Miami-Dade County

People pushed for a museum on Miami’s Virginia Key. Now there’s a fund to run it

Someone walking around Virginia Key Beach Park today would see some of the same amenities that were available more than 70 years ago: a bath house to wash out the pesky sand between one’s toes, picnic tables where visitors can enjoy a bite to eat and a carousel that’s an amusement for young and old.

However, Miamians who are familiar with the history of the park — a place that was once the only beach that welcomed people of color — have for years anticipated a new park amenity: a historic civil rights museum.

On Monday, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez formally signed a resolution creating the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park Museum Fund for a minimum of 10 years. The fund is intended to help pay for operation of the museum after it’s built, although the city has not said how much it will commit. For the past two fiscal years, the city has contributed $300,000 per year to the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, the board that oversees park operations.

The museum is set to highlight the history of the park and detail its coastal dune ecosystem, which is dominated by sea oats, coconut palm trees and dune sunflowers.

Monday’s signing ceremony took place at Virginia Key Beach Park with residents, community leaders, local officials and park campers in attendance. The resolution is set to unlock county funds totaling about $20.5 million dollars that were allotted for construction of a museum over 10 years ago. In order for the county funds to be released, the city had to commit that it would aid in the museum’s operational needs. But that step had been stalled, as the Great Recession halted museum planning and the search for operational funds.

Gene Tinnie, center, chairman of Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, speaks during a ceremony at Historic Virginia Key Beach Park Monday. Charlie Ortega Guifarro

“This museum is long overdue,” Suarez said at Monday’s ceremony. “As our community’s first African-American beach, this treasure represents both pain and progress. On one hand it highlights the shameful era of segregation, but on the other hand, it embodies hope.”

During segregation, Virginia Key Beach Park was the only Miami beach that welcomed people of color, and it was a destination for prominent African Americans such as Martin Luther King Jr. and James Brown. As Miami beaches moved toward integration and more options became available for beachgoers, the park began to struggle. In 1979 Miami-Dade County gave ownership of the park to the city. It eventually closed in 1982, with the city citing high maintenance costs.

The park reopened in 2008, after years of restoration and a push from community coalitions. Today, the park hosts a plethora of events including festivals, day camps and concerts.

Last month, Miami commissioners unanimously passed the resolution Suarez signed before the community Monday. Construction money from the museum comes from two sources: Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners approved up to $5 million for park improvements and construction of a museum in 2001. Then in 2004, Miami-Dade County voters approved the Building a Better Communities Program, allowing the county to pay for more than 300 community projects by issuing long-term bonds. From the bonds, the city of Miami was awarded a $15.5 million grant to build a civil rights museum.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez says through the new fund, the city will help pay for the operational costs for the first 10 years of a new museum at Historic Virginia Key Beach Park. Charlie Ortega Guifarro

Last year, city commissioners struck a deal with Ultra Music Festival organizers, under which half of the $2 million fee the festival would pay the city for holding the festival on Virginia Key would go to the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust.

Gene Tinnie, chair of the trust, said the board sees the future museum as an opportunity to highlight not just African-American history, but details of Miami’s early inhabitants as well as the flora and fauna that populate the barrier island.

“[The trust] has gone to quite a few museum conferences of different kinds and we have encountered no other that really combines natural history and social history in the same kind of experience,” Tinnie said.

For some residents, like Lt. Ramon Carr of the Miami Police Department, the park holds fond memories. Carr said he used to go to the park to train with the police department, unaware of how deep the park’s history went.

“We knew that this was ‘the black beach,’ but we didn’t understand what it meant,” said Carr, who is also vice president of the Miami Community Benevolent Association, an advocacy group for black police officers. “When I started really understanding, I was like, ‘This is amazing.’ [My wife and I] have brought our sons out here just to take it all in.”

Members of the team that pushed for the creation of a cultural museum at Historic Virginia Key Beach Park pose for a picture with Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, front center, on Monday. Charlie Ortega Guifarro

Maud Newbold, a trust board member, said in an earlier interview with the Herald that she remembers frequenting the park as a young girl and a student at Booker T. Washington High School.

“So many times I just come and sit under the tree and just reminisce and feel the breeze,” Newbold said. “I don’t want anyone to think it’s just the black beach, but it’s now a beach for all people to come and enjoy.”

Guy Forchion, the trust’s executive director, said the city’s recent commitment is a notable step toward bringing the park’s museum to fruition.

“Having unanimous support from the Miami commission and the mayor sponsor our resolution was really as good as it could get in terms of support coming from the city,” Forchion said. “We’re 82 acres of an amazing shoreline. ... It’s a place where the community gathers. ... It’s a place were you can recreate and always come.”

Earlier, museum planning had gotten to the point that an architectural rendering was commissioned, but Forchion said Monday that the work was dated and probably would not be used.

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A former rendering of the proposed Virginia Key Beach Park museum created by a past firm vying to build the project. Miami commissioners voted on June 13 committing to help with the proposed museum’s operational cost post-construction. Virginia Key Beach Park

Forchion said the preliminary location for the museum is what is now the park’s expansive front lawn. Construction would begin by 2021 and take two to three years to complete.

Melissa Dynan, chief of staff for County Commissioner Xavier Suarez, said there will have to be a county resolution for funds to be released, now that the city has committed to the museum’s operations. That vote has not been scheduled, but the earliest it could come up would be September, she said.

“I strongly believe that in order to move forward, we must reflect on our past,” Mayor Suarez said Monday before signing the resolution. “The time has come for a historic Virginia Key Beach Park museum. ... Leadership requires stepping up. Having a city with a $1 billion budget and a county with an $8 billion budget means that you’ve got to step up.”