Currier on Bush, 'White Sand, Black Beach: Civil Rights, Public Space, and Miami's Virginia Key'

Gregory W. Bush
Nicole Currier

Gregory W. Bush. White Sand, Black Beach: Civil Rights, Public Space, and Miami's Virginia Key. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2016. 304 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-6264-8.

Reviewed by Nicole Currier (Washington Adventist University) Published on H-Florida (March, 2018) Commissioned by Jeanine A. Clark Bremer (Northern Illinois University)

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In White Sand, Black Beach: Civil Rights, Public Space, and Miami’s Virginia Key, Gregory W. Bush weaves together the narratives of two civil rights struggles: the post-World War II quest by black Miamians for access to a beach and the present-day campaign by city residents seeking to preserve public open space. Drawing connections between seemingly unrelated postwar developments—the formal integration of public space on the one hand, and the diminishing acreage devoted to public parks and beaches on the other—he argues that as open spaces have become racially “democratized,” they have been devalued. The result has been the leasing of Miami’s public spaces to private partners and the transformation of quiet spaces of reflection into places of commercial spectacle.

Virginia Key, an island off the coast of Miami, and the site of a historic black beach, serves as the focal point of Bush’s narrative. After a landmark 1945 civil rights campaign in which black activists employed a mixture of diplomacy and civil disobedience to protest their exclusion from the city’s beaches, Dade County set aside Virginia Key Beach for African American use. It was a concession unparalleled elsewhere in the South. Virginia Key Beach soon became a gathering space for the African American community. Yet once Miami became integrated, the crowds diminished. For some, the beach that had so recently been a symbol of black pride and resistance now served as a reminder of the exclusionary past.

Virginia Key then became the target of officials’ piecemeal development plans. The result, as Bush observes, was that the island was subjected to an “irrational array of incompatible uses” (p. 166). By the late 1970s, Virginia Key was variously the site of a sewage treatment plant, a marine research facility, and an enormous, structurally flawed performance venue. Transferred from Dade County to the city of Miami in 1982, with the caveat that its historic beach was to be preserved as public park space, Virginia Key nevertheless continued to fall prey to municipal leaders’ various schemes to enrich city coffers through the leasing and development of public lands. As officials bickered with one another over its fate, the island languished. From 1982 to 2000, Virginia Key Beach was closed to the public, except by special permit.

As the site of a former African American beach, Virginia Key’s history is, in many ways, exceptional. Yet Bush also suggests that its past parallels that of post-World War II Miami-Dade County as a whole. He contends that the same factors that have shaped Virginia Key—a blatant disregard for spaces and places linked to people of color, a desire to extract profit from public property, and a tendency to value commercialized entertainment venues over inclusive open spaces—have transformed Miami into a notorious example of irresponsible urban development. (Miami presently has less acreage devoted to public parkland than any other major US city.) He further warns that Miami’s fate reflects “the prevailing national trend toward the privatization of public space” (p. 149).

White Sand, Black Beach is part history, part manifesto. An associate professor of history at University of Miami, Bush is also past president of Miami’s Urban Environment League (UEL), a group dedicated to preserving the city’s open spaces. In his monograph, Bush describes how his activism was awakened by his outrage at the construction of the Miami Heat’s American Airlines Arena on public waterfront land. He then recounts how, as president of the UEL, he sought to apply the tools of his academic discipline to his advocacy efforts. For Bush, recovering the forgotten history of Virginia Key Beach is the means to its future preservation as public open space.

The opening chapters of the book focus on Miami’s troubled racial history. Chapter 1 describes the May 9, 1945, “wade-in” that compelled officials to designate a beach for African American use. Chapter 2 sets these events against the larger history of racial relations in Miami. In chapter 3, Bush considers Virginia Key Beach’s significance to the black community, arguing that it was among the places that “enabled black Americans to forge the solidarity that eventually empowered them to overcome, in many cases move beyond, segregation itself” (p. 85). Chapters 4-7 focus on officials’ diminishing interest in public recreational spaces in the wake of integration, and the privatization and development of such areas. The latter chapters also highlight the UEL’s efforts to preserve Virginia Key Beach as public space by successfully campaigning for its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

Bush’s concern might seem to be primarily with preserving public open spaces, and only secondarily with preserving the history and spaces of people of color. However, he argues that these campaigns represent two sides of the same coin. A central tenet of his book is that public open spaces have been targeted by municipal leaders for development precisely because of their perceived association with the poor and people of color. 

Bush’s text simultaneously addresses multiple audiences: scholars of urban planning and urban studies, students of African American history, and Florida history specialists. The challenge for a scholar working at the intersections of so many fields is to produce a narrative that is accessible enough to engage readers across disciplines. For the most part, Bush succeeds. However, there are instances in which he slips into discipline-specific jargon. For example, he employs, but does not define, the phrases “counter-spaces” and “defensible spaces” (p. 20). While students of urban studies are likely to be acquainted with these ideas, the terms might be unfamiliar to those trained in other fields.

Overall, White Sand, Black Beach is a masterful account that illuminates a chapter in the civil rights movement that has been overshadowed by later integration campaigns. Bush reminds readers just how much access to a beach meant to urban dwellers trapped in hot, cramped segregated quarters—to those who could see Miami’s beautiful beaches but not partake of them. Detailing the ever-diminishing acreage devoted to public recreational land, he urges consideration of what undeveloped spaces mean to us today.

Citation: Nicole Currier. Review of Bush, Gregory W., White Sand, Black Beach: Civil Rights, Public Space, and Miami's Virginia Key. H-Florida, H-Net Reviews. March, 2018. URL:

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