I wanted to expose my daughter to the history and future of Black history where we live – Miami. Here’s where we ended up… we took a walking tour of Little Haiti and visited the historic Virginia Key Beach (both meccas for the history of our Black pioneers in South Florida). We even ran into award-winning storytellers Edwidge Danticat and Carl Juste!
History of Virginia Key Beach
The story begins in 1896. This was the year the City of Miami was founded with approximately one-third of the signatures of the city charter being black men (which was no accident considering their predominant role in the early building of the city). Segregation became a day-to-day reality throughout the South. It was this reality that systematically excluded all people of color from Dade County’s most famous attraction, its miles of beaches.
By 1920, as the city grew, many of these beaches were developed into parks and public swimming facilities exclusively for the white population. D.A. Dorsey, an African American millionaire, purchased what is now known as Fisher Island so that blacks could have a beach of their own. But due to increasing property taxes, Mr. Dorsey was obligated to sell the property. As a result, the black community was left without a beach to enjoy.
There were unofficial exceptions, areas which by mutual understanding were exclusive to the African American population. One such place was a very special beach located on Virginia Key, known as “Bears Cut” which at that time could only be reached from Miami by boat. This property became an official “colored only” recreation site as a direct response to a bold protest, led by the late Judge Thomas. Under Thomas’ leadership, black men defiantly entered the water with the intention of being arrested at exclusively white Baker’s Haulover Beach in North Dade County. County authorities however, to avoid costly embarrassment, took no legal action against the protesters. Instead they acquiesced to the protesters’ demands for an officially designated swimming area for African Americans. Although only accessible by boat from a downtown dock on the Miami River, “Virginia Beach, a Dade County Park for the exclusive use of Negroes,” was opened on August 1, 1945.
Virginia Key Beach quickly became a cherished getaway, social gathering place, and even a sacred site for religious services.
The beach included such amenities as large shaded picnic areas with barbecue pits, cottages, a boat ramp and the famous Mini-Train and Carousel rides. With its lush windswept palms and inviting beach, Virginia Key lured thousands to this tropical paradise. Though the beach remained segregated throughout the 1950’s, it was not a factor for many new Caribbean, South American, and Cuban immigrants found Virginia Key Beach to be either the only beach that they too could visit, or the beach they preferred.
In 1982 the City of Miami closed Virginia Key Beach Park, citing the high cost of maintenance and operations. The park has remained closed ever since, except on a daily rental basis and as a training facility for law enforcement agencies and large entertainment events. In June 1999, a diverse group of citizens called the Virginia Key Beach Park Civil Rights Task Force was established in response to plans of private development on the beach park.
Later that year, the Miami City Commission established the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust to oversee the development of the historic park property. The Trust has been working diligently to provide the community an estate for family events, community meetings, corporate meetings, as well as a pristine beachfront for swimming and water activities. In August 2002, the park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Historic Virginia Key Beach Park re-opened to the public in February 2008 with many of the amenities of the past as well as some new venues as suggested by the community. The Historic Beach Park is open to the public today; ecosystem restoration projects, interpretive signage and the construction of an interpretive/cultural center remain to be completed.
History of Little Haiti/Lemon City
Lemon City was a community on the shores of Biscayne Bay, predating the incorporation of the City of Miami, that was home to white and Black pioneers. Most of the Blacks in this area were of Bahamian descent and established flourishing communities and businesses including the only U.S. Post Office in the area, a library, churches, “a colored school” and a cemetery.
There were at least three identifiable Black communities in Lemon City—Nazarine, Knightsville and Boles Town—all dating from about 1900. After the area underwent a drastic demographic shift in the 1920s, Lemon City became a distant memory in the minds of many of Miami’s Black pioneers.
Today, over a relatively short period of time, Haitians have moved into the area and changed the character of the neighborhood that was once known as Lemon City. The culturally vibrant Haitian community has enriched Miami-Dade’s multi-ethnic character.
THE EMERGENCE OF LITTLE HAITI
Little Haiti, bounded by I-95 and the Florida East Coast Railway, spans from 54th to 87th streets. Its business district, along Northeast 2nd Avenue, is of great social and cultural significance to the Haitian Diaspora because it is the only area in the history of Haitian immigration primarily inhabited by Haitians. It bustles with Haitian-owned and operated business, where the aroma of Creole cooking, multihued artwork, the rhythm of Haitian compas, and the expressive tone of Haitian Creole greet residents and visitors alike.
The name of a cultural icon graces this major thoroughfare in the heart of Little Haiti—Northeast 2nd Avenue is now known as “Avenue Felix Morisseau Leroy,” and it leads to Toussaint L’ouverture Elementary School. One of the neighborhood’s distinguishing characteristics is the colorful and distinctive Caribbean signage along the business corridors.
Miami’s Little Haiti has earned a national and international reputation and now boasts the iconic Little Haiti Cultural Arts Center and the Little Haiti Soccer Park.
A LASTING LEGACY
While the name Lemon City has vanished from the map and the area is now known as Little Haiti, through the recent discovery of the Historic Lemon City Cemetery, significant facts and tangible evidence of this once vibrant pioneer community are being uncovered.