Museum about Miami’s segregated era has stalled for years

Posted 1/21/23

MIAMI (AP) — Virginia Key is at once a natural gem in Biscayne Bay and a battleground for politicos, environmentalists and social justice advocates.

The island’s irresistibility places it in …

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Museum about Miami’s segregated era has stalled for years

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MIAMI (AP) — Virginia Key is at once a natural gem in Biscayne Bay and a battleground for politicos, environmentalists and social justice advocates.

The island’s irresistibility places it in constant cross hairs: Preserve it or capitalize on it? The clash has been renewed under a cloud of fear that local government will ruin the city of Miami’s only public beach — a historic landmark of the city’s racist past — and sell out the beautifully vulnerable slice of waterfront land for profit.

At the center of the struggle: a nearly 20-year quest to build a civil rights museum that tells the story of Miami’s segregated era and the triumphs of the Black community. The museum would be situated in Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, which opened as a “Colored Only” beach in 1945 after a group of Black Miamians staged the first significant postwar act of civil disobedience in the country — a “wade-in” at Haulover Beach to protest the prohibition of Black people from using any beach in South Florida.

Voters approved taxpayer funding for a museum in 2004, but plans have been stalled by bureaucratic Catch-22s worsened by disagreements between City Hall and Miami-Dade County Hall.

In the same time span, doors opened at the Perez Art Museum Miami, the Frost Science Museum and the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora. Each facility, along with several other cultural institutions, has received millions in county subsidies.

‘PATTERN OF BROKEN PROMISES’

The plight of the civil rights museum resurfaced during the latest Virginia Key power struggle, which saw the city’s five-member commission abruptly take over the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, a 24-year-old agency responsible for managing the park with a budget of more than $1 million a year.

The Miami City Commission, in a 4-1 vote in October, ousted the trust’s board, composed of one white and five Black volunteer members. Now, the reconfigured board will have seven members — the five city commissioners, three of whom are Cuban American, and two appointments yet to be made by Commissioner Christine King, the commission’s sole Black commissioner, who doubles as chairwoman of the commission and the Virginia Key agency.

Enid Pinkney, a founding member of the trust, believes racism is the reason the museum she hoped to see in her lifetime has not been built.

“It’s a pattern of broken promises and sheer indifference,” Pinkney said. “The voters said yes but the government won’t invest the money. They don’t think we have sense enough to see their hidden agenda.

“The only explanation is prejudice. Any nationality can come to Miami and get respect — except the people who built this city. It’s sickening.”

Pinkney, 91, grew up in Overtown, then known as the Harlem of the South, and has fond memories of picnics and parties at Virginia Key Beach, the sole spot where Black people had access to the ocean. Her father, a minister, conducted baptisms and sunrise services at the beach.

“It’s a very special place, socially, spiritually, culturally,” said Pinkney, a former teacher and assistant principal, an activist and first Black president of the Dade Heritage Trust. “If you do not preserve history, it’s gone forever.”

Skeptics have questioned the city’s motivation because the overhaul was accompanied by no new museum plan and came two months after trust board members criticized a proposal to build up to 100 “tiny homes” for people experiencing homelessness on Virginia Key’s northeastern shore. The encampment concept was later shelved amid outcry but not before another vocal critic, Virginia Key Outdoor Center manager Esther Alonso, was fired, the center was closed and her staff lost their jobs.

Commissioners have denied any suggestion of political payback, and some pointed to an audit noting record-keeping problems with the trust’s management, though the audit refuted some commissioners’ comments about “malfeasance” in trust leadership.

“African Americans have been fighting an uphill battle since 1619, and we’ll keep fighting,” said Gene Tinnie, an original trust member. “Now all of a sudden the city is interested in Virginia Key Beach, and the first thing they do is defame us, disband us and falsely claim there’s been no progress.

“If they are ready to abandon the park, as they did before, and give up on the vision for the museum, we won’t let them.”

MUSEUM WILL BE BUILT, OFFICIALS SAY

Elected officials insist they will finally set gears in motion to build a museum, even if history shows a civil rights museum has not been a priority of local governments.

The ousting of the board has stoked worry that the city will seek to profit off Virginia Key by developing some of its land. King told the Miami Herald that she does not want to pursue large-scale development on the key — the island that straddles the Rickenbacker Causeway between the mainland and Key Biscayne. And any such project would require voter approval, under city regulations.

“People have come to me saying someone’s going to build a Marriott or a Hilton. No,” she said. “Even if that’s something that people wanted, it would have to go to the voters.”

She is expected to nominate two people to the trust board at the Jan. 12 commission meeting. The commission has not yet shared its vision for Virginia Key. Her approach, which she described broadly as “historically and environmentally respectful,” will be informed by community input, she said.

King, a political ally of County Commissioner Keon Hardemon, said she was optimistic that improved cooperation with the county would energize planning.

