Fort Lauderdale’s ‘colored beach,’ Renamed to Honor Civil Rights Leaders

mizell-beachprotest

By Douglas C. Lyons

Fort Lauderdale’s “colored beach” wasn’t exactly a tourist attraction. It was accessible only by boat, leaving black beachgoers at the mercy of an inconvenient ferry service. There were no restrooms, and what the beach lacked in amenities, it made up for in mosquitoes.

Still, for the powers-that-be, the “colored beach” was far enough from the city’s “whites-only” strand of public beach near Las Olas Boulevard. For black residents seeking a day at the beach, the desolate island between Whiskey Creek and the Atlantic Ocean would have to do.

mizell-beachprotest2Much has changed since 1954. The Jim Crow laws are history, and public beaches are open to everyone. The site of the old “colored beach” is now a state park, with a unique distinction:  It’s the only state park in Florida named for African Americans. The one-time John U. Lloyd Beach State Park is now known as the Dr. Von D. Mizell and Eula Johnson Beach State Park.

The renaming brings statewide recognition to leaders of Fort Lauderdale’s black community who fought to dismantle the laws and mores that kept blacks and white legally separated in public places.

The park’s boat ramp is being renamed the Alphonso Giles Boat Ramp in honor of the man who ferried black residents to the beach back in the days of segregation.

Three park pavilions will also be renamed to honor attorney W. George Allen, the late Dr. Calvin Shirley and George and Agnes Burrows, whose electrician’s business has spanned five decades.  

fort lauderdale beach wade--ins commemorative marker
Commemorative marker

Located just south of Port Everglades Inlet, the park itself is 310 acres of recreational diversity. The Atlantic still beckons swimmers. As a public beach, the park’s shoreline is three miles long and a tranquil alternative to its more congested counterpart to the north. The only interruption to the sounds of the wind and waves is the occasional jet flying overhead from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport or the horn from a cruise ship departing Port Everglades.

The public bathrooms, boat ramps changing facilities, nature pavilions, picnic areas and in-park cafe are amenities that patrons of the “colored beach” could hardly imagine for themselves.

For boaters, there is easy access to the inlet, the Intracoastal Waterway and the ocean. Whiskey Creek provides an ideal venue for observing wildlife by canoe or kayak, which can be rented at the Loggerhead Cafe at the north end of the creek. For the nature lover, the park is an ideal setting and even offers a spot to watch manatees playing near the inlet.

Eula Johnson
NAACP leader Eula Johnson speaking at a rally.
dr. von mizell
Dr. Von Mizell

The park’s renaming is the latest change and honors a pair that have been called “Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks” of South Florida. Von D. Mizell was a prominent black physician and founder of the Broward NAACP, which petitioned for the “colored beach” in 1946. It took seven years before authorities directed then-county attorney John U. Lloyd to find a location.

In 1951, blacks in the area had their beach, but they had to depend on ferries to get there. Black leaders asked for a road to gain access to the beach. County officials agreed but it took another 10 years before they began construction, and it took a civil rights demonstration to get that.

By then, Eula Johnson, a businesswoman who operated gas stations in Fort Lauderdale’s black community, had become president of the local NAACP chapter. She had worked with Mizell in integrating the beaches and the public schools in the area. Tired of the county’s stalling, she led a protest on July 4, 1961, in which black beachgoers waded into the waters of the city’s segregated public beach near Las Olas Boulevard.  

The “wade-ins” prompted the county to build a bridge to connect the “colored beach” to the mainland and sparked several lawsuits to stop Mizell and Johnson from bringing black patrons to the “whites-only” beaches. Those efforts failed and the beaches were soon desegregated.

The old John U. Lloyd Beach State Park remains a jewel for family recreation and outdoor activities. The new Von D. Mizell/Eula Johnson Beach State Park is a testimony to the park’s rich history and an opportunity to appeal to a much wider and diverse audience.

The beach at Von D. Mizell/Eula Johnson Beach State Park

Greatest asset: When it comes to beaches, this is the closest you can get to natural and authentic in Broward County. The park offers 2.5 miles of beach, lined with sea grass, sea grapes and other vegetation rather than the more typical hotel/highrise scene you find elsewhere.

