On this day in 1945, Virginia Key Beach was established as a “colored-only” beach in response to growing pressures against the “whites-only” policies at the rest of South Florida’s beaches.
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.
Virginia Key Beach is located on an 82-acre barrier island located midway between Downtown Miami and Key Biscayne. Rickenbacker Causeway was not completed until November 1947, so for those first two years the beach was only accessible by boat. According to Guy Forchion, Executive Director of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, fishing boats would pick up the beach-goers on the Miami River around Third Street and ferry them to the island – and if you missed the last boat back, you had to spend the night on Virginia Key! Despite these difficulties, Virginia Key Beach attracted an average of 1,000 visitors on weekends. In keeping with the “separate-but-equal” policies of the time, (Miami) Dade County built a concession stand, carousel and mini-train in 1952-1953 to match those at Crandon Park on Key Biscayne.
By the mid-1960’s, Virginia Key Beach’s popularity began declining – partly due to the desegregation of Miami-Dade’s other beaches and in part because of the pollution dumped on Virginia Key from nearby Fisher Island and Key Biscayne. In 1982, Virginia Key was transferred to the City of Miami, which promptly closed it.
Then after nearly 20 years of disuse and deterioration, at the urging of local activists, the City of Miami appointed a task force to consider the park’s future. This task force evolved into Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, which spearheaded the restoration of the ecological and historical aspects of the island. In August 2002, Virginia Key Beach was added to the National Register of Historic Places; and on February 22, 2008 it was re-opened to the public.
Today, visitors to Virginia Key Beach Park can again use the 1/2 mile Atlantic facing beach, and the restored historic carousel, concession stand, bathhouse, and picnic pavilions. Virginia Key is also noted for being home to the largest mangrove wetland in the state of Florida. Environmental restoration is on-going, with regular volunteer opportunities.
In addition to the beach, Virginia Key offers a mountain biking park, hiking trails, kayaking, paddleboarding, yoga classes, summer camps and special events. Miami.com recently voted Virginia Key Beach one of “Five Miami Beaches That Are Better Than South Beach“. I call Virginia Key one of City of Miami’s little know gems.