Virginia Key Beach and South Florida's Wade-ins

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Visitors at Virginia Key Beach

On May 9th, 1945, a group of seven Black beachgoers went swimming at Baker’s Haulover Beach in Miami. This was unusual because Miami’s beaches were off-limits to Black bathers. This historic swim was known as a “wade-in” and was an act of civil disobedience by those who took part. The goal was to draw attention to the fact that, despite the laws of Jim Crow touting “separate but equal” public facilities, there was no public beach available, at all, for African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans. This public act of law-breaking led to no arrests and little press was given to the event. Some think this is because of the city's wish to maintain its reputation as a vacationer’s paradise.

The wade-in at Baker’s Haulover Beach was closely followed by the opening of Virginia Beach, Miami’s first Black-only beach on August 1st, 1945. Virginia Key Beach was just one municipal park out of 28 in Miami-Dade County at the time and the only park open to Black residents. It was only accessible by ferry or private boat until the opening of the Rickenbacker Causeway in 1947. Over the years the beach became a favorite destination of Black families from Miami and beyond, where they enjoyed amenities such as a carousel, miniature train, concession stand, and dance pavilion.

As the Civil Rights Movement progressed in the 1950s and 1960s, other wade-ins were held in Florida, but this time in the effort to promote integration. The Crandon Beach wade-in of 1959 would follow the example of the Haulover protest that took place more than a decade earlier. Once again, a group of African Americans would enter the all-white beach of Crandon Park—but this time, to push for integration. Not all wade-in attempts would be met with such acceptance, however. There would be a wade-in attempt in 1964 in St. Augustine which was met with violence, showing a striking difference in white reception of integration across the state.

Use of Virginia Key Beach significantly declined as Miami began to feel the victories of the Civil Rights era and beaches nearer to historically Black neighborhoods began to desegregate. Today, after much hard work and dedication, the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park has been restored as a much-valued cultural landmark and a reminder of Miami’s segregated past.

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