“There are relationships where we can reach across the city to the county, hold each other’s hands and get this done,” she said.

In 2001, county commissioners approved steering $5 million in convention development taxes toward construction of a civil rights museum in Virginia Key Beach Park. In 2004, Miami-Dade voters approved a bond program that included $15.5 million for the project.

At that time, the park and beach had been closed since 1982, when the city blamed high maintenance costs. After the trust was established in 1999, it took millions of dollars and thousands of volunteer hours to restore the neglected shoreline, overgrown park and once popular features — the snack bar, with its famous corn dogs; vintage carousel; miniature train; and pavilions for picnics and dance parties. The park and beach reopened in 2008, after 26 years.

Yet no museum has been built. The city and the county point at each other when asked about the lack of progress.

The trust has procured plans from architects, landscape designers and museum experts over the years. In 2006, the trust hired a consultant, Lord Cultural Resources, to prepare a museum business plan, but the Great Recession of 2008 sidelined the effort.

The same consultant produced a new plan in December 2016 that estimated an operating budget of more than $2 million in each of the museum’s first three years. That forecast assumed a museum would open in 2023.

COUNTY: PROBLEMS WITH CITY’S PLAN

County administrators say they found problems with the plan, including a budget that relied on city and county subsidies that had not yet been approved, no plan for buying furniture and equipment, and “unrealistic” projections for an endowment, according to a statement from Miami-Dade’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

Michael Spring, cultural affairs director for the county, said the city still needs to demonstrate a “readiness factor” before the county can release the $20 million. Part of the criteria: an acceptable business plan, with a budget and operating cost projections.

“As soon as these essential steps are satisfactorily completed, we are prepared to execute agreements to deploy funds and move the project forward,” Spring said.

CITY: ‘RING AROUND THE ROSY’ WITH COUNTY

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said past conversations with the county have been circular.

“It’s a little like ring around the rosy,” he said. “They keep asking for something, and we keep telling them, ‘We’ve given it to you.’ ”

Stagnation can be attributed, at least in part, to bureaucratic red tape and bad blood between city and county officials, said N. Patrick Range II, the trust board’s former chairman and grandson of the civil rights activist and former Miami commissioner who was founding chair of the trust, Athalie Range.

“It’s easier to lay the blame at our feet because there’s no paper trail that allows you to see who’s dropping the ball,” Range said. “We couldn’t get meaningful discussions to take place.”

With much fanfare in the summer of 2019, Suarez signed a resolution establishing a commitment to fund the museum for the first 10 years. He touted the milestone at a ceremony in the park, standing next to members of the trust’s board. At the time, Suarez said the pledge should unlock county funds for construction, which was expected to begin in 2021.

Suarez’s resolution called for negotiating an agreement with the county to release construction funds and establish an operating fund. City administrators did not answer several of the Herald’s questions about what was done to advance the project.

“Everything is on the county’s side,” said city spokeswoman Stephanie Severino.

In a statement, county cultural affairs officials said, “The county was never approached by the city about negotiating or establishing an interlocal agreement.”

Suarez insisted the city would “pick up the tab” for the museum for at least 10 years, chafing at the back-and-forth between City Hall and County Hall, and emphasizing that a recent meeting with Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, King and Hardemon was promising.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “I hope that the county mayor intervenes to sort of not let bureaucratic politics carry the day.”

The mayor defended the commission’s decision to take over the board, particularly because half of the trust’s $1.6 million budget is being spent on salaries for staffers and consultants.

“We’ve given them $12 million over eight years, and they have been unable to bring the ball over the line,” Suarez said. “Is it fair for us to continue to fund that kind of environment?”

SKEPTICISM ROOTED IN HISTORY

Former board members point to factors out of their control that hampered the museum’s development.

Tinnie, an artist and educator who helped found the board in 1999, said that for years the city refused to guarantee tax dollars to subsidize the museum, and a search for an architect was twice delayed by legal issues. Requests for meetings with city officials often went unanswered. Commissioners left two appointments to the board unfilled.

“They ask, ‘What if there’s another budget crisis?’ And our reply is, ‘Where’s the political will?’” Tinnie said. “Go around the world and see historic cultural institutions that governments support through thick and thin because they are committed to what’s important and what is right.”

Miami-Dade County has subsidized other cultural facilities for years. For the current budget year, commissioners agreed to give PAMM, HistoryMiami and Vizcaya Museum and Gardens $4 million each. The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts received a $6.5 million subsidy. The Cuban Diaspora museum received $550,000, and the Bay of Pigs Museum received $500,000.

The county typically sees the “owners” of the cultural facilities, which in this case would be the city, take primary responsibility for operational subsidies, but that does not preclude the county from offering more support, said Natalia Jaramillo, spokesperson for Levine Cava.

Suarez said the city is committed to subsidizing the museum for at least a decade, though the city has not provided a dollar amount. He criticized the county for focusing on who’s paying for what when it comes to facilities that are shared across the community and draw tourists.

