After 20 years, the museum that tells the story of Miami’s segregated era and the triumphs of the Black community still not built
Virginia Key is a beautiful part of Biscayne Bay, but it is also a battleground for politicians, environmentalists, and people who care about social justice.
The island is always in the crosshairs because it is so appealing. Should it be protected or used to make money? The fight has started up again because people are afraid that the city government will destroy Miami’s only public beach, which is a reminder of the city’s racist past, and sell off the beautiful piece of waterfront land.
At the heart of the fight is a nearly 20-year effort to build a civil rights museum in Miami that tells the story of segregation and the Black community’s successes during that time. The museum would be in Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, which opened as a “Colored Only” beach in 1945. This was after a group of Black Miamians held the first major act of civil disobedience in the country after World War II: a “wade-in” at Haulover Beach to protest the ban on Black people using any beach in South Florida.
In 2004, voters decided that taxpayer money should be used to build a museum, but plans have been held up by bureaucratic “Catch-22s” and fights between City Hall and Miami-Dade County Hall.
The Perez Art Museum Miami, the Frost Science Museum, and the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora all opened around the same time. Each building, as well as a number of other cultural institutions, has gotten millions of dollars from the county.
‘PATTERN OF BROKEN PROMISES’
During the latest power struggle in Virginia Key, the plight of the civil rights museum came up again. This happened when the city’s five-member commission suddenly took over the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, which had been running the park for 24 years and had a budget of more than $1 million a year.
In October, the Miami City Commission got rid of the trust’s board, which was made up of one white and five Black volunteers. Now, the new board will have seven members: the five city commissioners, three of whom are Cuban Americans, and two people appointed by Commissioner Christine King, the commission’s only Black commissioner and the head of both the commission and the Virginia Key agency.
Enid Pinkney, who helped start the trust, thinks that racism is the reason why the museum she wanted to see built in her lifetime has not been built yet.
Pinkney said, “It’s a pattern of broken promises and complete apathy.” “The voters said yes, but the government won’t spend the money. They don’t think we’re smart enough to figure out what they’re really up to.
“Prejudice is the only reason. Anyone from any country can go to Miami and be treated with respect, except for the people who built the city. It makes me sick.”
Pinkney, who is 91 years old, grew up in Overtown, which was called the Harlem of the South at the time. He has fond memories of picnics and parties at Virginia Key Beach, which was the only place where Black people could go to the ocean. Her father was a minister, and the beach was where he did baptisms and sunrise services.
Pinkney, a former teacher and assistant principal, activist, and the first Black president of the Dade Heritage Trust, said, “It’s a very special place socially, spiritually, and culturally.” “If you don’t keep history alive, it will be gone for good.”
Skeptics have questioned the city’s motivations because the renovation didn’t come with a new museum plan and happened two months after members of the trust board criticized a plan to build up to 100 “tiny homes” for homeless people on the northeastern shore of Virginia Key. The idea of encampments was later dropped after a lot of people spoke out against it, but not before the manager of the Virginia Key Outdoor Center, Esther Alonso, was fired, the center was closed, and her staff lost their jobs.
Commissioners have denied that there was any kind of political payback, and some have pointed to an audit that found problems with how the trust was managed in terms of keeping records. However, the audit disproved what some commissioners had said about “malfeasance” on the part of trust leaders.
Gene Tinnie, a member of the original trust, said, “African Americans have been fighting a hard battle since 1619, and we’ll keep fighting.” “All of a sudden, the city is interested in Virginia Key Beach, and the first thing they do is lie about us, break us up, and say there hasn’t been any progress, which isn’t true.
“We won’t let them give up on the vision for the museum and leave the park, like they did before.”
MUSEUM WILL BE BUILT, OFFICIALS SAY
Even though a civil rights museum has not been a top priority for local governments in the past, elected officials say they will finally get things moving to build one.
Since the board was thrown out, people are worried that the city will try to make money off of Virginia Key by building on some of its land. King told the Miami Herald that she doesn’t want to see big changes made to the key, which is the island between the mainland and Key Biscayne that is connected by the Rickenbacker Causeway. And city rules say that voters would have to approve any project like this.
“Someone is going to build a Marriott or a Hilton, people have told me. She said, “No.” “Even if people wanted that, it would have to be decided by the voters.”
At the commission meeting on January 12, she is likely to name two people to the trust board. The commission hasn’t said what it wants Virginia Key to be like yet. She said that her approach, which she summed up as “respectful of history and the environment,” will be shaped by what the community has to say.
King, who is a political ally of County Commissioner Keon Hardemon, said she was hopeful that better cooperation with the county would boost planning.
She said, “There are connections that let us reach across the city and into the county, hold hands, and get this done.”
