MIAMI – A beach in Miami stands as a symbol of the fight for civil rights.
In August 1945, Virginia Beach was designated for the use of “persons of color,” when all other sandy seaside locations were exclusively for the use of whites, and nowadays it has been converted into a park that the Eco-History Tour invites the public to get to know and to enjoy to the max.
It all began on Haulover Beach in metropolitan Miami in 1945 after a peaceful act of civil disobedience staged by a group of blacks.
A little more than 75 years ago, those young people who came to Haulover Beach one day in May with their swimsuits dared to defy the segregation laws and splashed into the surf. They were not afraid of being arrested.
The police were prevented from taking any action against them, no arrests were made and, three months later, in August, local authorities officially designated Virginia Key as a beach “for persons of color only.”
It was a much-hailed victory. Despite being a rather small beach compared to others in South Florida and at the time accessible only by sea, the local African American community immediately made the beach their own and transformed it into a favorite recreation and relaxation spot.
Guy Forchion, the executive director of the current Virginia Key Beach Historical Park, said that for years there was no beach in South Florida for people of color and members of that community had no public seaside recreation spot.
But soon, the sandy expanse on a tiny islet with lush tropical vegetation had acquired areas for picnics and barbecues, a boat ramp, a snackbar serving refreshments and hot dogs, a dance pavilion and even a little carousel and a mini-train that ran through the park, two attractions that proved to be very popular.
In fact, civil rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – who was assassinated on April 4, 1968 – and legendary boxer Muhammad Ali also came more than once to Virginia Beach for a dip.
Forchion spoke about the success of the beach after 1945, but it was a qualified success, he said, if we take into account the fact that there was no bridge leading to the beach for two years, or the fact that the island was for the use of the black community, if they could get there.
Funding was needed to buy a shuttle that would link the Miami River to Virginia Beach. Anyone who missed the shuttle when it returned to the mainland late in the afternoon each day would be stranded on the island until the following day, Forchion said, laughing.
Everything started with Haulover Beach because of an act of civil disobedience, one of the first such acts in the struggle for civil rights not only in Florida but across the entire US South.
The series of “planned” peaceful acts of civil disobedience were fostered and participated in by African American ex-soldiers who were returning from the front after World War II.
Forchion said that it was a “double victory” for black soldiers: victory over the Nazis abroad and victory at home in demanding their rights.
For years, a sign was posted at the beach reading “Dade County Parks. Virginia Beach. Colored Only” – a sign of the racial segregation and discrimination that still prevailed and prevented blacks from being able to freely share public and private spaces with the majority white population in most of the southern states.
In 1947, the Rickenbacker Causeway was built to connect Virginia Key and Key Biscayne to mainland Miami. But while Key Biscayne prospered, Virginia Key languished and was almost forgotten, deteriorating due to lack of maintenance and services until Miami City Hall decided in 1982 to close it to the public.
The site had to wait until 1999 to be reborn as the public park that exists today, and in August 2002, the park was incorporated into the US National Register of Historic Places, and six years later it recovered the old attractions like the mini-train and the merry-go-round, which gave it new life.
These days, the park attracts some 100,000 visitors each year who can ride bikes, stroll through its 86 hectares (185 acres) of dense vegetation or simply take a swim and eat in the shade at the open-air cafe and snackbar.
The organization, Forchion said, has ambitious improvement and renovation plans for this island “paradise,” including the Eco-History Tour and building a museum, along with resuming mini-train rides this year.