FORT LAUDERDALE — The Mizell family boasts a distinctive record of achievement in Broward County. It began when Isadore S. Mizell, the son of an ex-slave from Georgia, settled in Dania Beach in 1908 and became the largest independent farmer in Broward.
Dr. Von D. Mizell, a member of the family, was the first black surgeon in Florida and co-founder of Provident Hospital, Fort Lauderdale’s first medical facility for blacks.
Ivory Mizell became known as the unofficial town chronicler, using his photographic skills to document the lives of Broward County’s black community. LeRoy Mizell made a name for himself as an entrepreneur and mortician.
“Oftentimes you hear comments that black families don’t have strong black males but that’s not true,” Don Mizell, Isadore Mizell’s grandson, said. “If you go back in time, the black male was the patriarch of the family. He may not have had a college degree but he wasn’t in jail. He had a job, earned money and was taking care of his family.”
And those facts are only a generation back, said Don Mizell, 61. “Everybody knows it but it’s been lost in the mythology framed around the poor definition of a black man.”
Mizell, an attorney and Grammy Award winning music producer, recounted the history of his family at the Feb. 17 Brown Bag Historical Lunch program hosted by the Broward County Historical Commission.
The event was held at West Side Grade School in Fort Lauderdale, and attracted 56 people.
Don Mizell was among 40 people named last October by the commission as pioneers of Broward County, according to Helen Landers, Broward County Historian.
“When we began to think about February as African-American History Month, we considered that his family represents a little over 100 years of history here,” Landers said. Mizell stands out as an example of a person from a family that overcame many things, she said. “So we felt it was something that would be interesting to those who attend our monthly brown bag lunch.”
Isadore Mizell, the family’s patriarch, did not attend elementary school or college, his grandson said. “He started out with nothing but his wit and determination and built a million-dollar fortune with his mind and hands.”
Isadore Mizell relocated to Broward County from
Jasper and began farming tomatoes. He returned to Jasper for his wife, Minnie, and two children and began to build the Isadore Mizell House, located just east of Federal Highway and Dania Beach Boulevard.
“The acreage of the farm swelled so that Isadore was able to feed other black families throughout the Depression,” Mizell said. “Later, he and Minnie had 12 more children.”
When tomato farming failed, he took up carpentry and is credited with building Dania’s first black school.
Isadore lived to be 105, and Minnie, 97, according to their grandson.
Von Mizell, another member of the family, founder of the Broward branch of the NAACP. According to Don Mizell, he “refused to accept segregation as a fait accompli. As a civil rights activist, he fought a good fight over decades, when it was dangerous to do so.”
But Von Mizell did not need to fight, Don Mizell said. “He was rich, owned lots of property and with fair skin and blue eyes he could cross over to the white side whenever he felt like it. In fact, he was encouraged to do so. Yet he still fought for those who could not fight for themselves.”
In 1927, Jim Crow laws led to segregation of the beaches and the designation of areas for blacks. In response to complaints from beachfront property owners, the city of Fort Lauderdale restricted blacks to the area of beaches later known as the Galt Ocean Mile. But, in the 1950s, developers purchased that area, leaving blacks without a beach.
Between 1961 and 1963, community leaders, including Eula Mae Johnson and Von Mizell, successfully fought for the rights of blacks to swim at whatever beach they chose.
In summer 1961, Lorraine Mizell, Ivory Mizell’s daughter, along with a group of college students, took part in the first of many wade-ins at Fort Lauderdale Beach.
“I went with my uncle Von and other college students,” Lorraine Mizell recalled at the luncheon. “I was terrified but was with Von and felt safe. When we got there, Von told us to get in the water, so we slowly moved out. I’m not sure how long we stayed, but the police came quickly and questioned Von and Eula. Von’s goal was not to have us go to jail, so he had us get out of the water and leave.”
Although the wade-ins continued, Lorraine Mizell said, “That was my first and only one.”
Because of Von Mizell’s involvement with civil rights, the Ku Klux Klan planned to assassinate him, Don Mizell said. “He had to have people come to his office at night to surround him, walk him to his car and ride shotgun. [The Klan] were coming almost every night looking to kill him,” he said.
Old Dillard Museum historian James Bradley, who attended the luncheon, said many others were targeted besides Von Mizell “but he was controversial, his name stood out as being the second black doctor here and he rode around in a nice big car.”
The Klan, Bradley recalled, “burned a stake not only in front of Von’s house but in front of Leroy’s [Mizell] funeral home. This was probably about 1947.”
Don Mizell said that his objective is to help people see that there is one history in Fort Lauderdale and Broward County. “The talk that black history is for blacks and white history for whites is fundamentally inaccurate in terms of what really happened,” he said. “We need to get past that.”
Cynthia Roby can be reached at CynthiaRoby@bellsouth.net.