“Cultural facilities are like parks,” he said. “They are precious assets in the community. They are not meant to be profit-making opportunities. They are meant to be cultural assets for the community to enjoy.”

MIAMI’S PAST OVERTURES TO DEVELOPERS

The city of Miami tried on at least three previous occasions to turn that public land over to a private developer.

After the city closed the park in 1982, city officials floated various ideas on what to do with the vast property. For awhile, police used it for training exercises and target practice. Seaquarium, which sits across the causeway, eyed it for additional parking.

Because of its scenic setting, there was persistent talk of leasing the land to hotels. Even Don King — the flamboyant promoter of boxing matches, concerts and casinos — was asked for suggestions.

In the late 1990s, the city advertised the park and Miami Marine Stadium as sites for development. Gregory Bush, a former University of Miami history professor who was president of the Urban Environment League at the time, attended city meetings regularly and discovered a flier published by the city.

“It had visuals of Virginia Key Beach and the stadium and said, ‘Here’s Miami, Changing At the Speed of Light,’ inviting proposals from developers,” said Bush, author of “White Sand Black Beach: Civil Rights, Public Space and Miami’s Virginia Key.” “It all smelled so bad then and that smell has returned to my nostrils.

“Miami is infected with an odious disease that keeps it in deference to developers, sports team owners and anyone who touts commercial spectacle over nature or history. It’s a city without a memory. There’s no desire for a deeper understanding of where we’ve come from, where we are, or where we’re going.”

In 1999, during a discussion by an all-white city committee about the future of the beach and a proposal to build an eco-resort, Bush stood up and objected.

“I said, ‘Don’t you realize that this beach is central to the African-American experience, and not only have you abandoned it but you’ve insulted the community by excluding their input?’ ” Bush said. “They countered by saying, ‘Well, we could put a plaque out there.’ ”

Bush warned Athalie Range, who had been the city’s first Black commissioner, that if the park were to be preserved, it would have to be saved by the Black community. Range replied, “I’ve got one more good fight in me.”

Range and Tinnie rallied other leaders, and sought help from Commissioner Art Teele, who created a Civil Rights Museum Task Force.

“Art told us developers were competing in the back rooms of city politics for the park property,” Tinnie said. “What he said then still applies: ‘The cheapest land you can get in Miami is public land because the price is just three votes.’ ”

During the Great Recession, the city urged the trust to “partner with a revenue-producing venture,” Tinnie said, and the idea of an upscale eco-resort or RV campground was encouraged.

“Virginia Key has always been coveted and up for grabs, one scheme after another. So you can see why we are suspicious,” Tinnie said. “The city claims it can do a better job of bringing the museum to fruition. Really? They could just as easily let the park fail and then they have their perfect excuse to close it again and say they have no choice but to seek private development.”

Recent comments by Hardemon, who used to sit on Miami’s commission, have given some in the community pause. He stated that with the park under commission control, leaders should discuss finding “a better product that makes better sense.”

“I respect history. Part of the reason I’m here is because I stand on the shoulders of giants,” Hardemon told city commissioners at their Oct. 13 meeting. “But I must say that we cannot hold onto history without making sure the future is bright.”

There was also debate during the meeting about whether visitors to the beach would feel “uncomfortable” at a museum with photos documenting Miami’s Jim Crow past: KKK marches, segregated schools, famous Black entertainers performing at “Whites Only” hotels in Miami Beach and returning to late-night jam sessions in clubs and to their lodgings in Overtown and Brownsville.

“We’ve collected fascinating stories and oral histories,” Tinnie said. “A great nation doesn’t hide its history or deprive younger generations of their heritage. It learns from history.”

Mistrust in local governments has roots in commissioners’ past attempts to monetize public spaces. In one example from two years ago, Commissioner Joe Carollo proposed building a marina, boatyard and restaurant complex in Maurice Ferré Park, right next to the turning basin on Biscayne Boulevard.

Downtown residents, park users and city planners who had invested millions of dollars in the creation of the park were dumbfounded.

Tinnie hopes for reinstatement of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust but in the meantime has gone forward with two recent events at the park. One was a reenactment of the 1945 “wade-in.”

Another was “Remembrance Day,” when people came to share their memories of the beach and record them on videotape.

Anna Lightfoot-Ward, former mayor of El Portal, talked about cherished times with friends and relatives.

“It was our place to freely celebrate our culture,” she said. “It’s the perfect place for a museum that would be unlike any other.”

Ric Powell used to visit the beach when he was serving in the Navy in Key West and later when his Ric Powell Trio (he was the drummer) performed in Miami Beach.

“Virginia Key was the only place we could go for outdoor recreation on a beach, for swimming in the bay,” said Powell, a retired Norland High School teacher. “When you think back on it, it was good and bad, wonderful and sad. It’s an essential part of our history. We can’t forget.”

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