Miami-Dade County

Remembering protest that led to opening first beach for black Miamians

A group of bathers on Virginia Key Beach.
A group of bathers on Virginia Key Beach. Black Archives

They are all dead now — probably; some of their names have been lost to time, so there’s no way to be certain — and there’s no way to ask them if they knew they were making history. But the seven black people who splashed into the water at all-white Haulover Beach 70 years ago this weekend set off ripples that would eventually turn into the most profound social upheaval in American history, the civil rights movement.

“What they did was very, very significant,” said Miami historian and preservationist Enid Pinkney, 83, then a teenager who followed the events at Haulover closely. “I can’t say for sure it was the first act of civil disobedience for civil rights. But it was certainly one of the very early ones, not just in Florida but in the whole South.”

The protest, nearly a decade before the national civil-rights movement began to take hold, quickly resulted in what was then Dade County opening a beach to its black citizens for the first time. And it touched off nearly two decades of sit-ins and demonstrations to integrate restaurants, nightclubs, hotels and everything else in the county.

A handful of people gathered Saturday morning at Haulover Beach to commemorate the history of the “wade-in.” Among them was 86-year-old Mary Hill, a local activist and founder of the New Day human services program in the 1960s, who said she played a role in planning the protest when she was only a teenager.

“When I was young I used to go up and down and see the beaches and wonder why they were all white,” Hill said. “We have come from a mighty long way. Back then, we had no beach, we had no place to put our feet.”

After sharing some thoughts and reflections on the past, some members of the group waded into the water like the seven people did back in 1945.

“It’s very humbling to be in the presence of those who were here during that period,” said architect Neil Hall. “They’re the reason why I’m here today.”

Saturday’s ceremony was part of a year-long series of events celebrating the 70th anniversary of Virginia Key Beach, which opened in 1945 as a blacks-only beach in response to the Haulover Beach wade-in.

It was also the second event in two days commemorating significant places and events in South Florida’s black history. A gaggle of local officials and VIPs gathered Friday in Brownsville for the grand opening of the restored Hampton House, for decades the only place black visitors could stay in Miami during the segregation era.

The Haulover Beach wade-in, by contrast, was hardly noticed at all when it took place — at least in white Miami. But in the black part of town, it was like a thunderclap.

In the early years of the 20th century, when Miami and Miami Beach were barely cities and most of the beaches lay well away from populated areas, there were few rules about their use. By the 1920s, however, all two dozen or so beaches were reserved for whites only.

“There was no place for black people to go in the water in Dade,” Pinkney recalled last week. “If you wanted to set foot in the ocean, you had to go up to Broward, which was quite a drive then.” Young black daredevils would sometimes venture onto Haulover or the long stretch of undeveloped beach north of the Fontainebleau Hotel, but at their considerable peril.

“If they were spotted, they’d at least get chased off, or sometimes put in jail for disorderly conduct,” said Garth Reeves, 96, whose family has been publishing the Miami Times newspaper in the black community since 1923. “And an arrest record in those days was serious — that could really follow you around, keep you from getting jobs. There was always something keeping us away from those beaches.”

Blacks had chafed under the beach restrictions for years, but World War II raised the temperature considerably. First, thousands of black military men from unsegregated parts of the country trooped through town, expressing surprise and anger that they couldn’t use Miami’s fabled beaches. Then local soldiers began returning from the war, wondering why they had been fighting for freedom in Europe and the Pacific that they didn’t have at home.

“The subtext of all this is that the war is winding down and black soldiers are coming home, and a lot of them are talking about what they called the Double-V, victory abroad, victory at home,” said Gene Tinnie, a former FIU humanities professor who is now chairman of the Virginia Key Beach Trust. “They said, ‘If there’s going to be freedom and equality over there abroad, then we should have it here.’”

Nonetheless, the Haulover wade-in didn’t have a very radical objective. The idea was not to integrate white beaches, only to get one set aside for blacks. “They were really just trying to make the county live up to the rule of segregation, which was ‘separate but equal,’” said Tinnie. “You couldn’t say things were equal when white people had nearly 30 beaches and black people didn’t have any.”

The wade-in was planned by a group of community leaders who belonged to the Negro Citizens Service League, a forerunner of the Urban League. It called for a large group assembled from the congregations of black churches to assemble at Haulover and go into the water. Attorney Lawson Thomas, who years later would become the county’s first judge, stood by on the shore with a wad of cash in his pocket to pay bail when the protesters were arrested.

Some of the organizers privately believed that arrest was the very least of the things they had to worry about. Thomas’ wife, Eugenia, would later confide to friends that when he left for the beach, she never expected to see him alive again.

“There was no guarantee that the sheriff would be the one to show up and greet these demonstrators,” said Tinnie, who in the 1990s interviewed many family members of the protesters. “It could easily have been somebody from the Ku Klux Klan, and then you’re looking at a whole different outcome.”

