On the morning of Monday, April 12, 1949, seven prominent African Americans arrived at the city of Miami-owned Miami Springs Golf and Country Club knowing they would not be allowed to play because of racial segregation. They were ready to sue if they were turned away.
According to hometeamsonline, the course superintendent contacted the city attorney and then informed the men that they could play. But a club rule required each player to have his own bag of clubs and the men had brought only one set that they intended to share. They decided to leave and return the next day, which they did, and they were allowed to play.
A week later, the club changed its rules to conﬁne African Americans to playing only on Mondays. Then came another hurdle. The course superintendent said the number of European American players had dropped by 50 percent and he would reduce the men’s playing time to half a day if enough of them did not turn out to make up for the revenue loss.
The men sued and the case, Rice v. Arnold, which would attract the attention of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Thurgood Marshall, reached the U.S.
Supreme Court. The city eventually gave in and removed all barriers on April 7, 1958, which “set a precedent for future public accommodations cases across the segregated South,” ESPN’s golf reporter Farrel Evans wrote in 2012, after interviewing one of the activists, the late Garth Reeves, publisher of The Miami Times.
Desegregating the golf course was one of two major civil rights victories at the time for African Americans. The other was a challenge to then Dade County’s ban against African Americans’ swimming at public beaches. That happened when 10 African American men walked into the waters off Haulover Beach. They fully expected that police ofﬁcers deployed to stop them would at the very least arrest them but nothing happened. One of the men, attorney Lawson Thomas, “brought $800 in bail money in case they were” arrested, The Miami Herald recalled in a report last week.
The county commission designated a “Colored-Only” beach on Virginia Key for African Americans in August 1945, even though it “was accessible only by boat or ferry until a causeway was built to Key Biscayne in 1947,” The Herald recalled. Still, a park was developed on 82 acres on what became known as Historic Virginia Key Beach. It “was popular for swimming, picnics, family gatherings, ‘Splashdown’ parties and had a concession stand famous for its corn dogs. It also had pavilions, an ornate carousel and mini-train rides for kids.”
Meanwhile, to expand their victory, African Americans staged another “wade-in” at Crandon Park on Key Biscayne in 1959, demanding desegrega. tion of all beaches.
Probably few people, including African Americans, remember or even know about those acts of racial assertiveness from 75 years ago. To preserve such history and other civil rights achievements, activists started calling for a civil rights museum to be built on Virginia Key Beach. In February 2003, the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, which had been created to manage the property, launched a $30 million master plan for the park and proposed museum and, in October 2005, selected a ﬁrm to design a “museum/cultural center” on the site, according to a trust report.
The proposal quickly ran into the problem of funding. Miami Budget Director Chris Rose would later explain that the museum’s ﬁrst three years of operation would cost between $700,00 and $1 million annually. Miami-Dade County, which had owned the property but had given it to the city, allocated up to $5 million from its convention tax proceeds for constructing the museum and for the park’s upkeep. Additionally, a massive Building Better Communities General Obligation Bond which county voters approved in 2004 included $15.5 million for the museum project.
However, it was not until 2019 that the city voted to accept the county funds, with Mayor Francis Suarez sponsoring the enabling resolution. The money was slated for the ﬁrst 10 years of the museum’s operation. The resolution also created the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park Museum Fund. “This museum is long overdue,” Suarez said. “As our community’s ﬁrst African American beach, this treasure represents both pain and progress. We’re accepting the county funds. We’ve done everything the county asked. So there’s no more excuses.”
Construction was slated to begin in 2021 on the park’s front lawn, Guy Forchion, then the trust’s executive director, explained. But nothing has happened.
Meanwhile, several cultural institutions – none of them African Americanoriented — were receiving large county subsidies. They included the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), the Frost Science Museum and the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora, The Herald reported.
“Miami-Dade County has subsidized other cultural facilities for years. For the current budget year, commissioners agreed to give PAMM, HistoryMiami and Vizcaya Museum and Gardens $4 million each. The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts received a $6.5 million subsidy. The Cuban Diaspora museum received $550,000 and the Bay of Pigs Museum received $500,000,” The Herald noted.
African American activists have been outraged. “It’s a pattern of broken promises and sheer indifference,” Enid Pinkney, president of the Dade Heritage Trust and a former educator, told The Herald. “The only explanation is prejudice. Any nationality can come to Miami and get respect — except the people who built this city. It’s sickening.”
The city left little doubt about who was to blame for the delay. Late last year -three years after their pledge to build the museum — commissioners dissolved the park’s governing trust and named Christine Ford King, its ﬁrst ever chairwoman and a Guyanese American, as its head and empowered her to appoint two other members. King tapped assistant public defender Bonita JonesPeabody and David Brown, a former Opa-locka city attorney.
It is a big responsibility for King, who was elected to the commission only in November 2021. In addition, Virginia Key Beach is not in her district; Ken Russell, the only European American member, who represented that area, resigned to run for the county commission and a successor will be chosen at an upcoming special election.
King sees her mandate as covering both the park and the proposed museum and she quickly put to rest a suggestion which the city floated in 1998 that private development should be allowed on the beach. “I am not building a hotel out there, a Marriott, a Hilton,” King has stated.
King plans to convene a community meeting to let residents know what is at stake and obtain their input. Her assignment will be made considerably easier if the city commission reafﬁrms its support for the mayor’s statement that the museum “is long overdue.” It will also no doubt be very helpful if the county commission, which has several African American members, throws its full ﬁnancial weight behind the project. Then the two sides can rapidly settle any differences so construction can begin.
There is momentum now and it should be used to “get this done,” King said, “Shame on us that we don’t have a museum representing our history.” Yes, indeed
But lurking in the background is the possibility that if this latest initiative which King heads fails, the city will give up on the museum proposal and turn Virginia Key Beach over to private developers.