As courageous black American students staged sit-ins at lunch counters throughout the South, sparking pivotal change in the Civil Rights Movement, South Florida experienced its own version of peaceful protest over public access.
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
On July 4, 1961, a group of black South Florida residents waded into the ocean at the “whites only” beach near Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. The bathers’ demonstration marked the first in a series of “wade-ins” to protest segregated beaches, attracting worldwide press and the hostility of many local whites.
More than 50 summers later, a beachfront state park on land once designated as Broward County’s only “Colored Beach” now bears the names of the two civil rights leaders who led those wade-ins.
Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park – formally known as John U. Lloyd State Park – is the first state park in Florida to be named for African Americans. The name change took effect July 1, 2016, following an act of the Florida Legislature signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.
Dr. Mizell was one of Fort Lauderdale's early black doctors and Johnson was the county's first NAACP president. Both faced lawsuits and death threats during their long struggle for racial equality.
“They’re like the Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks of South Florida,” said former state Sen. Christopher Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, who co-sponsored legislation for the name change with state Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Hollywood.
The 310-acre park, at 6503 N. Ocean Dr., in Dania Beach, just south of Port Everglades, also has renamed a boat ramp and three pavilions to honor other local civil rights trailblazers.
“It’s important to look back and know how far we’ve come,” Rep. Jenne said. “These were icons in the local community who broke every color line. They worked together. It’s important to memorialize and remember these folks and what they went through. We are better as a community today than we were 50 years ago and we will be better 50 years from now. There is no reason to give up now.”
Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park’s history as “Colored Beach” dates back to 1954, when county officials designated the segregated sands following years of petitions by black South Floridians seeking a public bathing beach. However, getting to the remote beach proved difficult. There was no road and it was accessible only by ferry. Black activists pressured the county to build a road. When nothing happened, Mizell and Johnson began staging wade-ins at the area’s white-only beaches.
“I went with my Uncle Von and other college students,” Lorraine Mizell recalled at a Broward County Historical Commission luncheon. “I was terrified, but was with Von and felt safe. When we got there, Von told us to get in the water, so we slowly moved out. I’m not sure how long we stayed, but the police came quickly. Von’s goal was not to have us go to jail, so he had us get out of the water and leave.”
Mizell’s nephew, Don Mizell, a lawyer and Grammy Award-winning music producer, said his uncle was the mastermind of the wade-ins, but Johnson carried them out – just months after the Spring Break movie “Where the Boys Are” put Fort Lauderdale on the map.
The city of Fort Lauderdale lost a lawsuit in 1962 to stop the wade-ins and the county road was built three years later. Momentum from the court victory eventually led to integration of local schools in the early 1970s.
The state purchased 117 acres of “Colored Beach” in 1973, initially naming the area after longtime Broward County attorney John U. Lloyd, who was instrumental in assembling the land and transferring it to the state parks system. Thirty years later, the Mizell Family Legacy Trust began lobbying for the park’s name change.
Today, Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park encompasses 310 acres between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, stretching from Port Everglades Inlet on the north to Dania on the south. People visit the scenic, mangrove-lined sanctuary to swim, fish off the jetty, canoe, picnic, and observe bird life and the port’s ships.
The Lives Behind the Names
Von Mizell was the first black surgeon in Broward County and co-founded Provident Hospital because black people were not allowed to be treated at Broward General Hospital. He also was a founding member of the Fort Lauderdale NAACP. The Mizell family is firmly rooted in local history. Brother Ivory Mizell was a well-known photographer who documented the lives of Broward’s black community. Another brother, LeRoy Mizell, was an entrepreneur and mortician. Their father, Isadore Mizell, built the county’s first school for black children.
Both Von and LeRoy Mizell were targeted by the Ku Klux Klan and had stakes burned in front of their homes in the late 1940s, according to Old Dillard Museum historian James Bradley. Don Mizell said his uncle had people come to his office at night to surround him, walk him to his car and ride with him as protection. Mizell died in 1973 from cancer at age 63.
Eula Johnson, who died at age 94 in 2001, also weathered hate calls, public threats and numerous arrests in the struggle for beach and school desegregation. The Fort Lauderdale business owner owned a small grocery store and two gas stations, and was once beaten on Sunrise Boulevard with her young son. As first president of the local NAACP, serving from 1959 to 1967, her Fort Lauderdale home was the meeting point for six weeks of wade-ins along Broward’s coast, with the protests carried out mostly by students returning home from colleges in Tennessee, North and South Carolina, as well as Florida A&M University. Johnson’s former home, 1100 Sistrunk Blvd., has been turned into a museum and NAACP headquarters.
The park also has a newly named boat ramp and several pavilions to recognize other local civil rights pioneers, including:
W. George Allen, the first African American to graduate from the University of Florida law school and the lawyer who pursued lawsuits to integrate Broward’s public schools.
Alphonso Giles, the first black member of the Broward County Marine Advisory Board. He ferried local black residents to Colored Beach before a road led there.
Dr. Calvin Shirley, whose sued to get on the staff at Broward General Hospital, now Broward Health Medical Center. He and his wife established a county health department branch in the black community and the curriculum for Broward’s first school for licensed nurses.
George and Agnes Burrows, who fostered business opportunities in the black community. He was a master electrician who owned his own company and she was a longtime public school teacher at Ely High.
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