Not that long ago, Florida was not a paradise for all its citizens. Up until the early 1970s, there were tense race relations that lasted even though new laws on the horizon and the civil rights movement were making a strident change. In the 1940s and 1950s, blacks faced continuing discrimination, including not being “allowed” onto the beach.
The biography by author Rackham Holt, Mary McLeod Bethune (1964), tells the story of one of Florida’s most famous black women, with an amazing amount of detail in regard to her courageousness and dedication as a teacher. The daughter of parents who were slaves, McLeod is best known for founding an all girl school for black children in the early 1900s, and later the Bethune Cookman College in Daytona Beach. She is also one of the driving forces in equal rights for black women and black people in general in Florida, and founded one of the first black beaches in the New Smyrna Beach area. This came about from an ugly incident that prompted McLeod into action.
On a trip to the beach one day, McLeod and her students faced discrimination and were not able to access the local Daytona area beach, despite the fact that the beaches were open to the public and were not private. McLeod and other investors purchased a secluded piece of land south of Daytona in New Smyrna Beach, what is now Bethune Beach at 6656 S. Atlantic Ave, and turned it into the first beach for blacks. Volusia County’s black population could have all the freedoms and rights as any white citizen, and enjoy the Atlantic Ocean.
The beach area thrived. As Florida’s land boom and condominium development took hold of the ocean views, the area changed and drove housing prices to serve only the wealthy set, meanwhile ruining what was once pristine views with massive construction. Bethune Beach is only one of the three historically black beaches known in Florida at the time, and is a big part of Florida’s black history, along with the monumental accomplishment of McLeod and her peers. Today the Mary McLeod Bethune Beach Park is enjoyed by everyone; all races and colors, young and old. The beach is also considered a surfer’s paradise. This is one of the main areas where the surfers go to ride the waves, and there is a lovely park area for children, tennis courts, basketball courts, a boardwalk and fishing dock, picnic areas and more.
The beach and park are kept in pristine condition, a lovely tribute to a brave woman that helped to change negative attitudes and racist intolerances. She accomplished this in more ways than one, from basic civil rights to education and empowerment for Florida’s black citizens. She has gone down in history as a leader, and is an important person in the shaping of a positive Florida, a paradise that everyone can enjoy. To learn more about New Smyrna Beach and its history makers, there is the Southeast Volusia Historical Society, at 120 Sams Avenue, New Smyrna Beach FL, 32168, and the Black Heritage Museum at 314 N. Duss Street, New Smyrna Beach FL, 32168. The museum has a good website worth visiting as well. http://blackheritagensb.com/