Water as A Divider: When Beaches Were Not For All
Water is the symbol of many things — renewal, rebirth, life itself. But in the Jim Crow South, it was a stark physical reminder of an enforced separation.
Parting the Waters
In the bleak years of segregation, Florida beaches and pools were symbols of a great divide — and of rising up through persistent struggle.
By Audrey Peterman
As a Jamaican woman who developed a passion for nature at the stream in my backyard, I was fascinated when my American husband shared stories of growing up in Florida in the 1940s and ’50s, when he could have been jailed for attempting to swim at the beach less than a mile from his house.
While time at my local waters meant solace, tranquility and an escape from the tropical heat, Frank was blocked as an African American from the beautiful stretch of sandy Florida beach in Dania that attracted people from all over the world.
Growing up near Fort Lauderdale in the age before air conditioning, Frank and his friends learned to get by, though their method for cooling off wasn’t without its dangers.
“Me and my friends learned to swim in the Dania Cut-Off Canal on the edge of town, where the railroad tracks crossed the canal,” he remembers. “We used to dive off the train trestles into the cool water.”
Granted, they had to keep a keen eye out for the occasional alligator or water moccasins lying on the banks. And if a manatee went by, they learned to wait before leaping into the water, as inevitably other manatees would follow. “Oh, we managed,” he laughs, before adding with more seriousness of those days of segregation: “You have to remember, we weren’t just sitting back and taking it. Community leaders kept pushing for change, wading-in at the beaches to force the authorities to integrate them.”
The idea that government could restrict its own people from the largesse of nature and cause them to risk their lives to enjoy the most basic amenities boggled my mind. Coming from a country that is predominantly Black, and reared in that proverbial “village” it takes to raise a child, the idea of separation by race was completely foreign to me until I came to America in 1978.
So it was with great appreciation that I learned how the Black community in Florida resisted the enforced separation from nature with success and eminent joy.
Using active resistance, ingenuity and entrepreneurship, they secured their own places in the sun, while continuing to push for an end to segregation. The necklace of historic Black beaches strung around the Florida peninsula — from Escambia County in the northwest across to Nassau County in the northeast and south to Miami-Dade County — tells that story.
I saw this story from the inside — both from Frank’s experience as a child growing up in South Florida and as a result of our work in the environmental sector. As newlyweds, we drove around the United States in 1995 to see places such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite. We were shocked to learn that as part of the National Park System, they were once as segregated as Florida beaches had been at the height of segregation. In the mid-’90s, the parks still reflected little diversity of employees or visitors. To Frank it was “déjà vu all over again.” To me it was an intolerable affront to humanity. To both of us, it bespoke a need to help change it.
Together, we created Earthwise Productions, Inc., offering consulting services to the National Park Service and other land management agencies interested in engaging more Americans of color. We organized park tours from the Everglades to Yellowstone so people could see what they were missing. We helped build upon a nascent movement, which today includes hundreds of groups around the country, to introduce people to the wealth of public lands, for recreation and employment. And we advocated in local government and the U.S. Congress for stronger protection and funding for public lands. In 2009, we published our book, Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care.
At the turn of the 21st century, the tributaries flowing through our lives met up with those of other African Americans also striving to share the stories of Florida’s Black pioneers. In South Florida, our friend, historian Dinizulu Gene Tinnie, with whom we were working to heighten connections between South Florida’s Black and Hispanic citizens and the Everglades and other national parks, invited us to a reunion on Virginia Key, site of Miami’s first “colored beach,” designated by authorities in 1945 for the exclusive use of Black citizens.
While Frank fondly remembers his dad driving him and his mom and younger brother to frolic on the beach in the 1940s and 1950s, we learned a much fuller story about the courage, resilience, and ingenuity it had taken to secure the beach.
Black community leaders had repeatedly challenged the county government to establish the bathing beach they’d long promised the “colored” population, according to Tinnie, founding member and chair of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust.
