The racial legacy of a Miami beach
By Susan Candiotti
May 27, 1999
This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.
MIAMI (CNN) -- Two women stand on an eroded strip of what was once a soft, sandy beach. They gaze at the glistening water and palm trees along Virginia Beach overlooking Miami's Biscayne Bay. Absorb the sunshine. Feel the gentle breeze.
A relaxing moment becomes a slow burn.
"We don't want any development here. None whatsoever," says 67-year-old Enid Pinkney. She and Athalie Range, 83, are among those wryly noting what they see as the irony of it all.
Here they are on Virginia Beach. For about 20 years, ending with new civil rights laws in the mid-1960s, it was the only south Florida beach "reserved for the exclusive use of Negroes," according to a Miami-Dade County brochure.
Now, the 77 acres of Virginia Beach Park are being eyed as a jewel by developers who, civil rights activists fear, could keep African Americans off the very beach that once was the only one they were allowed to use.
Turning the one-time "Negroes only" park into an exclusive hotel or eco-campground would effectively make the beach far less accessible, if not actually off-limits, to many African Americans, the activists assert.
"Once there's development there and people come in and they pay a lot of money for a place to ... get away from everybody, then they don't want to see the common person," said Pinkney, director of the Dade Heritage Trust.
Range and Pinkney remember the days when race-based exclusion was accepted in Miami and its surrounding beaches.
In the 1940s, some blacks took a stand. They went to Haulover Beach and were ordered to leave. That prompted county officials to set aside Virginia Beach for the sole use of African Americans.
"Colored only," read the sign erected at the entrance.
"We were refused any other point in this beautiful city of Miami-Dade County from here to almost Fort Lauderdale," recalled Range, who's considered the matriarch of Miami politics and who was the city's first African-American commissioner.
It wasn't easy to get there. Before a bridge was built, beachgoers had to find fisherman to give them a ride from the mainland. But people made the best of it.
"This was considered a world playground. Celebrities from all over the world came to Miami and came to this beach and enjoyed themselves," Pinkney said, listing singer Cab Calloway and boxers Joe Louis and the former Cassius Clay among them.
There was a carousel and miniature train for the children, cabanas and covered picnic areas.
Pinkney recalled that her father, a minister, baptized converts in the bay.
When desegregation finally came about, park attendance fell off.
Dade County turned over the park to the city of Miami in 1982. Now, its gates are locked. It still gets a little use: Groups rent the park for private events about 15 times a year.
But what's left of the building that covered the carousel is weather-beaten and covered with graffiti. Inside, the circular stage remains, but the horses were stripped away long ago.
Making waves over a beach's future
With the city fighting back from the brink of bankruptcy in recent years, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo appointed a committee last year to examine land use on Virginia Key, the island that includes Virginia Beach.
Activists black and white observed the panel was all-white and questioned the mayor's sensitivity given the park's history.
The committee entertained several ideas to develop the area, but Range rails against any such notions.
"I feel it is important to refurbish this beach, not have private enterprise come in as they have in Miami Beach," she said, "where many people have been denied access to the beach because they have to go through fine lobbies to get to the beach."
At a City Hall meeting last month, Range and Pinkney were among those who, some say, embarrassed Miami's City Commission into putting the brakes on plans to move ahead with development.
Now, a six-month moratorium has been imposed.
City officials maintain that developing Virginia Beach is not a high priority. "The city is not in a hurry to start developing Virginia Beach," says City Manager Donald Warshaw.
The city does appear interested in moving ahead on badly needed beach restoration. Before summer's end, officials say, the city will truck in sand, hire lifeguards and add permanent bathroom facilities.
In June, the City Commission is expected to appoint a new committee to study ways to resolve the area's future.
Activists including Range and Pinkney would like to see a civil rights museum created on the site, perhaps with federal grants. They don't want to tolerate anything less, even a historic marker.
"I think we're deserving of this," Range said.
A fitting legacy, perhaps, for a beach once linked to racial intolerance.
y: CNN's Pierre Thomas says decision to reopen King case opens Pandora's box for nation
City of Miami -- official site
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