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.
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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

 

Another Must Read for Any Serious Fan of Florida History

By Douglas C. Lyons

A few years back during my stint as an editorial writer covering the Florida Legislature, a state senator and I were discussing black politics in the state.

The senator, then a member of Miami-Dade County delegation, had a pretty grim assessment about black Floridians living in the Panhandle region.

“Black folk living west of Tallahassee are catching hell,” he said.

I could only nod. My experiences of Florida’s black communities primarily centered around the southern and central parts of the state. At the time, I had never been west of Gadsden County, which borders the Tallahassee area. What little I saw in that county wasn’t exactly idyllic.

Years later, as I turn the pages of the book, Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County, Florida, 1960-1980 that long-ago conversation in the state capitol office came back in a rush. J. Michael Butler’s book is a brutal assessment of the David-vs.-Goliath struggle in Florida’s Panhandle region. It’s confrontation pitting local black leadership against the overwhelming dominance of the region’s white power structure.

In this case, though, David had no stone, no slingshot and no real help.

The story follows the work of Rev. H.K. Matthews, a local pastor in Pensacola and at the time president the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It starts at a gathering of 500 black residents at the sheriff’s department to protest the police shooting of a black teenager. Despite evidence to the contrary, a grand jury declared the incident ‘justifiable homicide.”

The protest, like the others organized to decry the marginalization of Pensacola’s black residents, had the typical singing of hymns, prayers and chants, including this one led by Matthews: “Two, four, six, eight, who  shall we incarcerate?”

The words were followed by the names of the town’s white civic leaders, including the county sheriff, Royal Untreiner. Usually, the chants would go unanswered by the police presence. This time, however, the response was swift.

Matthews was arrested and later charged with felony extortion. The case went to trial, where an all-white jury heard officers testify that Matthews had said “assassinate” instead of “incarcerate.” The jury found Matthews guilty and a judge ultimately sentenced the minister to five years hard labor.

The rest of the book tells a panful story of a black community’s attempts to overcome daunting odds to achieve some semblance of equality and justice. It’s not pretty. There is no happy ending here.

There are riots at area high schools over symbols of white supremacy. Black leaders get co-opted by the white establishment, and the few gains that do occur are undermined by entrenched local and state politicians.  While Matthews boldly boldly represents the SCLC, he gets little help from his national office, or the NAACP. The fight for civil rights in the Florida Panhandle pales in comparison to the groups’ struggles to remain relevant nationally as civil-right organizations.

To paraphrase that earlier conversation: “Black folk … are catching hell.”

The book is a must read for anyone who is serious about black and white relations in Florida and today’s ongoing struggle of race and social inequality. The book’s general conclusion best describes its overall significance.

“The lessons of the Escambia County movement transcend local, state and even regional context. The story of racial power, privilege, change and continuity is not this community’s alone, for others throughout the United States encountered similar conflicts.” 

To better understand the current racial unrest still smoldering in places like Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., or New Orleans,  consider this read of Pensacola’s past.

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