageous protest which started it all will be held on Saturday, May 9, at 10:00 a.m. at the southern end of Haulover Beach, located on Collins Avenue (Route A1A), just north of Bal Harbour, at Haulover Cut.
Both the organization and the outcome of that demonstration seven decades ago (within the memory of some Miamians still living) reveal much about Miami’s unique and special history, where the odious drama of Jim Crow segregation (sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896, the same year the City of Miami was founded, with black men comprising approximately half of the signers of the Charter) played out very differently from elsewhere in the South, yet with some chillingly typical similarities.
The very fact that such an action was deemed necessary at all reveals that racism, discrimination, social disparities and injustice were still very much a reality in Miami. At the same time, World War II was ending and servicemen, who had fought for freedom and democracy elsewhere in the world, were returning home to a country where they would rightly expect and demand fair treatment.
In Miami, the most visible symbol of Dade County’s prevailing injustice was certainly the region’s most famous asset, its miles of oceanfront beaches. The Colored population was totally excluded by law and custom, despite having played an indispensable role in building and sustaining the overall community; however, this exclusion was no longer tolerable.
Meeting at the home of Dr. Ira P. Davis in Overtown, nicknamed “the Little White House,” leaders like Attorney Lawson E. Thomas, Father John E. Culmer, Judge (his name, rather than title) Henderson of the Longshoremen’s Association, and others formulated a strategy to “test their rights” (as the Miami Herald would report on the day after the wade-in) at a beach park that was still under construction.
They alerted the County Sheriff to their intent, and Attorney Thomas accompanied the group with a “large bag of cash” to post bail for those who would be arrested.
Arriving at the scene and not quite sure of how to respond to a group that was openly flouting established custom and daring him to arrest them, the sheriff made several calls and finally reached County Commissioner Charles H. Crandon, who gave him the instruction to “Tell Lawson to come and see me on Monday and we’ll work something out.”
The “something” was a promise to make good in short order on the County’s long overdue promise to open a bathing beach for Colored use on Virginia Key. On August 1, less than three months later, the present beach was officially designated and became an instant success, even though accessible only by boat from downtown Miami at the time.
That prompt and positive response from the County’s powers-that-be, and their subsequent decision to make Virginia Key Beach very nearly (but never quite) equal to Crandon Park on Key Biscayne, was a reflection of the mutual respect that existed between them and the leadership of Miami’s thriving and successful black community, in stark contrast to other parts of the South. The tangible result was a beach which regularly attracted large numbers of residents and visitors alike, including famed celebrities, and became the hub of black life in South Florida.
Yet, this positive outcome should neither obscure the degree of heroism of those demonstrators, including two notably brave women, Maydell Braynon and Mary Hayes Sweeting, nor the risks they faced. Each was given a permanent police record for having been arrested (a different matter in 1945 than in 1955 or 1965), or, even more daunting, the chance they very likely might have been met by Klan thugs that morning rather than by a sheriff who would carry out legal procedures and make due account of the bail money.
It is the vision and heroism of yesterday’s generations that produce today’s opportunities, a heritage to be preserved and passed on to posterity. This is very much the vision and purpose of the current restoration of Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, which will include museum components.
It may not be mere coincidence that May 9 is also the birth date of radical abolitionist John Brown, born in 1800, or that this drama unfolded in a state that had long been known as “Freedom Land,” with forts, Maroon communities, and Underground Railroad escape routes from slavery, thanks largely to the powerful Native and African American alliance known as the Seminoles, who were known to be present on Virginia Key during the Florida Wars, where three of their number were killed in a skirmish in 1838.
For further information, please call 305-960-4600 or visit www.virginiakeybeachpark.net