A museum dedicated to the African-American experience on Virginia Key took a key step forward as the Virginia Key Advisory Board voted May 28 in favor of resolution #5883.
On June 13, the city of Miami Commission will consider the resolution, which authorizes the city to enter into an agreement with the county to release $20.5 million in bond money toward the long delayed museum efforts.
Guy Forchion, executive director of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, said it has been a struggle to make the museum a reality. “Some of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust board members have been involved in this project for over 20 years.”
City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said in an interview that it is a tragedy that the African-American Museum has been so long delayed.
“Requiring an operating subsidy to be in place before beginning capital improvements is not a legal prerequisite of the bond,” said Suarez.
“The city has made multiple efforts to get the museum started and the county has ignored those efforts, including dedicating $1 million from Ultra.”
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s office did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.
When Virginia Key Beach was dedicated as a Dade County Park in 1945 for the exclusive use of the African-American community, it enjoyed instant popularity.
“It was a place to gather with family and friends; a place to worship, fish, dance, and celebrate life, and a respite from the harsh reality of the times,” said Esther Alonsol-Luft, owner of nearby eco-tourism destination Virginia Key Outdoor Center.
She supports the museum as a focal point to celebrate the African-American history on Virginia Key.
“African-Americans gathered and celebrated that which we all have in common: nature, the ocean, the beach, and each other,” said Alonsol-Luft.
Segregation of Miami-Dade beaches finally ended in the early 1960s and led to a decline in the use and upkeep of Virginia Key Beach. In 1982, the county transferred the park to the city of Miami, which closed the park shortly thereafter citing high maintenance costs.
Neglected for twenty years, some city officials began to look into selling it off. A local coalition formed among grassroots activists and successfully protested against any commercial development.
In 2008 the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust re-opened the park to the public.
Despite the citizens of Miami-Dade County voting in 2004 to fund a museum in the amount of $15.5 million, and the availability of $5 million in county convention development tax funds, the African-American museum has languished apparently due to the absence of an operating budget.
Ultra’s controversial move to Virginia Key last March gave the museum a temporary boost, with Ultra agreeing to an annual payment of one million dollars toward the museum’s operational expenses.
Shortly after this year’s festival, however, Ultra announced it would not be returning to Virginia Key and that source of funding dried up; a story first covered by Carolyn Guniss at Miami Times. https://www.miamitimesonline.com/news/politics-squabble-let-miami-black-museum-languish/article_87fd7b9a-72b1-11e9-9fdb-cfc3287eeecc.html
Homestead Councilwoman Patricia Fairclough, who also serves as principal of George Washington Carver Elementary in the West Grove, said she is a long-time supporter of the museum.
“I am glad that it appears to be moving in the right direction” said Fairclough.
Ken Russell, city of Miami Commissioner for District 2 which includes Virginia Key, said he believes a portion of all revenue generated on Virginia Key should be dedicated to enhancing the public amenities available there, including the museum.
“I am in full support of the African-American museum on Virginia Key” said Russell.
Mayor Michael Davey said he wants to find ways that the village can partner with the trust.
“The African-American Museum will enhance the celebration and understanding of our diverse cultural heritage.”
If resolution #5883 passes, the city and county will work together to get the museum started.
County Commissioner Xavier Suarez, whose district includes Virginia Key, has been a long-time supporter of the museum.
“I have already allocated $125,000 in my current budget and will allocate another $125,000 in the 2019-20 budget for operations during construction," he said.
Forchion said the trust has struggled with limited resources but they are ready to continue moving ahead on a project South Florida voted for years ago.
“The cultural history of Virginia Key runs parallel with an environmental preservation story that highlights civic activism,” said Forchion.
“I’m hopeful that we will see the needed support from the city and county to complete the Historic Beach Park Master Plan and mission.
This is the people’s beach, the people’s park and the telling of a unique, shared South Florida history.”
David Winker, Esq. is a Miami attorney active in many South Florida civic issues.