The Freedom Fighters of Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Civil rights visionaries Dr. Von D. Mizell and Eula Mae Johnson’s “wade-ins” desegregate beaches

The Freedom Fighters of Fort Lauderdale, Florida

BLACK HISTORY MONTH

The Freedom Fighters of Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Civil rights visionaries Dr. Von D. Mizell and Eula Mae Johnson’s “wade-ins” desegregate beaches

Las Olas Beach Heritage Landmark Marker commemorating the “wade-ins” at the beach. Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Source: Soul of America

One of my favorite beaches in South Florida isn’t one of the more popular ones like Las Olas Beach or South Beach. Instead, it’s a small, out-of-the-way beach, Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park. Being new to the state, I’m not always aware of the racial fights and civil rights history of South Florida, especially as it relates to Black History. Without realizing it, I had stumbled upon an obscure Black History nugget.

I knew enough to know if a woman named Eula Mae Johnson had a park named after her, she had to be Black and someone of great importance to the Fort Lauderdale, Florida community. I needed to know about her. So I did what I always do when I find an unexpected history lead: I researched it. What I found was pretty amazing. Dr. Von D. Mizell and Eula Mae Johnson were civil rights trailblazers and progressive visionaries before their time.

The revolutionary pair were responsible for getting the first Colored beach in Fort Lauderdale, among other notable civil rights accomplishments. Their commitment to racial equality and equity in Fort Lauderdale, along with their efforts in achieving civil and human rights for Black Floridians living in South Florida, are little-known Black history facts that need to be told. They make me proud to be Black.

The history of the Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park and how it came to be is the stuff legends are made of, except folks barely know about it. Black History is so much more than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman. There were many Black people all over this country who made life for Black people better. Allow me to share with you two ordinary Black people who did extraordinary things because they loved Black people and they wanted better for us.

Meet Dr. Von D. Mizell and Eula Mae Johnson.

Eula Mae Johson

Eula Mae Gandy Johnson was born in Statenville, Georgia, but moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1935. Upon her arrival, she found how oppressive Jim Crow laws were. Ms. Eula Mae, affectionately known in these parts as the Rosa Parks of Fort Lauderdale, began fighting for the rights of Black people.

Her early beginnings were meager. She was poor and did any type of job she could to make ends meet, including cooking, sewing, and domestic work, until she was able to save enough money to start her first business. As she amassed wealth, her business empire grew. She went on to own a small grocery store and two gas stations on Northwest Sixth Street, now Sistrunk Boulevard, located in what was formerly known as the Northwest District. During the Jim Crow era, today’s Northwest District was the Negro District, a vibrant Black business district. It was one of the only places Black people could live, dine, shop, and play until Eula Mae Johnson got involved. The civil rights activist became a powerful voice for Black people.

As Ms. Johnson’s businesses grew, so did her power in the community. White folks hated her, even at one point beating her and her son. She received many death threats from white people, but she persisted. In 1959, she became the first woman president of the Fort Lauderdale NAACP.

Eula Mae Johnson is most famous in these parts for her weekly “wade-ins” at Las Olas Beach (the white beach) to end beach segregation in the county. She and Dr. Von D. Mizell were the freedom fighters for Black people in the greater Fort Lauderdale area.

Broward County, like most the counties in the state, had segregated beaches. The only beach Black people could use in the county was Dania Beach, located in one of the four historically Black communities in South Broward County—Hallandale and Carver Ranches in Hallandale Beach, Dania in Dania Beach, and Liberia in Hollywood.

John Lloyd Beach State Park was home to the once-segregated and hard-to-reach Colored Beach. Black people in Broward County had limited beach access. They could visit only when white people chose not to visit. After civil rights activists lobbied and demonstrated in the 1950s, the county designated the northern tip of Dania Beach for Black residents. The beach was virtually inaccessible without a boat to traverse the swamp and reach the beach on the Atlantic Ocean-facing inlet.

After the 1961 wade-in at Fort Lauderdale Beach, a bridge was built allowing Black residents to have better access to Colored Beach. White folks didn’t want any part of Black people on their beaches. The beach was not as nice as Las Olas Beach, and the city and county did not maintain it the same way they maintained other beaches for white beach-goers.

A group of African-American protesters approached by a police officer on Fort Lauderdale Beach during segregation in 1961. Photo Source: Old Dillard Museum

On July 4, 1961, Ms. Johnson, along with Dr. Von D. Mizell, held their first “wade in,” which consisted of mostly young Black children and Black college students. For six weeks, Ms. Johnson’s wade-ins brought national headlines to Fort Lauderdale’s inequality and segregation. Wade-ins happened all over America during the early ’50s and ’60s. Florida wade-ins were a huge part of Florida’s civil rights movement.

According to witnesses, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) showed up to one of the wade-ins with ax handles to beat and terrorize young Black protesters. But Johnson had received a tip and put a call into the FBI. They showed up along with local police to protect protestors as they waded in the waters of the white beach.