Mizell/Johnson Park offers much more than a beach, however.

You can rent paddleboards and kayaks and explore beautiful Whiskey Creek. You can get lunch and a beer at the cafe overlooking the water. You can fish from or walk out along the jetty that forms one side of the Port Everglades entrance.

In late afternoon on Saturdays and Sundays, people gather on the jetty, some with lawn chairs, to watch as many as six humongous cruise ships head out to sea. It’s like watching a 12-story building float past.

Parking: There are several large parking lots, but the park can fill up on holiday weekends.

Fees: Admission is $6 per car. (Single occupant $4.) Boat launch fee is $9 but does not apply to kayaks and canoes.

Alcohol: Not permitted

Pets: Pets are permitted on a handheld leash in the park but not at the beach. (It’s not clear if this includes Whiskey Creek, where we’ve seen dogs cavorting in the water along the sandy shore. This must not quality as a beach.)

Location and directions:  The park is on A1A  in Dania Beach, just north of where Dania Beach Boulevard ends at A1A.

Mizell-Johnson State Park

Related links

Broward’s ‘natural’ beach: John U. Lloyd State Park: Florida Rambler

Sea-turtle walks: Register for a natural Florida thrill: Florida Rambler

Official site: Von D. Mizell/Eula Johnson Beach State Park

Fort Lauderdale Historical Society

 

Welcome to Florida’s Most Inaccessible Historic Site

By Douglas C. Lyons

SUMATRA — Florida’s “Negro Fort” isn’t likely to jump off the pages of any slick travel brochure. For a state that prides itself on tourism, this historic landmark is pretty much a forgotten, relic, lost to both isolation and general ignorance.

Today, the remains of the old  ‘Negro Fort’  can be found in the Fort Gadsden Historical Site, a memorial to a black settlement and a dark piece of United States history.  The fort was once home to a community of roughly 300 runaway slaves and 30 Seminole and Choctaw Indians who lived in an uneasy peace with their slaveholding neighbors to the north.

The white inhabitants of Georgia, the Carolinas and other pars of the South didn’t tolerate a free black community nestled in an abandoned British fort stocked with ammunition and weapons.  Enter Andrew Jackson, then the military commander of the U.S. Southern District. He ordered troops to travel down the Apalachicola River into the Spanish territory and destroy the outpost.

Facing attack, the black inhabitants feared leaving the fort would result in being forced back into slavery. They  vowed instead to fight to the death. The battle began on July 27, 1816, but it didn’t last long. Although the occupants were well armed, they weren’t very good at firing cannons. While the shots from the fort fell harmlessly into the river, a red-hot cannonball from the gunboat hit the powder magazine containing the fort’s ammunition. The explosion could be heard 100 miles away in Pensacola, and it pretty much killed all of the fort’s inhabitants.

The fort was rebuilt in 1818 and renamed after Lt. James Gadsden who led the efforts to restore it. Fort Gadsden saw use during the Second Seminole War and the Civil War, until 1863 when a malaria outbreak forced Confederate troops to abandon the fort. It didn’t take long before the neglected outpost became a memory, a piece of Florida’s past now lost to history and its inconspicuous location. Today, the park sits in a remote section of the Florida Panhandle as arguably the state’s most inaccessible historic site.

LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION

The site sits in the middle of nowhere. It’s located in the Apalachicola National Forest near Sumatra, Florida, just south of the Franklin-Liberty county line.  ‘Isolated’ is too kind of a description. Signs of civilization are far and few between, and those signs that exist around the site might scare the casual observer. I had wanted to visit the park and get a picture of the Fort Gadsden historic marker for the Florida Black Historic Marker Tour series. Unfortunately, I had put as much thought into the trip to the “Negro Fort” as if I was picking up milk from the neighborhood grocery store. My bad.

It was a beautiful day for a road trip. My spirits were high, the music was blasting and the scenery was what you’d expect from an off-the-beaten path locale. It was supposed to be an uneventful drive along the back roads — from Perry through the woods and eventually along Florida’s Coastal Highway into Panama City Beach.