Finally, they decided to put their bodies on the line to affirm their rights as humans and citizens. According to contemporaneous reports Tinnie cited from the Miami Herald, community leaders — including attorney Lawson E. Thomas, Dr. Ira P. Davis, Judge Henderson of the International Longshoremen’s Association, and others — met at Davis’ home in Miami’s historically Black Overtown neighborhood to plan the event.
Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement’s earliest “sit-ins” to protest and challenge the system of segregation, the group came up with the idea of staging a protest “wade-in,” in which Black swimmers would wade into the waters of a segregated white beach to “test the waters” of the law.
As law-abiding citizens, they alerted the county sheriff to their intent. If they were arrested, the case would be seen as a challenge to existing segregations laws. Either they’d win their rights or the resulting news reports would draw important attention to their cause.
On the day of the wade-in, May 9, 1945, attorney Thomas carried a bag of cash for bail in case of arrests. The group had no idea if they’d be met by repressive law enforcement or the Ku Klux Klan.
Thankfully, there was no violence, but the wade-in, at all-white Baker’s Haulover Beach, showed county leaders that Black citizens were not going to settle for business as usual. There were no legal repercussions; instead, county authorities called for a meeting with the wade-in organizers. Less than three months later, on August 1, 1945, the county opened Virginia Key Beach as a segregated park “for the exclusive use of Negroes.” The new beach featured amenities including a bathhouse, concession stand, and amusement rides. It became a hub for Black South Florida’s social, cultural, and political life.
Tragically, the dangerous ocean currents in that area cost several lives. And county leaders established a waste dump and sewage treatment plant nearby on the island.
By 1982 the County transferred the park to the City of Miami, which closed it, citing high operating expenses. But Virginia Key Beach never lost its place in the heart of the Black community.
When word came in 1999 that the City of Miami planned to lease the site to private developers to build an exclusive upscale campground resort, they rallied and resisted it. Today, its history and future are determinedly protected by the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust. The area once considered undesirable by some is now poised to address the existential problems of our time, including climate change and sea level rise, as an indoor/outdoor historical and environmental museum.
Those early wade-ins became a frequent tool of protest in the 1950s and early ’60s. Miami’s Crandon Park was successfully, if unofficially, desegregated in 1959, after a wade-in by members of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE).
The “colored beach” in Dania, established in the early ’50s, still had no promised access road by the summer of 1961. So businesswoman and then-president of the local chapter of the NAACP Eula Johnson and physician Von D. Mizell organized a series of wade-ins on whites-only Fort Lauderdale Beach.
The group included students from Fort Lauderdale’s historically Black Dillard High School and visiting college students. They were met by opponents, including axe-wielding Ku Klux Klan members, though no violence ensued. The city of Fort Lauderdale lost a lawsuit filed against the NAACP to stop the wade-ins, and by 1962, the county’s beaches were desegregated by law, if not, in practice.
And in 2016, in tribute to the fearless and groundbreaking struggle they waged for equality, that “colored” beach was renamed the Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park.
In the summer of 1964, St. Augustine was a national flash point in the struggle against segregation. Local civil rights activists, such as dentist Robert Hayling — who had been beaten and kidnapped by the Ku Klux Klan — were joined by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., C.T. Vivian, and other national leaders. The temperature rose as the summer unfolded with a series of marches, restaurant sit-ins, and wade-ins.
One such event — captured in horrifying photographs — took place on June 18, 1964 at the waterfront’s Monson Motor Lodge. A week before, Martin Luther King Jr. had been denied service by the lodge’s owner, James Brock, when he sought to order lunch in the Monson’s dining room. King was arrested for trespass and jailed.
The following week, six bathing-suit clad young people, four Black, and two white, entered the Monson’s pool. When the swimmers refused to get out, Brock emptied a jug of muriatic acid cleaning fluid into the water. An off-duty police officer jumped in to pull the swimmers out, beating them in the process. All this was captured by assembled news photographers, and these brutal images made their way onto newspaper pages around the world.
Two weeks later, on July 2, 1964, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Even after integration, It wasn’t much easier for Black Floridians to cool off in public swimming pools. Our friend Bobby Henry, whose family has published the Black-focused Westside Gazette Newspaper in Fort Lauderdale since 1971, recalls how challenging it was to access the swimming pool on the “white” side of town.
