History of the Island

History of Virginia Key

What is now Virginia Key was the southern end of a barrier island that extended from the New River inlet in Fort Lauderdale to just north of Key Biscayne. Early accounts by Spanish explorers indicated the existence of one or more inlets somewhere on the long spit of land enclosing the northern end of Biscayne Bay, but such inlets open and close over time.


Hurricanes shape our landscape


At the beginning of the 19th century, there was no inlet through the barrier island between the New River Inlet and Bear Cut, at the northern end of Key Biscayne. Hurricanes in 1835 and 1838 opened a new inlet, Narrows Cut (now known as Norris Cut), separating Virginia Key from what is now Fisher Island at the south end of Miami Beach.


The island was named by Frederick H. Gerdes of the United States Coast Survey in 1849. He noted that the island north of Key Biscayne had no name, and had not existed as an island until 'Narrows Cut' had broken through "ten or twelve" years before (i.e., the hurricane of 1835 or 1838). He described Virginia Key as three miles (5 km) long and one mile (1.6 km) wide (later, as five miles (8 km) long and one-and-a-half miles wide), with a fine Atlantic beach, but mostly covered with mangroves.[3]


Creation of Virginia Key Beach Park


In May 1945, seven civil rights activists supported by the local NAACP chapter staged a "wade-in" at the whites’ only Baker’s Haulover Beach in Dade County Florida. Five men and two women protested Jim Crow era laws that denied access to recreation based on race. In a Miami emerging from World War II this meant "colored" people could not share with whites the legendary beaches along and in the waters of Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.


The struggle for a "colored-only" beach in Miami signified the incipient civil rights revolution of the 1950s -1960s. It was fueled by the seething anger of patriotic black servicemen who fought the racism of Nazi Germany only to return to a segregated America. Among the protesters was Attorney Lawson B. Thomas who would later become the first Black appointed to Judge in the post-Reconstruction South. Lawyer Thomas remained on the beach, holding bail money for those who anticipated arrest. The NAACP had notified the local press and police of the time and place, hoping for arrests that would be central to a court challenge of local discrimination laws and policies. On instruction from local government representatives, police refused to cite the protestors, telling Thomas to contact County Commissioner Charles H. Crandon.


Local businessmen and government officials had privately conceded something had to be done about the race problem. The economy was – and is – heavily reliant upon its good reputation with tourists. A decision was made to compromise race restrictions on recreation by designating a "colored-only" beach on Virginia Key. Crandon and Thomas negotiated the establishment of the "Virginia Key Beach, a Dade County Park for the exclusive use of Negroes," (today, the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park). It opened on August 1, 1945.  Today it is a showcase for restoration efforts and one of the top beach parks in South Florida.

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