Saturday marked the 70th birthday of Virginia Key Beach Park, famous not only for its clear water, carousel, and uninhibited views, but for its historical significance as being the first “colored only” beach in Miami-Dade County.
In May 1945, seven black people orchestrated a “wade-in” at Haulover Beach in defiance of segregation-era Jim Crow laws that prohibited blacks from sharing beaches, among many other places, with whites. Police were called but were instructed by local government officials not to cite or arrest them. As a way to ease race restrictions in recreational places, the county chose the Atlantic-facing area of Virginia Key shortly after the wade-in, to become “Virginia Key Beach, a Dade County Park for the exclusive use of Negroes.”
The event Saturday celebrated the park’s beginning and its history. With the goal of highlighting all of the decades from when it came to be until now, the festival featured a car show ranging from 1950s Corvettes to new Vipers, free carousel rides, learn-to-drum activities, karaoke, food and drink vendors, time-line exhibits from the 1940s until present-day, and a “Memory Board” with black-and-white photos of some of the first black patrons who frequented the beach.
From 1945, when the beach officially opened, to the early 1960s when segregation ended, it was the only place where African-Americans and Bahamians, who made up one-third of Miami’s population and helped build the city, could swim and enjoy beach activities. During the 1950s, a sewage treatment plant was erected on the key, treating all of the sewage from the city, according to a report published by the Water Environment Federation. The treated sludge was discharged into the ocean, yet beachgoers, who came by ferry during the first few years before the Rickenbacker Causeway was developed, still reveled in the waters.
“This is a monument to the community,” said Guy Forchion, the park’s director. “The community stayed around even after it was closed for nearly a quarter of a century.”
According to a report by News Journal Wire Services, “when beaches closer to historically Black residential neighborhoods desegregated, Virginia Key Beach gradually declined both in use and upkeep.” It goes on to say that in 1982, “the County transferred the former colored-only park to the City of Miami with a deed restriction that it only be used as a park and that the City continue the level of services and maintenance.”
Citing high costs of maintaining it, the City closed the Park before it would reopen two decades later with the help of local grassroots activists who protested plans that might have led to it becoming a commercial development. A trust, appointed by City Hall, would restore the land, ripping out blankets of invasive plants and replacing them with native ones, making the park an environmental historical area and an “open green space for a multi-cultural society.”
By 2002, it became part of the National Register of Historic Places. Six years later, the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust reopened the park to the public, according to a timeline on the park’s website.
“What a wonderful event,” said Rochelle Lessner, a member of the Coconut Grove Drum Circle, who showed kids how to play the instrument at the park Saturday. “It’s a really nice, relaxing afternoon, and what a great thing to be celebrating the birthday of this magnificent park.”
Greter Cruz, of Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, played the drums with her 4-year old daughter on her lap across from Lessner. Her favorite part of the festival: the kids’ activities, drums and the Jamaican food served by a vendor next to the drum circle.
Tracey Muhammad, who was selling handmade soap in a booth near the carousel, recounted her memories of coming to the beach park with her parents as a child. “It was the highlight of my week,” she said of her childhood trips there. “I didn’t know it was the first black beach until today,” she said. “I just knew I had the best family time here growing up. Now, I bring my children here.”
At the karaoke booth, Forchion, donned in a bright green Afro wig with ’70s attire, belted out a Jimi Hendrix song while fake-playing a red and white electric guitar. After the song he said, “The land and the history of this place are one. The 70th anniversary is a big to-do. Even if it’s 100 years later, the historical importance of this place will never go away.”