How beaches of Broward County were finally desegregated

By Kathy Boehnlein

After years of being known as ‘the Colored Beach,’ the John U. Lloyd State Park in Dania Beach, FL was renamed the Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park in 2016, in honor of two of the area’s most prominent civil rights trailblazers.

With August 6th marking the one year anniversary of the beachfront park’s official renaming, the Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park has joined the ranks of state parks across the US, named for African Americans & other minorities of notable distinction.

Looking out over the clear, azure blue waters of the Atlantic, waves gently lapping up against the shoreline, one can’t help but be struck by the tranquil beauty of the beachfront park, which stands in stark contrast to the racial tensions that once embroiled the area.

Much of that tension stemmed from harsh Jim Crow laws that went into effect after Reconstruction that dominated Black lives from the ‘cradle to the grave’ throughout much of the South, including prohibiting people of color from swimming at ‘whites-only’ public beaches.

In 1946, Dr. Von D. Mizell, South Florida’s first Black surgeon & founder of the Broward County Chapter of the NAACP, led a group of Black business leaders in petitioning the Broward County Commission for a public beach for Blacks. It would take seven, hard-fought years to finally sway county commissioners, who eventually tasked Broward County’s Attorney John U. Lloyd with locating the ‘colored beach.’

That mission was wrapped up in 1954 when a 117-acre parcel of land in Dania Beach was designated ‘the Colored Beach.’ In a galling twist of events, the state park was named after the Broward County attorney who was responsible for making sure that the beaches remained segregated!

The next challenge was getting the County to approve the construction of an access road leading to the beach, which still lacked any restrooms or shelter. Again & again the County delayed construction of the long-awaited road. In the meantime, WWII Vet & Broward County teacher, Alphonso Giles, a boating enthusiast, & the first African American member of Broward County’s Marine Advisory Board, took it upon himself to transport Black residents to the beach in his own boat if the ferry was late.

Finally after years of frustration, Dr. Von D. Mizell decided to try a very different tactic. Ironically, the ‘tipping point’ occurred on the 4th of July, Independence Day, 1961. Lorraine Mizell, 75, the niece of the late Dr. Von D. Mizell recalls that day vividly.

“My uncle, Dr. Mizell and Mrs. Eula Johnson drove a group of us college students to Fort Lauderdale Beach” by AIA & Las Olas Blvd. “We all got out & Dr. Mizell told us to get in the water while he and Mrs. Johnson stood nearby on the beach.”

As the group of college students got into the water, whites began staring in disbelief. Then, that disbelief turned into anger & they started spewing racial slurs & spitting on protesters. Some even jumped out of the water as if they feared being infected by some deadly virus spread by the Black waders. Still the protesters refused to back down.

“After about 10 minutes a police officer showed up and briefly spoke with Dr. Mizell. Afterwards my uncle told us to come out of the water,” ending what would become the first official ‘wade-in’ for the history books – but not the last.

Three weeks later, in defiance of the local ordinance prohibiting Blacks from swimming at ‘whites-only’ beaches, Eula Johnson led another ‘wade-in,’ this time bringing seven cars filled with young people to challenge the County’s segregated beach policy. They were met with fierce opposition from the KKK.

Eula Johnson’s very life was threatened. She was also subjected to harassing phone calls at all hours of the day and night from irate whites using intimidation tactics to bully the civil rights activist into stopping the wade-ins. When this didn’t work, the City of Ft. Lauderdale resorted to suing the NAACP for “inciting chaos” & disrupting the natural order of the day, claiming segregation was a matter of necessity to protect tourists. However, in 1963 a federal judge sided with the NAACP. And so, began the dismantling of the county’s segregated accommodations.

Much of the credit for achieving this hard earned victory belongs to Dr. Von D. Mizell, said Harvard-trained, Ft. Lauderdale Attorney Don Mizell, 69, nephew of the late civil rights icon. Calling his uncle the “mastermind” of the wade-ins, Mizell credited Eula Johnson with carrying out the wade-ins. Later, Dr. Mizell turned the leadership of the NAACP over to her, and also financed her efforts to desegregate the Broward County Public School system.

Don Mizell said that from an early age, Dr. Von D. Mizell, along with this siblings, was steeped in the tradition of service coming from one of the leading Black pioneer families to settle in Dania Beach in 1908, seven years before Broward County was carved out of the wilderness in 1915. Raised to believe ‘To whom much is given, much is required,’ Dr. Mizell carried out his family’s ‘commission’ brilliantly and effectively.

“His signature achievement,” Don Mizell said, “was joining up with renowned Black physician, Dr. James Sistrunk in 1938 to build Provident Hospital for Blacks in Broward County.” The non-profit hospital served the Black Community admirably for the next 40 years. Prior to that, Dr. Mizell had led unsuccessful efforts to integrate Broward General Hospital’s medical staff. Years later, he was also instrumental in helping Dillard High School obtain its accreditation.

Calling his uncle “the most significant African American in Broward County history in the 20th century,” Don Mizell said that Dr. Mizell was a Lincoln Republican in an era when members of the Democratic Party were known as Southern Dixiecrats, committed to states’ rights & segregation; a situation that remained unchanged until 1960s with the election of John F. Kennedy.

Mizell said once asked his uncle how Nova High School — the school he attended – came to be the only educational institution in the area that opened as a desegregated school in 1963. As it turned out, Dr. Mizell got to Dr. Martin Luther King, who got to then-President John F. Kennedy, who in turn got to the Ford Foundation, which put up the money for this experimental high school called Nova. This achievement was, without a doubt, a monumental testament to Dr. Mizell’s willingness & ability to reach across the aisle to achieve racial equality for all – something we all could take a lesson from today.