My plan was simple enough. Stop by the fort and snap a few pictures for the blog. I had an itinerary and a schedule, and I was making good time once I turned south onto State Road 65. At the point, head to Sumatra, and I’m there. At least those were the directions given to me by the navigator —  my cellphone’s GPS.

Tip No. 1. Never rely on GPS for finding a Florida historic marker in an isolated area — especially when the phone dies and reads: “No Signal.” GPS does wonders in the city or the suburbs. Not so much in the middle of a national forest. Thank goodness for that Liberty County sheriff’s deputy who clocked me doing 82 mph in a 60-mph zone. She let me off with a warning and told me that I had to drive farther south into neighboring Franklin County to get to the park.

I’m glad I listened to that sheriff’s deputy and drove a little closer to the speed limit. If I hadn’t, I would have blown past the small brown sign marking the entrance to the park.

The trees of the Apalachicola National Forest

The turn off the state highway took my wife and me onto a dirt road that seemed to run forever. There were no signs of civilization, much less signs for a park. Just the forest as far as the eye could see. Twenty minutes later, I began to worry.

A mile into our trek along the dirt road, we reached an intersection. There still was no sign of the park, but there was a sign. Unfortunately, my wife saw it first: “No discharging of firearms within 500 feet of residences.”

There were no residences in sight, only a smaller dirt road that disappeared among the pine trees. My wife began to think —  out loud. She wondered if this trip so deep in the  woods for a picture at a historic marker was really worth it.

Finally, after another mile and what seemed like hours later, a sign for the park appeared.  “Fort Gadsden Park One Mile,” and it had an arrow that directed us to a one-lane dirt road that only seemed to appreciate four-wheel drive vehicles.

My wife began thinking out loud, again. This time the concern centered on the possibility of getting a flat tire in the boonies with cellphones that read “No Service.” It didn’t help matters that we crossed  another dirt road with the accompanying warning sign about discharging firearms near unseen residences.

I remained determined and pressed on.

Entrance of Fort Gadsden Historic Site

A mile of slow bumpy driving took us to the site, only to find its low-slung gate blocking the road. The park was closed.

On the other side of the gate is a tranquil forest, where a visitor can find the remains of the fort, a picnic area, walking trails and a gravesite containing the bodies of the victims of the Negro Fort attack and the soldiers stationed at the re-built fort that was later abandoned after outbursts of malaria.

IT’S STILL WORTH THE VISIT

The isolation aside, the trip for any historic buff is well worth it. The area became a state park during the 1960s when the Florida
Board of Parks & Historic Memorials
established Fort Gadsden State Historic Site.  Unfortunately, state budget cuts forced the board to relinquish control of the park.

The U.S. Forest Service maintains the park, and there’s a number for the Ranger District Office: 850 643-2282. I was fortunate to reach an individual there who explained how the park operates. (He also told me not to worry about the “firearm” warnings. The signs are up for the hunters during hunting season.)

The park, he said, is accessible in the daytime. The gate, however, is typically closed to vehicles, unless a group reserves its use. There’s no problem stepping over the gate to enter the fort. The site isn’t staffed, and the park most likely will remain in this state for the foreseeable future.

Brick tomb marks a mass grave from the final battle at the Negro Fort.

For those visitors who step over or walk around the gate, the park offers scenic river views, a picnic area,  interpretive kiosks and signs, short hiking trails, scant remains of the fort and solitude. There are no crowds. No noise. Just the quiet of the forest and the stillness one might find in a cemetery.  The site is home to a  mass grave containing the victims of the Negro Fort explosion, along with 100 soldiers who were stationed and died at the isolated fort.

The Fort Gadsden Historic Site has historic significance. The Negro Fort, like other early black settlements in Florida, including  Fort Mose in St. Augustine, became havens for runaway slaves who sought freedom by fleeing south.

Unfortunately, many people today won’t make the trip to Fort Gadsden. Many people simply don’t know anything about the fort and those who do may be turned off  by the park’s remote location. Both are the ingredients for an unfairly unappreciated historic site.