”I remember once when I was coaching Little League swimming and we swam against a white team, the coaches exhibited so much prejudice to our team that we were almost kicked out of the pool,” he recalls. “But our team went on to win and one of our swimmers broke the record Mark Spitz held at that time. So I’d have to say segregation taught us to put forth the best effort we could and be proud of who we are, of our community and our families. I think we appreciated things more than others who were privileged, because we had to work so much harder for everything.”
American Beach’s family legacy
In 2003, my husband and I gained an appreciation for the importance of American Beach in Northeast Florida through a direct descendant of its founder, Abraham Lincoln Lewis. Frank had barely settled into his position as Southeastern Regional Director of The Wilderness Society in Atlanta when MaVynee Betsch invited us to visit her on her ancestral American Beach, on Amelia Island, north of Jacksonville. The position of a Black man in the leadership of a national conservation organization was novel enough to attract her attention.
Betsch was heir to the history and a bearer of the legacy of this paradise for Black Americans established in 1935, the year of her birth. She grew up in Jacksonville with her sister, anthropologist Johnnetta Betsch Cole, former president of Spelman College and director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, and brother, John Betsch, a noted jazz drummer. She told us how her great grandfather, one of the founders and later president of the Afro American Life Insurance Company and a prominent Jacksonville business and civic leader, built upon his company’s success to create what would become American Beach.
Said to be Florida’s first Black millionaire, Lewis first acquired 33 acres including beachfront, and finally, with 216 acres, created a haven where Black people could enjoy themselves free from harassment and prosecution. Having modeled success as an entrepreneur, he invited affluent executives in the company to buy into American Beach.
For decades, the American Beach resort, with affordable commercial lodging supplementing the accommodations Black residents offered in their homes, entertainment venues and water sports, drew Black Americans from across the country. Icons, including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Louis and James Brown, frolicked alongside Black people of lesser means, all enjoying respite from the press of racism. A.L. Lewis described it as “recreation and relaxation without humiliation.”
The demand for its amenities fell off after integration. But walking down main street with the elegant, 6-foot tall MaVynee Betsch, who’d trained at the Oberlin Conservatory and wowed Europe as an operatic mezzo-soprano for more than 10 years, was like stepping back in time. She had come back to American Beach to care for her declining grandfather and stayed on after she learned that encroaching development was threatening to absorb the community. With the help of the A.L. Lewis Historical Society, she strove to protect it. In 2001, she succeeded in getting American Beach listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Betsch, a striking presence on the beach with her long dreadlocks, introduced us to the huge sand dune across the street she called “NaNa,” where she’d played as a child. She spoke glowingly about the spiritual connection she felt when she watched lightning dancing on the dune.
For years, she worked to persuade the National Park Service to acquire the dune and protect it as part of the nearby Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve and Kingsley Plantation, a unit of the park system.
Nearby Kingsley Plantation had been home to Betsch’s great- great- great grandparents, Zepheniah and Anna Kingsley, the young West African woman Zephaniah purchased as a slave and subsequently married. In 2004, a year before her death, Betsch finally persuaded the Amelia Island Plantation, which had bought up much of the land around American Beach, to transfer the dune to the park service. The American Beach Museum, Betsch’s dream, was founded in 2014. Today it conveys the history of the area as a bridge between its past and future.
American Beach was but one example of Black entrepreneurship. On Florida’s west coast, a group of Black businessmen established the beachfront community of Money Bayou Beach in Port St. Joe, Gulf County, in 1951. The beach attracted revelers from as far as Tuskegee, Alabama, and Cairo, Georgia, and offered opportunities for entrepreneurs who provided bus shuttles and other amenities for the beachgoers. It thrived through the 1960s, until integration provided other alternatives.