Ms. Johnson and Dr. Mizell held several more wade-ins until the city of Fort Lauderdale filed a lawsuit against her. The city, angered by the negative national attention the wade-ins caused, accused Johnson of causing chaos and becoming a public nuisance with her wade-ins. A federal court ruled in Johnson’s favor and against the city’s segregation policies, noting Black people paid taxes like other citizens, so they deserved to use public beaches just like any other citizen.

Wade-in near the restaurant at East Las Olas Boulevard and Almond Avenue (1961). Photo: Broward County Library Digital Archives

Beach segregation ended with that ruling. Eula Mae Johnson went on to do many great things for the Black community and was a fierce advocate for the civil rights of Black people. Eula Mae Johnson died in 2011 at the age of 94. Her name and her legacy lives on in Broward County. In 2001, the city of Fort Lauderdale renamed the length of Northwest 23rd Avenue between Northwest 19th Street and Sunrise Boulevard as Eula Johnson Avenue. In 2016, Broward County changed the name of the old Colored Beach from the John U. Lloyd Beach State Park to the Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park.

Fort Lauderdale is desegregated today because of the efforts led in part by Eula Mae Johnson.

Dr. Von D. Mizell

Dr. Von D. Mizell, Eula Mae Johnson’s protest buddy, was a civil rights trailblazer in his own right. Dr. Mizell was a young Black physician who got his beginning in civil rights during the Jim Crow era around 1937 after a young Black man named John McBride was shot in the stomach by a car full of white men rumored to be members of the KKK.

Hospitals in the area near the Pompano Beach shooting where the shooting occurred wouldn’t accept the man because they were for whites only. Dr. Mizell, a Black physician, persuaded one of the hospitals to take the young man, but the hospital eventually moved McBride to a rundown sanitarium, where he soon died. Enraged about the death of McBride and other Black people during this time at the hands of the KKK, Dr. Mizell decided to do something about it.

Mizell and another Black activist/physician, Dr. James Sistrunk, established Provident Hospital inside a one-story home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. For nearly thirty years, it was the only place in the area where African-Americans could receive medical care. After integration was ordered in the county, the hospital was torn down by the city.

John U. Lloyd State Park (formerly Colored Beach), Dania Beach, Florida in 2014 prior to the name being changed. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1946, Dr. Mizell founded 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 Black people, and played an integral role in desegregating Fort Lauderdale’s beaches. After fighting for seven years, county commissioners agreed to the petition, and the county’s attorney John U. Lloyd located a 300-acre tract of crappy undeveloped marshland for the Colored beach. The worst part of the tract was made into the Colored Beach.

In 2014, the Florida State Legislature passed State Bill 820, renaming a portion of Interstate State Road A1A/Ocean Drive (Florida’s old beach highway running north-south on the eastern shore) that leads to the entry of John U. Lloyd Beach State Park as “Dr. Von Mizell Drive.”

The former colored beach/state park was named after John U. Lloyd (the racist attorney) until 2016, when the name was changed to Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Mae Johnson State Park. History-making Black people in Fort Lauderdale are finally receiving the flowers they so richly deserve.

Now, each time I visit Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Mae Johnson State Park I smile. I feel proud. I get satisfaction knowing someone fought for my right to not only have a colored beach, but to eventually go to any park I want. It hurts like hell when I realize the the things my people endured for my future. But that’s why I fight. Every Black generation must fight white supremacy and racism to make life better for the next generation.

Dr. Mizell and Eula Mae Johnson are a part of the Black history we never hear about, but we should. The Civil Rights Era was an important time in our nation’s history, and there were a lot of people helping to make life for Black people better. We need to remember all of them, not just the famous people. Black history is everywhere; you just need to open your eyes and minds to discover it.

Black history is America’s history.

For more information about the lives of Black people during the Jim Crow era, including photos of Eula Mae Johnson, Dr. Von D. Mizell, and Dr. Sistrunk, check out Historic Sistrunk.

To learn more about the history of Black people in Fort Lauderdale during the Jim Crow era and to see photos of Eula Mae Johnson, Dr. Von D. Mizell, and Dr. Sistrunk, check out Historic Sistrunk. The old Negro District has been named after Dr. Sistrunk in honor of his civil rights activism. We must do our parts to ensure their legacies live on.

Thank you so much for taking this Black history journey with me. I hope you keep going.

Marley K.

Thanks to William Spivey


This story is part of the series from Our Human Family published for Black History Month.

Our Human Family Celebrates Black History Month
With untold Black History
The Untold Story of the Haitian Revolution
What they never taught you during Black History Month
The Little-Known History of the Underground Railroad to Mexico
And the Afro-Mestizo emancipator who opened the door to Mexico for enslaved people
What I Really Think About Black History Month and its Roots
Plus the legacy of Dr. Carter G. Woodson