Douglas C. Lyons is founder of www.blackinfla.com. He’s determined to return to the Fort Gadsden Historic Site, if he can convince his wife to accompany him.

Accessibility: What part of “in the middle of nowhere” did you not understand? The Fort Gadsden Historic Site is in a remote location that is literally in the woods. If you go, be sure your car is in tip-top shape and hope that your cellphone carrier maintains a strong signal.  The Apalachicola National Forest is no place for mishaps.

Area Activities: The national forest has plenty of great-outdoor activities. The camping, hiking and the fishing are best  during the spring. Hunting season varies but typically includes the Thanksgiving holiday and runs through the months of December and January.

Apalachicola is the popular destination for many residents living in the Tallahassee area. For the motorist seeking a new wrinkle to that day trip or weekend getaway to the Apalachicola Bay, I’d suggest taking the longer route to the Gulf coast by adding a stop at the Fort Gadsden Historic Site.

Take State Road 366 (West Pensacola Street) west out of Tallahassee. It will become SR 20, which you’ll take to Horsford, Fla. Once there, turn left onto SR 65. Head south. You’ll pass through Sumatra and, once you enter Franklin County, look for the brown “Fort Gadsden” park sign.  Take the dirt road for about two miles where you’ll see another sign directing you to the park itself.

From the site, take a right turn off the dirt road onto SR 65 and head south until it dead-ends onto US 319. Turn right and go west to Apalachicola. This route adds an hour to the more direct and well-traveled U.S. 319 route between Tallahassee and Apalachicola. The longer route is scenic, but it runs through long stretches of isolated areas of the Apalachicola National Forest, particularly along SR 65.

Photo Credit: Ebyabe, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Robert Drenning/Bob &Sharon’s Travel Adventures Blog, Nate Steiner

Florida’s Grown Folks Black History Tour Honors Zora Neal Hurston

 

By Douglas C. Lyons

SAINT AUGUSTINE — The legendary Zora Neale Hurston and the town of Eatonville, are almost inseparable. Eatonville is  one of the nation’s oldest all-black townships and the literary, if not spiritual, home of Ms. Hurston.

But, you won’t find a state historic marker erected in Ms.Hurston’s honor in the town that freedom built. For that, you have to travel to a far older quaint, historic community — St. Augustine, Fla.

There, at the corner of King and McLaughlin Streets just over the city line, sits a weathered two story Vernacular construction house, one of Florida’s few surviving structures that is associated with the famed author’s life.

Zora Neale Hurston once lived here.

In 1942, Ms. Hurston taught literature at the Florida Normal and Industrial Institute, a small “Negro” college that later was relocated to Miami. The name changed, too. It’s now Florida Memorial College.

According to the excellent biography, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, Ms. Hurston took the teaching job as summer employment in order to “keep on eating.”

Site where Zora Neale Hurston wrote her autobiography Dust on the Road.

Ms. Hurston’s time in St. Augustine was well spent. She taught, lived in modest comfort in the then-on-campus building, and she completed her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road.

Making tracks is pretty much what we’ve done on this initial Florida Black Historic Marker Tour. We’ve trekked across the Sunshine State from Delray Beach to Rosewood,  back to Fort Lauderdale and finally to St. Augustine. There is one more stop, a bit of a disappointment for me, but an adventure nevertheless.

Our last stop can only be described as the eerie remains of a brutal war involving an early black settlement located in what may now be Florida’s most inaccessible historic site.

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com.

Accessibility: Easy. From I-95, head east into St. Augustine on SR 16, which is Charles Usinas Memorial Highway. Take it to North Ponce de Leon Boulevard (SR 5) and turn right. Take North Ponce de Leon Boulevard to West King Street. The marker is about two miles away at 791 W. King St.

Area Attractions: The marker is located in a residential community. So there’s not much to see in the area. The best bet is to hop back in your car and head east on King Street into St. Augustine for sightseeing and entertainment.

