Rob Hiaasen: Growing up means understanding hate in Dixie and the Sunshine State

Ft. Lauderdale police respond to Fort Lauderdale's beach "Wade-In" in 1961.
Ft. Lauderdale police respond to Fort Lauderdale's beach "Wade-In" in 1961. (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

Is there a statute of limitations on childhood naivete? On adult un-education?

The country continues to question its past and present in this time of statute and monument removal and confederacies of violent dunces. From the downed Roger B. Taney statue in Annapolis to the dropped playing of "Maryland, My Maryland" at University of Maryland football games, people are gut-checking their beliefs, customs and traditions.


Some are even discovering their hometowns for the first time.

In the 1960s, I was a child growing up in south Florida. I was taken to Fort Lauderdale beach before I could even swim. If there was unrest elsewhere in the country, it surely didn't happen on unspoiled Fort Lauderdale beach. Little did I know or learn in school.


In 1961, there was a series of "wade-ins "by black residents on the all-white beach at Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. A year before, my beach had been immortalized and romanticized in the popular beach movie, "Where the Boys Are." There weren't any black beachgoers in the movie, either.

Organized by the local NAACP, the wade-in participants — tired of trudging to the "blacks-only" sand scrap south of the "good" beach — were greeted by threats of police arrest and crowds of whites brandishing bottles and bats. The number of black participants increased, and eventually, a Broward Circuit judge allowed the protests to continue. Broward County's beaches were, from then on, desegregated.

I had no idea when and how this happened until I was at the beach a few years ago and noticed a historic marker chronicling the wade-ins. Don't know how long it has been there, but the marker wasn't erected in my time in south Florida. And I certainly didn't learn anything about segregated Florida beaches in my Florida classrooms (wishing to uphold school segregation, the Florida Legislature in 1957 opposed Brown v. Board of Education).

I never knew an NAACP pioneer named Harry T. Moore up the road in Brevard County, in a little Florida town called Mims, was killed along with his wife. KKK members planted and detonated a bomb under the floor boards of their home Christmas night, 1951. The Moores are considered the first NAACP members killed for civil rights activism. Their home was bombed on their 25th wedding anniversary. I learned about the Moores when I had the chance years later in Maryland to interview their daughter, Evangeline, who happened to be away from home that Christmas. She survived to tell her parents' story.

I didn't learn about Rosewood in school, either. In January 1923, black residents in the black town of Rosewood in Levy County, Florida, were nothing short of massacred by white vigilantes, some of whom had been deputized by the local sheriff. Parts of Florida were a Klan hot bed in the 1920s, when the hate group's membership reportedly peaked in the South. First I heard of the town's scorching was seeing John Singleton's movie "Rosewood" in 1997.

Then there was Reuben Stacy. I have relatives who still live in Davie, just west of where I grew up. It was a cow town then, sort of still is. It was also a Klan town. In 1935 (when my father was 10 and growing up in Fort Lauderdale), a 37-year-old black man named Reuben Stacy was shot and then hanged from a tree on Old Davie Road in Fort Lauderdale. The grisly photograph, which survived, is a rare visual account of a lynching in Florida.

A report from the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative about lynchings across the South taught me something else. The Sunshine State ranked fifth among 12 states analyzed for the number of lynchings between 1877 and 1950. There were 331 lynchings in Florida and per capita, the state lynched people at a higher rate than any other, according to the group's findings. Maryland had 28.

In my naivete, I never thought of Fort Lauderdale as the South or me a Southerner (my mother was born in Chicago; my father's people were from North Dakota). Yes, we would drive on Dixie Highway, our main road, and shop at Winn-Dixie, our main grocery store, and play on the white beach sand of where the boys were all the while unaware of any wade-in as we waded in.

Once or twice I ate at our local Sambo's. That's right, Sambo's, where the restaurant chain's mascot was indeed a dark-skinned boy. Sambo's went bankrupt and sold its Fort Lauderdale location to Denny's. That was 1983.

But Southerners? Us? Naw.

By the way, Old Dixie Highway up the road in Riviera Beach from my old home isn't called Old Dixie Highway anymore. In 2015 the mayor and others, believing "Dixie" to be symbolic of racism, cross burnings and the Klan, re-named their section of the highway in honor of former president Barack Obama.

I also learned that from a newspaper article.


Little did I know.

Rob Hiaasen is Assistant Editor at The Capital. He can be reached at rhiaasen@capgaznews.com

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