Virginia Key, Miami’s First Black Beach.

The civil rights movement in Miami echoes with both conflict and victory. In Miami, social clashes between races triggered civil unrest and racial tension. Learning from Miami invites you to uncover the history of Virginia Key, the first black beach in Miami.

During the real estate boom in the 1920s, many people moved to the city of Miami. Needs for recreational facilities were in high demand. Public parks and beaches were created for whites, but blacks were prohibited from swimming at any of the public beaches and did not have their own designated beach. African-American millionaire Dana A. Dorsey had hoped to change that when he purchased the property now known as Fisher Island. He intended to create a resort with a beach exclusively for blacks.

However, Dorsey faced several setbacks that prevented him from further developing his real estate dream. Fisher Island was located on the east side of Henry Flagler’s railroad tracks, which Flagler had designated to be developed for whites only. The west side would be for African-Americans. Another setback was that the island was only accessible by boat. It was very costly for Dorsey to get the manpower and materials he needed to get to and from the island. Increasing property taxes also played a role in his decision to finally abandon his island resort. In 1925 Dorsey’s island was sold to Carl Fisher.

It would take several years before there was a designated black recreation area. African-Americans living in Miami who wanted to go to the beach had to drive north to Ft. Lauderdale or Pompano. In the mid-1940s, a group of civil rights activists led by black attorney Lawson Thomas came up with a plan to get a beach for blacks in Miami.

On May 9, 1945, two black women and four black men arrived at “whites only” Baker’s Haulover Beach Park. With the intent of being arrested, the protesters went into the water. At the time Miami thrived on tourism and the city did not want to deter vacationing snowbirds and Europeans from coming to the beaches by making a scene with civil rights activists. Police arrived at the scene but took no action against the protesters.

One month later, county commissioner Charles Crandon met with several African-American leaders and agreed to give them Virginia Key Beach. On August 1, 1945 the seaside recreation facility was opened. The new beach, originally only accessible by boat before the Rickenbacker Causeway opened in 1947, soon gained popularity among the black community as a place for family, holidays, and social gatherings. The park included features like sheltered picnic areas with barbecue pits, cottages, a boat ramp and even a merry-go-round and a train for children.

In 1982, the city of Miami closed Virginia Key Beach Park, citing high maintenance costs. During its closure the beach was used as a training facility for law enforcement and a venue for festivals. In June 1999, a group of Miami residents gathered to create the Virginia Key Beach Park Civil Rights Task Force. Their goal was to restore the beach to its former glory. In August 2002, Virginia Key Beach was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and re-opened to the public in February 2008. At present the park is building a cultural center highlighting the history of Miami’s first black beach.

-Ursa Gil


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