DELRAY BEACH —It is a part of Delray Beach’s history that has nearly been washed away by the sands of time, yet the integration of the city’s public beach in 1962 remains a pivotal period in its evolution.
Over the years, the story of the nine-year-battle that included wade-ins, protests and many heated moments calmed only when police stepped in and the city closed its public beach, has been passed on through informal conversations but never truly documented.
Now, the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum, working with Florida Atlantic University’s Department of History, is setting forth on a comprehensive effort to collect memories and stories from those who were involved in the beach integration effort and to have that information made available to the public.
“Our goal is to have the story of the beach integration in Delray Beach properly documented and recorded,” said Charlene F. Jones, the museum’s executive director. “Right now, that story only lives in the memories of those who have lived it.”
Funded in part by a $5,000 matching grant from the Florida Humanities Council, the “Beach At Delray: Florida’s Segregation Dispute” research project will be the focal point of the Delray Speaks event at 7 p.m. Oct. 22 the Spady Museum, 170 NW Fifth Avenue. Museum officials encourage the public to come and share stories from the beach integration efforts.
Those stories, and others, will become part of both an oral history and a booklet produced by Florida Atlantic University professors and the museum staff. The booklet, a comprehensive look at the beach integration effort, will be made available to educators, scholars, and historians who may want to use it to augment learning curriculum on civil rights issues pertaining to South Florida.
“Eventually, we hope to have an exhibit here at the museum that will visually chronicle that time period,” Jones said.
The project was born when Florida Atlantic University Professor Derrick White was going through materials at the museum. In the process, he discovered a local television documentary from the late 1950s that chronicled the beach desegregation movement.
The professor and his colleagues also learned of the drowning of James McBride, a young man who died in 1956 while swimming in an unprotected area that was set aside as a segregated beach for the city’s black residents.
“Professor White was intrigued by this part of Delray’s history and was interested in gathering oral histories and details so the story could be shared,” Jones said.
The story of the fight to integrate Delray’s public beach goes back to the early 1950s, when a group of black residents – seeking access to the public beach –staged the first of what would be several wade-ins. Met by a group of angry white residents, the protesters retreated. But the effort had begun.
Over the course of almost a decade, there were many more protests as well as a lawsuit —eventually dismissed by a judge— demanding an end to segregation on the beach.
By 1962, as the story of Delray’s still segregated beaches became more widely known and as local businesses were threatened with boycotts, city leaders eased up on restrictions. Slowly, what was Delray Beach’s “white’s only” public beach became open to everyone.