Castillo de San Marcos is the big tourist attraction in the city historic district. Take King Street from the marker to Avenida Menedez (A1A). Turn left and continue north for less than a mile. You’re also close to the bridge to St. Augustine Beach.

Fort Mose Historic State Park is the first of two black historical attractions that should be on anyone’s itinerary when visiting St. Augustine. The waterfront site contains plenty of park amenities and an interactive museum that tells the complete story of the first legally sanctioned black settlement in what would become the United States. From the marker, go east on King Street to Ponce de Leon Boulevard and turn left. Take North Ponce de Leon  Boulevard to Saratoga Road and turn right. Keep straight to the fort.

Lincolnville is the picturesque historic black community of St. Augustine. It is  worth a visit. Take King Street east to Martin Luther King Ave. Turn right and you’re there. Lincolnville remains historic, but has undergone re-gentrification. Still, the homes, churches and tree-lined streets make for quiet walks. Riding tours are also available.

 

 

Florida’s ‘Grown Folks’ Black History Month Tour

Fourth in a series of Florida “Black” Historic Marker Destinations

By Douglas C. Lyons

ROSEWOOD — On January 1, 1923, this enclave of modest houses and small businesses in Levy County, came to an end. Today, the only reminder of its existence is a historic marker along State Road 24 just outside of Cedar Key.

All it took back then was the word of a white woman in nearby Sumner who accused a black man of rape. What followed was the gathering of an angry mob of white men that burned the black settlement to the ground and killed five black residents in the process. The survivors fled, taking a vow of silence and never returned. The shame of the devastation would remain for decades.

Rosewood, Fla. 1923

Fortunately, the story didn’t end there.

Years later, the massacre prompted the 1997 movie Rosewood, starring Don Cheadle, Ving Rhames, Esther Rolle and Jon Voight. (For all you Guardians of the Galaxy and Walking Dead fans, the actor Michael Rooker played Sheriff Walker.)

More importantly, though, the state of  Florida tried to right the wrong.

In 1994, several survivors of the Rosewood families filed a claims bill in the Florida Legislature, and ultimately a Special Master appointed by the Florida Speaker of the House ruled that the state had a “moral obligation” to compensate the survivors for mental anguish, property loss and the violation of their constitutional rights. Gov. Lawton Chiles signed a $2.1 million compensation bill, which gave nine survivors $150,000 each and established a college scholarship and a separate fund to compensate descendants who could prove property loss.

Ten years later, Gov. Jeb Bush dedicated a state historic marker at the site of the massacre along SR 24, about 50 miles south of Gainesville. in 2004.

If you go, the trip will take some planning.  Rosewood isn’t exactly in the center of things. In fact, my suggestion would be to make a day trip out of the visit and drive south to the end of SR 24 into Cedar Key, Florida’s second oldest city. It’s a fishing, and artist village on the Gulf of Mexico. You won’t find any fast food establishments, Starbucks or a Walmart. Think boating tours, fishing charters, a wildlife refugee and some unique bars, galleries and restaurants. Hotel lodging is available, but may be hard to find during the height of tourist season.

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com.

Photo Credits: State Library & Archives of Florida, Moni3@ English Wikipedia and Doris T. Harrell

 

 

Florida’s ‘Grown Folks’ Black History Month Tour

Third in a series of Florida “Black” Historic Marker Destinations

By Douglas C. Lyons

SAINT AUGUSTINE — The city’s Lincolnville neighborhood should be a ‘must’ stop on every visitors’ trip to America’s oldest city. It’s a picturesque section of town, located just south of the famed historic district. The fact that it is also Saint Augustine’s historic black community gives the area its own bit of uniqueness.

The challenge is to see it before it disappears. Like many black neighborhoods situated near prime development areas, Lincolnville is undergoing gentrification.

Whites are moving into the community that was founded by freed slaves. Older homes are giving way to new developments. Property values are going up, and many longtime residents are moving out. It’s an all-too familiar trend.

There is still a lot to love about Lincolnville. The area’s architecture includes the city’s highest concentration of Victorian-era homes. The Lincolnville  neighborhood is a picture perfect place for walking tours, something almost everyone does during their stay in Saint Augustine’s historic district.