Another little known fact about Dr. Von D. Mizell is that he nearly pulled off one of the greatest coups in Broward County history by almost getting elected to the segregated Broward County School Board in 1949. Because of his light complexion & blue eyes, many whites thought he was white and were fully prepared to vote him in, until the KKK realized their error and literally took to the streets the night before the election, warning whites: “Don’t vote for Mizell, he’s a Black man!”

That wasn’t the only time, Dr. Mizell ‘pulled the wool’ over the eyes of whites, recalled his daughter Deborah Mizell during a recent interview.

“One time he told me he was coming back from a trip he’d taken deep in the South. On a whim, he checked into a local motel as a white man, being that he could pass for white. That night, he said he got a good night’s sleep and the next morning he took a nice shower before heading out. After he’d driven a short distance, he found a pay phone, called the motel & told the front desk: “Did you know there was a n*gg*r staying in Room 27 of your motel last night?” Then, he drove back and parked across the street from the motel and watched while the housekeeping staff rushed over to the room and completely stripped it bare because it had been ‘contaminated’ by a Black man.

Deborah Mizell, an RN for the past 37 years, also credits her father for one of the greatest life lessons she ever learned. While growing up, she often accompanied her father on house calls, she said, waiting while he went in and took care of his patients. One particular night as they were driving back home, she asked him, “Why don’t you make them pay?” Giving her a stern look, he said, “They will pay me when they can, and when they can, they will. I’m here to take care of the people.” Later, when they got home they found out that while they were gone, someone had given him some fried chicken and a pound cake – that’s how people paid him & showed him their appreciation.”

Jasmine Shirley also recalled her childhood growing up as the daughter of the late Dr. Calvin Hylton Shirley, the first Black OB-GYN in Broward County who delivered 6,000 babies during the course of his illustrious career. After working at Provident Hospital with Dr. Mizell & Dr. Sistrunk for many years, Dr. Shirley later joined the staff of Broward General after desegregation. In addition, he was one of the first four Black doctors to set up their own medical practice, which he later expanded into several locations. Jasmine said she often accompanied him on Saturdays when he’d travel up to Delray Beach where he’d see patients before driving out to Belle Glade to treat patients there as well. “He knew everybody’s family; he delivered babies in both Broward and Palm Beach Counties. He was well-loved by the community.” A man of principle Dr. Calving Shirley, who also took part in the wade-ins, once stated: “A good doctor is one who is concerned with giving service, as opposed to one who’s only concerned with the almighty dollar.”

In a recent phone interview, Sonya Burrows, 54, daughter of George & Agnes Burrows also discussed her parents’ legacy of service to the community, including a very ‘telling’ incident that occurred while she was growing up.

“Raised by Bahamian immigrants, my father, a WWII Marine vet went to school on the GI Bill & eventually obtained his state certification to become a licensed master electrician. Later, he founded the Negro Chamber of Commerce and was its VP until 2015. My mother was also involved as a member of the Negro Chamber of Commerce Auxiliary.

“Back then public municipal golf courses were all segregated. The Negro Chamber of Commerce sued the city to allow Blacks to play on public golf courses. They won the lawsuit, but the next day the City turned around and sold the golf course that was the basis for the lawsuit, for $1.”

It might be noted that the driving force that propelled Attorney Don Mizell (who formerly worked with musical legend Stevie Wonder) to embark on a 6-year quest to have the state park renamed in honor of his renowned uncle, came to him shortly after he returned to Florida in 2009 after having lived in California for 38 years. Stunned to see his family’s 100-year legacy falling apart; seemingly relegated to the scrap heap of time, Mizell knew he could never accept that.

George & Agnes Burrows
George & Agnes Burrows

He began giving speeches to schools and organizations; he produced a documentary on his family’s legacy, and even formed a moveon.org website to raise funds. His efforts paid off, thanks in part to the efforts of Sen. Christopher Smith, who along with State Reps. Evan Jenne & Bobby Dubose put together legislation to rename the park that was approved by Governor Rick Scott on April 6, 2016  & became law on July 1, 2016.

The law also designated several commemorative structures to be built within the 310-acre park – now stretching from Port Everglades Inlet on the north end to Dania Beach on the south end – in

W. George Allen Esq.

recognition of the many contributions made by Alphonso Giles, Dr. Calvin Shirley, George & Agnes Burrows, and Att. W. George Allen  (who filed the lawsuit that led to the desegregation of the public school system).

Jasmine Shirley said she “fully supports the historical preservation & repurposing of the Dr. Von D. Mizell Center on Sistrunk Blvd., maintaining it as both an historical site and a centerpiece of economic opportunity. That would make the situation come full circle,” she stated.

Dr Calvin Shirley & Family

Jasmine Shirley said she “fully supports the historical preservation & repurposing of the Dr. Von D. Mizell Center on Sistrunk Blvd., maintaining it as both an historical site and a centerpiece of economic opportunity. That would make the situation come full circle,” she stated.

“If you look back at Provident Hospital, it was a major economic engine during the years it was in operation. It’s only right that the center should remain an economic engine of opportunity for the community,” she said, adding that all the economic planners for the city; all the consultants from the 80s to today,

hold that same belief. Sonya Burrows agrees, stating that she sees another travesty about to take place today with the city’s desire to tear down the current Dr. Von D. Mizell Center at 1409 Sistrunk Blvd. Calling it ‘ethnic cleansing,’ she pointed out that the Center is a “sacred site” – where Provident Hospital, a centerpiece of the community was located, as well as the place where community meetings took place for decades and where non-profit organizations helping the community were housed, along with a popular local daycare. She questioned the city’s motives stating that they own the property where the YMCA currently stands, so why not build there, unless this is really about gentrification at the expense of an iconic institution & the community that supports that institution.