The greatest irony of segregated waters in Florida might be best illustrated by the story we learned of the Jones family, who owned islands in Biscayne Bay, beginning with Porgy Key, purchased in 1897 for $300. Lafayette “Parson” Jones and his Bahamian wife, Mozelle, moved to the island with their young son, King Arthur Jones, with another, Sir Lancelot Jones, on the way. This Black family eventually owned Porgy and Rhodes Keys and half of another island. They coaxed a living from the limestone rock, growing pineapples and key limes. They also salvaged shipwrecks in the area.
Sir Lancelot and his brother continued to live on the island after the death of their father. Sir Lancelot became a favorite bonefishing guide for prominent white members of the Coco Lobo Club across the channel, including President Warren Harding, and scions of the Honeywell and Goodyear families.
After his brother died in 1966, Sir Lancelot resisted the blandishments of developers who wanted to buy his island as part of a plan to create another Miami Beach. Instead, he sold to the National Park Service in 1970, with the promise the land would be preserved. It is now part of Biscayne National Park, one of the largest marine parks in the National Park System.
Today, the legacy of Florida’s segregated Black beaches might best be summarized by Peri Frances, descendant of A.L. Lewis and niece to MaVynee Betsch, who offers tours of American Beach and programs promoting its history.
“I’m too young to have experienced the pain of segregation firsthand, and I didn’t get to experience American Beach in its heyday,” she says. “By the time I came along in the ’90s, the businesses and large crowds, the fish frys and snack bars, beach pavilion and the famous Evans Rendezvous were long gone. But what remains are the stories and the example that can be drawn from them. To me, American Beach stands as a proud monument to self-reliance, independence, ingenuity, community and joy.”
Joy is the quintessential element of the relationship between Black Floridians and the state’s waterways. Though denied access by law and custom, they nevertheless found ways to embrace the water and to nurture their relationships with its life-affirming properties.
FLORIDA HISTORIC AFRICAN AMERICAN BEACHES
(A partial listing)
Compiled by Dinizulu Gene Tinnie
American Beach, Nassau County
Located on Amelia Island, Florida’s most famous Black beach was founded by Black millionaire Abraham Lincoln Lewis in 1923, primarily for the employees of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, which Lewis had also established. The beach was immensely popular with people from a broad region of Florida and Georgia. Fourth of July gatherings were reportedly so crowded that beachgoers often had to park miles away, and, according to legend, the long walk to the beach gave rise to lifelong friendships and even marriages.
Bethune-Volusia Beach, Volusia County
Bethune Beach is named in honor of legendary educator and activist Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, a founder of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. It opened in 1945. At the time, only two places in Volusia County allowed beach access to Black people, and only during the summer and certain holidays. Bethune wanted a beach that African-Americans could enjoy without restriction or fear of harassment, and led the effort to make this beach a reality. A state marker, placed there in 2017, formalized its status as Florida Heritage Site.
Bruce Beach, Escambia County
Originally an industrial port, Bruce Beach sat idle for more than a decade before becoming a neighborhood gathering spot for Pensacola’s Black community in the 1950s. Bruce Pool opened at the site in 1956, providing a safe alternative to the hazardous and polluted old port waterfront. The pool and beach closed in the 1970s after the expansion of a nearby wastewater treatment plant. In 2014, Pensacola officials announced plans to build a fish hatchery on the site. But facing legal challenges and community objections, the proposal was scrapped in 2017. Instead, city leaders cleaned up the site and opened it to the public in 2018.
Bunche Beach, Lee County
Established in Fort Myers in 1949, this beach was named in honor of United Nations diplomat Dr. Ralph J. Bunche, who was the first non-white to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He received the award for his successful efforts as a mediator in the Arab–Israeli War of 1948, which followed the Israeli declaration of independence.