The area also has its fair share of history, including the 1964 civil rights demonstration that made Saint Augustine a brief focal point during America’s Civil Rights Movement. There’s a lot to see and during those quiet moments along the neighborhood streets, all that history seems to come alive.

Lincolnville remains the city’s historic black community.

How long that lasts is anyone’s guess.

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com. 

Photo Credits: Douglas C. Lyons & Doris T. Harrell

 

 

Florida’s ‘Grown Folks’ Black History Tour

 

Second in a series of Florida “Black” Historic Marker Destinations

CRESCENT CITY — Take the turn off US Highway 17  onto Eucalyptus Ave. and open the door to a glimpse of old Florida. A mix of modest wood-frame and brick houses dot the small lots in this black neighborhood, where strangers still get a friendly wave from people passing the time sitting on their front porches.

A. Phillip Randolph

Turn the clock back to 1891, when opportunities beyond framework, fishing and work at the nearby sawmill were limited, and it’s easy to see why the Rev. James Williams Randolph, a minister and tailor, moved his family to Jacksonville. For the minister’s second son, the move would be significant — for the nation.

A. Phillip Randolph would go on to lead the nation’s first predominantly black labor union — The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. As a civil rights leader, he helped shape a movement that ultimately ended legal racial segregation in the United States, The recognition of his birthplace is one of the estimated 80 state historic markers that designate Florida’s rich black history.

In the late 1800s, Jacksonville was the black mecca of the South. At the time,  black professionals like the Randolphs could thrive in a community that boasted of prominent black businesses and a growing black arts and cultural scene. It was here that young Asa Phillip Randolph learned from his father that conduct and character often made more of an impression on others than skin color.

A. Phillip Randolph would eventually leave Florida altogether and make a name for himself as a labor leader and civil rights icon. He founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the influential black labor union, and he became a leader in the civil rights movement, organizing not one but two “marches” on Washington.

Crescent City hasn’t changed much from the days when Randolph’s father led Sunday services at a church not far from Randolph’s home. Nestled between two lakes about 23 miles south of Palatka, this community shows no signs of the population boom and development that have fueled other parts of the state.

Yet, the citizens of this Central Florida town recognized Randolph’s historical significance. Town leaders worked with historians and state officials to name a street after the civil rights leader and erected a state historic marker along the street where Randolph was born and spent the first two years of his life.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

Florida’s ‘Grown Folks’ Black History Tour

 

First of a Series of Florida’s “Black” Historic Marker Destinations

SUMATRA — Long before the term came into being,  the”Negro Fort” was a sanctuary city. Built and later abandoned by the British, the outpost was home to runaway slaves fleeing Georgia and the Carolinas for a better life. It didn’t take long for white southerners to view an outpost of armed blacks as a threat.

The battle for the “Negro Fort” began on July 27, 1816. It didn’t last long. A cannonball from a U.S. Army gunship hit a powder magazine, which contained the fort’s ammunition. Most of the 300 black residents inside the complex were killed, and the explosion could be heard 100 miles away in Pensacola, Fla.

Today, Fort Gadsden is perhaps Florida’s most inaccessible historical sites. It is one of the estimated 80 black historic landmarks that is commemorated in the Florida Historical Marker program. However, given its remote location in Florida’s Panhandle, it’s a destination that few will visit, or even know.

“Isolated” is too kind of a description. What’s left of the fort sits in the Apalachicola National Forest off SR 65 just south of Sumatra, a pinprick of a community on the Franklin-Liberty county line. Don’t expect crowds. Solitude dominate the picturesque setting. It’s like visiting a cemetery in the woods.

The park offers scenic river views, a picnic area, kiosks that explain the fort’s history and short hiking trails. There’s also that mass grave commemorating the victims of the Negro Fort’s final battle and the remains of soldiers who died in the rebuilt fort that was occupied the site until 1863.

Don’t be intimidated by the closed gate at the park’s entrance. The park is accessible by foot and “open” to the public during daylight hours. A visit takes effort, but the trip to a piece of Florida’s past now lost of history and its inconspicuous location is worth it.

