Once known as Dade County’s only public beach for the “exclusive use of Negroes,” Virginia Key Beach Park (VKBP) is preparing to celebrate its 65th anniversary.
The party will happen at the historic beach on Sunday, Aug. 1, from 2-4 p.m.
“It will be low-key,” Gene Tinnie, chairman of the Virginia Key Beach Trust board of trustees said about the party. There will be ice cream and cake served, and free amusement rides, he said. To add to the fun, Tinnie said, “We are encouraging people to wear retro fashions and drive out in vintage cars.”
Kechi Okpala, VKBT director of events and media, added that the park will offer self-guided tours.
“We want to acknowledge just how far Virginia Key Beach Park Trust has come, share a piece of its history,” she said. Okpala said that VKBT “especially wants the people who remember its heyday, those who took part in it, to come. “They are the custodians of the history,” she said.
The park has a storied history.
In its heyday, the old Virginia Key Beach was the preeminent gathering place for local and out-of-town segregated classes who were relegated to seek recreation and respite time in separate-but-equal facilities.
In 1945, black people waded into the water at Miami's all-white beaches to demand that what was then Dade County government make a public beach available for them.
A wade-in at Haulover Beach, led by attorney Lawson E. Thomas, persuaded Dade County officials to establish Virginia Key Beach, which was the first “colored-only” beach in Miami. All of Miami's public beaches became integrated in the '60s.
Virginia Key Park remained open until 1982, when it was transferred to the city of Miami. Many reasons surrounded the park's closing, from insufficient funding and upkeep by the city, to the integration of all public beaches. Some people have cited underlying racial tensions for the closing.
Virginia Key Park reopened in 2008 as both a park and museum, and sought to bring back some of the features it offered in 1945. The Trust received $1.2 million in funding from the city during the 2008-2009 budget year, but took a major hit last year when its operating budget was cut to zero.
Given the Trust’s budget to date, Tinnie said, “We can only anticipate another zero-dollar year. We will get really active in fundraising and engaging the community,” he said about the Trust’s efforts to raise additional monies. “We will beat the bushes to try and get the people’s support, dollars, in-kind; anything to keep the dream alive.”
The Trust currently survives on its 2008-2009 roll-over budget of $539,000, according to Tinnie.
“It’s money that by next year will be gone,” he said.
The Miami-Dade County Parks and Recreation department, Tinnie said, is picking up some of the park’s vital work.
Okpala added that the Trust raises money from family reunions, weddings, YMCA of Greater Miami summer camps and other functions at the park.
“It’s such a huge gap between those who remember coming [to the park] and those who don’t,” said Okpala. “We want to educate the younger generation, let them know what all of this is about and what it was.”
Photo: Gene Tinnie
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Historic Virginia Key Beach Park 65th Anniversary Party.
WHEN: Sunday, Aug. 1, from 2-4 p.m.
WHERE: Virginia Key Beach Park, 4020 Virginia Beach Drive, Key Biscayne.
COST: Free and open to the public.
CONTACT: For more information, please call 305-960-4600.