In 2001, the county commissioners agreed to use $5 million from taxes on convention development to build a civil rights museum in Virginia Key Beach Park. In 2004, voters in Miami-Dade County passed a bond program that gave the project $15.5 million.
At that time, the park and beach had been closed since 1982 because the city said it cost too much to keep them up. After the trust was set up in 1999, it took millions of dollars and thousands of volunteer hours to fix up the neglected shoreline, overgrown park, and once-popular features like the snack bar with its famous corn dogs, vintage carousel, miniature train, and pavilions for picnics and dance parties. After 26 years, the park and beach opened again in 2008.
Yet no museum has been built. When asked why things aren’t getting better, the city and the county point fingers at each other.
Over the years, the trust has asked architects, landscape architects, and museum experts for plans. In 2006, the trust hired Lord Cultural Resources, a consultant, to make a business plan for the museum. However, the Great Recession of 2008 put the plan on hold.
In December 2016, the same consultant made a new plan that said the museum’s operating costs would be more than $2 million in each of its first three years. That prediction said that a museum would open in the year 2023.
COUNTY: PROBLEMS WITH CITY’S PLAN
According to a statement from Miami-Department Dade’s of Cultural Affairs, county administrators found problems with the plan, such as a budget that depended on city and county subsidies that had not yet been approved, no plan for buying furniture and equipment, and “unrealistic” projections for an endowment.
Michael Spring, the county’s director of cultural affairs, said that before the county can give the city the $20 million, the city still needs to show that it is “ready.” One of the criteria is a good business plan with a budget and an estimate of operating costs.
Spring said, “As soon as these important steps are done well, we’re ready to sign agreements to release funds and move the project forward.”
CITY: ‘RING AROUND THE ROSY’ WITH COUNTY
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said that talks with the county in the past have gone in circles.
He said, “It’s kind of like ring around the rosy.” “Every time they ask for something, we tell them, ‘We’ve already given it to you.'”
At least in part, stagnation can be blamed on bureaucratic red tape and bad feelings between city and county officials, according to N. Patrick Range II, the former chair of the trust board and grandson of Athalie Range, a civil rights activist and former Miami commissioner who was the trust’s founding chair.
Range said, “It’s easier to point the finger at us because there’s no paper trail that shows who’s dropping the ball.” “We couldn’t get people to talk about important things.”
In the summer of 2019, Suarez signed a resolution that said he would pay for the museum’s first 10 years. This was a big deal. At a ceremony in the park, he told people about the important event while standing next to members of the trust’s board. At the time, Suarez said that the promise should make it possible for the county to get money for building, which was set to start in 2021.
Suarez’s resolution called for making a deal with the county so that construction funds could be given out and an operating fund could be set up. When the Herald asked city officials about what had been done to move the project forward, they did not answer all of the questions.
“Everything is on the side of the county,” said Stephanie Severino, a spokeswoman for the city.
In a statement, county officials in charge of cultural affairs said, “The city never asked the county to negotiate or set up an interlocal agreement.”
Suarez said that the city would pay for the museum for at least 10 years. He was annoyed by the back-and-forth between City Hall and County Hall and said that a recent meeting with Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, King, and Hardemon was a good sign.
He said, “It’s annoying.” “I hope the county mayor gets involved so that bureaucratic politics don’t win.”
The mayor defended the commission’s decision to take over the board, especially since half of the trust’s $1.6 million budget goes to pay staff and consultants.
Suarez said, “We’ve given them $12 million over eight years, but they haven’t been able to get the ball over the goal line.” “Does it make sense for us to keep paying for that kind of place?”
SKEPTICISM ROOTED IN HISTORY
Former board members say that things they couldn’t change slowed the museum’s growth.
Tinnie, an artist and teacher who helped start the board in 1999, said that the city wouldn’t promise tax money to help pay for the museum for years, and the search for an architect was held up twice by legal issues. Most of the time, city officials didn’t respond to requests to meet with them. The commissioners didn’t fill two spots on the board.
“They ask, ‘What if another budget crisis happens?’ And our answer is, “Where is the political will?” Tinnie said. “Travel around the world and see how governments support historic cultural institutions because they care about what is important and right.”
For many years, Miami-Dade County has paid for other cultural facilities. The commissioners agreed to give PAMM, HistoryMiami, and the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens each $4 million for the current budget year. A grant of $6.5 million was given to the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. The Bay of Pigs Museum got $500,000 and the Cuban Diaspora Museum got $550,000.
Natalia Jaramillo, a spokesperson for Levine Cava, said that the county usually expects the “owners” of cultural facilities, which in this case would be the city, to pay most of the operating costs. However, this doesn’t mean that the county can’t help out more.
Suarez said that the city will help pay for the museum for at least ten years, but the city hasn’t said how much it will pay. He said it was wrong for the county to worry about who pays for what when it comes to facilities that are used by everyone and bring in tourists.