 

 

Where Is Douglas C. Lyons Going with The “Florida Black Historic Marker Tour?”

Mark your calendars. The fifth stop of the summer “Florida Black Historic Marker Tour” is coming up. Check back here at www.blackinfla.com on Thursday, August 3rd to see our next black historic destination. Enjoy the trip, and check it out. You’ll learn something. — Douglas C. Lyons

Where is Douglas C. Lyons Going with The ‘Florida Black Historic Marker Tour?’

Looking north along Mizell-Johnson State Park

Mark your calendars. We’re coming up on the fourth stop of the “Florida Black Historic Marker Tour” summertime road trip. Check out  www.blackinfla.com on Thursday, July 20th to see our next black historic destination. Enjoy the ride and might learn something. — Douglas C. Lyons

Photo Credit: Douglas C. Lyons

Third Stop on the Florida Black Historic Marker Tour: Mizell-Johnson State Park

By Douglas C. Lyons

Colored Beach at Mizell-Johnson State Park Marker

DANIA BEACH — Once a symbol of racial stigma and separation, this iconic stretch of Florida beachfront is now the only state park to be named after African Americans. Welcome to Florida’s Mizell-Johnson State Park.

Fort Lauderdale’s one-time “colored beach” wasn’t exactly a tourist attraction. Thanks to racial segregation, the better-known public beach was off-limits to blacks. Petitions by black residents to integrate proved futile — at first. Instead, Broward County officials gave blacks their own beach just south of the city.

The beach for blacks wasn’t easily accessible. There was no road and bridge to get to it. You had to take a boat to get to and from the island, which left black beachgoers at the mercy of an inconvenient ferry service. What the beach lacked in bathrooms and other amenities, it more than made up for in mosquitoes.

Still, for the powers-that-be, the “colored beach” was far enough from the city’s more prominent “whites-only” strand along A1A and Las Olas Boulevard to keep the races separated. For black residents, a ferry ride to the desolate island between Whiskey Creek and the Atlantic Ocean would have to do.

That was then. This is now.

Walkway leading to the beach at Mizell-Johnson State Park

The Jim Crow laws are history. Public beaches are now open to everyone, and a quick drive from downtown Fort Lauderdale can bring visitors to the former John U. Lloyd State Park. The park was renamed in 2016 for two local civil-rights leaders who helped  integrate public accommodations in the area: Dr. Von D. Mizell and Eula Johnson.

Located just south of Port Everglades Inlet, the park contains 310 acres of recreational diversity. The Atlantic still beckons swimmers. The shoreline is three miles long and a tranquil alternative to the more congested public beaches to the north. The only interruption to the sounds of the wind and waves is the occasional jet flying overhead from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport or the horn from a cruise ship departing Port Everglades.

The  irony is hard to miss. The one time “whites-only” beach is now a popular tourist attraction. The congestion is a mix of sand, shore and crowd control. Mizell-Johnson State Park offers a nearby and more serene alternative.

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com.

 

 

 

Accessibility: Easy. From downtown Fort Lauderdale head south on Federal Highway (U.S. 1) past the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport into Dania Beach. Turn left on East Dania Beach Boulevard and follow the A1A signs to the Intercostal Waterway. Cross the bridge, follow the curve but bear right onto North Ocean Drive. At that point, follow the road into the park.

Area Attractions: The park offers far more than the beach. Its various recreational activities are amenities that patrons of the old “colored beach” could hardly imagine for themselves. There are fees involved as this is a state park.

For boaters, there is easy access to the inlet, the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean. Whiskey Creek provides an ideal venue for observing wildlife by canoe or kayak, which can be rented at the Loggerhead Cafe at the north end of the creek. For the nature lover, the park is an ideal setting and even offers a spot to watch manatees playing near the inlet. The park also has picnic facilities for those who want to bring food and enjoy an old fashioned day at the beach.

Photo Credits: Doris T. Harrell, Linda M. Lyons and Douglas C. Lyons