Butler Beach, St. John County
In the early 1900s, Frank B. Butler moved to St. Augustine, settling in the predominantly African-American area known as Lincolnville – now one of the city’s historic districts. Butler amassed a fortune first as the owner of a market and then a real estate company. Frustrated that Florida’s beaches were for the use of “whites only,” in 1927 Butler began buying oceanfront property on Anastasia Island and opened a Black beach. Today the property is divided into two county parks. Frank Butler Park East provides beach access. Frank Butler Park West offers a great view of the Intracoastal Waterway and a boat ramp
Jordan Beach, Spa Beach, Pinellas County (St. Petersburg)
This beach in St. Petersburg is named for Elder Jordan, who was born into slavery in 1848, bought his freedom at age 15 and grew a sidewalk fruit stand into a profitable business. A champion of the Black community in a deeply divided city, he offered Black residents bus service to Tampa when there were few other public transportation options available, and secured a site near what is now St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport where Blacks could swim in Tampa Bay without harassment. A statue was erected in his honor in October 2020.
Juno Colored Beach (Palm Beach County)
Juno Beach itself was not segregated, but a section of Juno Beach in northern Palm Beach County was set aside for the Black population. A cottage was also at the site.
Lincoln Beach, Hillsborough County (West Tampa)
Manhattan Beach, Pablo Beach, Duval County (Jacksonville)
Created in 1900 by Henry Flagler for the Black employees of his Florida East Coast Railway and Florida East Coast Hotel Companies, Manhattan Beach was Florida’s first African American beach resort. The beach began its decline in 1932 when changes to railway operations made access difficult. It closed in 1938.
Money Bayou Beach, Port St. Joe (Gulf County)
Money Bayou Beach was established by five African American investors in 1951. It boasted cottages, a cafe and dancehall. It experienced its heyday in the 1950s and ‘60s, attracting vacationers from Alabama and Georgia. The beach closed in the 1970s, after desegregation took its toll.
Paradise Park, Ocala (Marion County)
Located about one mile from the famous Silver Springs tourist attraction, this beach was developed by Carl Ray and W.M. “Shorty Davidson,” co-owners of Silver Springs from 1924 to 1962, as a separate park for the Black population. It was a popular spot from 1949 to 1969, drawing about 100,000 people each year from as far away as New York and California.
Rosamond Johnson Beach, Escambia County
Located in Florida’s westernmost county, near the Alabama border, this beach is named in honor of Army Private Rosamond Johnson, Jr., who was the first Escambia County resident to die in the Korean War. He had successfully carried two wounded soldiers to safety and was returning with a third when he was fatally wounded on July 26, 1950. He had joined the military at age 15 and died at 17. (He is not to be confused with J. Rosamond Johnson, who composed the music for the lyrics to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” known as the Black National Anthem.)
Unnamed Colored Beach (Broward County)
Today Galt Ocean Mile in Fort Lauderdale is lined with luxury condominium towers. But in 1927, when Blacks were banned from using the city’s public beaches, they used this strip of land, and it became known as the “Black beach.”
Virginia Key Beach Park (Miami-Dade County)
From the early 1900s onward, during the era of segregation laws, this location was a popular unofficial recreation area for African Americans. In response to a bold protest led by attorney Lawson E. Thomas and others demanding an officially designated beach, Virginia Key Beach opened for exclusive use of the Black community on August 1, 1945. The new park, at first accessible only by boat, was an immediate success, attracting over 1,000 visitors on any given weekend. In 2002, the Virginia Key Beach was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Von D. Mizell and Eula Johnson State Park, Dania (Broward County)
After a nearly 10-year struggle, a Black beach was established in Dania, Florida, in 1954. The beach site would eventually become John U. Lloyd State Park, in honor of a long-time Broward County attorney who enforced the ordinance that blocked Blacks from the beach entirely and fought designating it as a beach for African Americans. In 2016, the name was changed to Von D. Mizell and Eula Johnson State Park, honoring two Broward County activists who led protests of South Florida’s segregated beaches by staging a series of wade-ins.
NOTE: Due to the absence of access to public bathing beaches during segregation, people resorted to other, often dangerous alternatives, such as manmade rock pits, where drownings were not uncommon.
Audrey Peterman is an environmentalist and co-author with her husband, Frank Peterman, of Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care. Audrey Peterman’s latest book is From My Jamaican Gully to the World. In 2017, the Petermans were part of the Next 100 Coalition of leaders that encouraged President Barack Obama to issue the Presidential Memorandum Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in Our National Parks, National Forests and Other Public Lands and Waters.
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