He said, “Cultural places are like parks.” “They’re valuable to the community. They are not supposed to be ways to make money. They are meant for the community to enjoy as cultural assets.”
MIAMI’S PAST OVERTURES TO DEVELOPERS
At least three times before, the city of Miami tried to give that piece of public land to a private developer.
After the city closed the park in 1982, city officials came up with many ideas for what to do with the huge property. Police used it for a while as a place to train and practice shooting. The Seaquarium, which is across the causeway, was interested in it as a place to park more cars.
There was a lot of talk about renting the land to hotels because of how beautiful it was. Even the colorful promoter of boxing matches, concerts, and casinos, Don King, was asked for ideas.
In the late 1990s, the park and Miami Marine Stadium were both promoted by the city as places to build. Gregory Bush, who used to teach history at the University of Miami and was president of the Urban Environment League at the time, often went to city meetings and found a flyer that the city had made.
“It showed pictures of Virginia Key Beach and the stadium and said, ‘Here’s Miami, Changing at the Speed of Light.’ It asked for proposals from developers,” said Bush, who wrote “White Sand Black Beach: Civil Rights, Public Space, and Miami’s Virginia Key.” “It all smelled so bad back then, and now I can smell it again.
“Miami has a horrible disease that keeps it from getting rid of developers, owners of sports teams, and anyone else who promotes commercial spectacle over nature or history. It’s a city that has no history. No one wants to know more about where we came from, where we are now, or where we are going.
In 1999, a city committee made up of only white people talked about the future of the beach and a plan to build an eco-resort. Bush stood up and said he didn’t agree with the plan.
“I asked, ‘Don’t you realize that this beach is a big part of what it means to be African-American? You’ve not only abandoned it, but you’ve insulted the community by not asking them what they think?'” Bush said. “Well, we could put a plaque out there,” they said in response.
Bush told Athalie Range, the city’s first Black commissioner, that the Black community would have to save the park if it was to be kept. Range said, “I have one more good fight left in me.”
Range and Tinnie got other leaders together and asked Commissioner Art Teele for help. In response, Commissioner Art Teele made a Civil Rights Museum Task Force.
“Art told us that in the back rooms of city politics, developers were bidding against each other for the park land,” Tinnie said. “What he said back then still holds true: ‘The cheapest land you can buy in Miami is public land, because it only costs three votes.”
During the Great Recession, the city asked the trust to “partner with a revenue-producing venture,” which Tinnie said could be a high-end eco-resort or an RV park.
“One plan after another, Virginia Key has always been wanted and up for grabs. So you can see why we think something is wrong,” Tinnie said. “The city says that it can do a better job of making the museum happen. Really? They could just as easily let the park fail, which would give them the perfect reason to close it again and say that they have no choice but to look for private development.
Some people in the community have stopped to think about what Hardemon, who used to be on the commission in Miami, said recently. He said that now that the commission is in charge of the park, leaders should talk about how to find “a better product that makes more sense.”
“I care about the past. “I’m here because I’m standing on the shoulders of giants,” Hardemon told the city commissioners at their meeting on October 13. “But I have to say that we can’t keep the past if we don’t make sure the future is good.”
During the meeting, there was also talk about whether or not a museum with photos of Miami’s Jim Crow past would make beachgoers feel “uncomfortable.” These photos show KKK marches, segregated schools, and famous Black entertainers performing at “Whites Only” hotels in Miami Beach and then going back to late-night jam sessions in clubs and their homes in Overtown and Brownsville.
Tinnie said, “We’ve gathered a lot of interesting stories and oral histories.” “A great country doesn’t hide its history or keep its heritage from the next generation. It has learned from the past.”
People don’t trust local governments because in the past, commissioners tried to make money off of public spaces. In one example from two years ago, Commissioner Joe Carollo wanted to build a marina, boatyard, and restaurant complex in Maurice Ferré Park, right next to the turning basin on Biscayne Boulevard.
Residents of downtown, people who use the park, and city planners who put millions of dollars into making the park were all shocked.
Tinnie wants to get the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust back up and running, but in the meantime, she has held two events at the park. One was a copy of the “wade-in” from 1945.
People came to “Remembrance Day” to talk about their favorite beach memories and record them on videotape.
Anna Lightfoot-Ward, who used to be the mayor of El Portal, talked about good times with family and friends.
She said, “It was where we could freely celebrate our culture.” “It would be a great place for a museum that is different from all the others.”
Ric Powell used to go to the beach when he was in the Navy and stationed in Key West. He also went to the beach when his band, the Ric Powell Trio, played in Miami Beach.
Powell, a retired Norland High School teacher, said, “Virginia Key was the only place we could go to enjoy the outdoors on a beach and swim in the bay.” “When you look back, it was both good and bad, happy and sad. It’s a very important part of our past. We must never forget.”