As it turned out, though, neither the Klan nor almost anybody else showed up on the afternoon of May 9, 1945. Although the Miami Herald, apparently relying on the word of police, would report the next morning that “50 or 60” protesters went swimming, the protesters themselves said later that only two people showed up at the scheduled time.

One of the planners, a black labor-union official named Judge Henderson, scurried around town, rounding up volunteers, including two U.S. Navy sailors he ran into. Others who went into the water included two grocers, Otis Mundy and May Dell Braynon, and Annie Coleman, founder of the Overtown Women’s Club. (Like Thomas and Henderson, Mundy, Braynon and Coleman all died years ago.)

Now that a team of protesters had assembled, just one thing was lacking: Some police to arrest them. Since nobody had called the cops, Henderson did it himself. But when Dade’s affable sheriff, Smiling Jimmy Sullivan showed up, he wouldn’t play his part.

“Come on out of the water, because he’s going to put you all in jail,” the attorney Lawson Thomas called out to demonstrators as he prepared to pull out his bail money. Interrupted the sheriff: “Now, you know I can’t do that. But they’re not supposed to be in there.”

Thomas turned to the protesters. “Go back in then,” he instructed them.

“They had this strange back-and-forth for quite a while,” said the Virginia Key Beach Trust’s Tinnie. “The sheriff would say, ‘Ya’ll know you’re not supposed to do that, so come out.’ And they would say, ‘Well, if you’re not gonna arrest us, we’re gonna stay.’”

Tinnie believes that city officials had warned the sheriff they didn’t want trouble.

“The war is ending, Miami is opening to the world, it’s all about tourists and sun and fun,” he said. “You don’t want to besmirch the image…Arresting a bunch of black people for swimming might have played well in the rest of the South, but not to tourists from Europe.”

The sheriff finally gave up and went home, followed soon by the protesters, who thought they’d lost. They were wrong — less than a month later, the country announced that Virginia Key Beach would become its first “colored beach.” It opened on Aug. 1, 1945.

The beach, at first, was less than ideal, especially because the Rickenbacker Causeway hadn’t been built yet and the only way to reach Virginia Key was by boat. So many black beach-bathers lined up for the trip on weekends that it could take two hours to cross.

But the half-mile-long beach and the 82-acre park surrounding it were steadily upgraded, with concession stands, cabanas, a dance floor, carousel and even a mini-train to travel the grounds. By 1959 its reputation was so alluring that it was featured in a story in Look magazine.

But by then, separate but equal was no longer enough to satisfy Miami’s black population.

Miami Times publisher Garth Reeves remembers that when he returned home after serving nearly four years in the U.S. Army during World War II and discovered the county had a black beach, “it was the happiest time of my life.”

“When I left for the war, there wasn’t any integration anywhere” around Miami, Reeves said. “That was true segregation. I went to an all-black high school and an all-black college. Every damn thing was closed to us.”

So he loved Virginia Key Beach. But it was still an artifact of segregation, and that gnawed at him. “The county had 28 municipal beaches, and we were restricted to one, the so-called colored beach,” Reeves said. “That didn’t set right for me.”

In the mid-1950s, Reeves and other black community leaders filed a suit to open the rest of the beaches. It didn’t go anywhere, even though the county attorney’s office told the surprised Reeves that they weren’t even sure there was an actual law segregating the beaches.

Finally, in November 1959, Reeves and 11 other black leaders asked Dade County commissioners to meet with them at Crandon Park on Key Biscayne, then the crown jewel of the country recreation system.

“We called the meeting for 10 a.m.,” Reeves remembered. “ We said, ‘We’re citizens, we’re taxpayers, and we want to use public beaches.What are you going to do about this situation?’…

“They didn’t really have anything to say in return, so we told them we would be back at 2 p.m. and we were going to go into the water. ‘You want to beat us up or put us in jail, go ahead,’ we said.”

When the group returned at 2 p.m., just like the Haulover Beach wade-in, its membership had unaccountably shrunk to five, all men, wearing bathing trunks under their suits. They heard noise from the Crandon bath house and — fearing they would be jumped inside — avoided it, walking directly down to the beach, where they shed shoes and clothing and walked into the ocean.

“And what happened was nothing,” a chuckling Reeves remembered. “No county commissioners came, no police came. So we swam around for 15 or 20 minutes, and left.” Just as it had in 1945, the county quietly folded its hand. “We sent our people to six or eight other public beaches the next day, just to be sure, and nobody said anything to them, either,” said Reeves. “So that was the end of segregated beaches.”

Ironically, integration killed Virginia Key Beach. The crowds thinned, maintenance declined and its reputation turned dodgy. In 1982 it closed, only to be resurrected in 2008 as an ecological park and historic site. And, says Tinnie, as a symbol of what could have been for the rest of the South — a civil rights achievement not pockmarked by bullets, billy clubs, bombs or the teeth of police dogs.

“Miami was not Birmingham, with all the hate and divisiveness,” said Tinnie. “This was something better. This was a place where two populations learned to respect each other.”

A previous version of this story listed the wrong date for the founding of the Miami Times newspaper. The paper began publishing in 1923.

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