A Beach Too Far

By staff June 1, 2005

Before the civil rights cause awakened much of the country, a unique clash over segregation and integration played out right here in Sarasota. At the center of the story were a brave black war veteran and a famous local author. To many readers, the language and tone used in this story may seem biased and even shocking. It's important to remember that the Sarasota of 50 years ago was very much a part of the Jim Crow-segregated South, and this story draws on newspaper accounts and quotations of that day. This is the way that it was.

County Commissioner Albert D. Corson could read people. As a salesman, he had been a student of body language all his life; and he could tell this meeting on Friday, June 17, 1955, was not going well. County architect William Zimmerman had just spent half an hour explaining the plans for the proposed Negro pool and recreation area, and reactions from the crowd had been nonexistent-just deadpan black faces, staring straight back at the speaker.

The 125 people in the audience were representatives of Newtown, Sarasota's black community. Corson and his fellow commissioners hoped to get their approval for the proposed pool and put an end to a problem once and for all. As chairman of the meeting, Corson took over when Zimmerman finished, but despite his enthusiastic effort, his request for questions was met with a continued and deafening silence. After several awkward moments passed, Corson said, "I take it you people are not interested in the pool." Almost in unison, all 125 assured him he was right.

Now the meeting came to life, as one by one, resolutions were read revealing what the Newtown residents really wanted. Each speaker reminded the commissioners that the money they were trying to spend on the pool came from a beach and recreation bond issue passed four years earlier in 1951. And, as they had been promised at that time, they wanted their share of that money spent on purchasing a public beach for the Newtown community.

As the head of the beach and recreation committee, Commissioner Glenn R. Leach defended the county position, declaring, "I didn't come out here to ram a swimming pool down your throats. But we just felt you would be more satisfied with a swimming pool, where you don't have to be worrying about jellyfish and stingrays." At that, a member of the black community stood up and drew the first laughter of the evening by responding, "If you white folks can put up with those jellyfish and stingrays, I think maybe we people can put up with them, too."

Although no vote was taken, opposition to the swimming pool appeared to be unanimous. Leach then invited the audience to help the commission in locating a beach site. But many said finding a site was the commissioners' job. Several even suggested that if no site were available, a white beach should be turned over for black use. As that request hung in the air, the commissioners indicated that they weren't sure what they would do next, but they promised they would not let the matter drop. But since this was the South in 1955, everybody in the room knew that not letting it drop was not the same as getting it done.

Not letting the issue drop meant that another hot Florida summer passed while a commission-appointed beach committee searched for a "suitable site"; eventually, they settled on one near Midnight Pass on Siesta Key, a recommendation that was never taken up by the commission or acted upon. That October, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune opened a series of articles dedicated to what they called the "Negro beach issue" by looking across Florida to examine how other communities had dealt with the matter. They found that less than two miles of Florida's coastline were officially "set aside for Negro use," and therefore, not much history on the issue existed.

Sarasota's black community knew all about that history, and some members began to press for some changes in their own way. On the following Thursday, the Herald-Tribune reported, "Six carloads of Negroes were reported to have driven to Franklin Drive on Lido Beach yesterday afternoon and to have gone swimming." An editorial the following Monday morning warned that Sarasota had best come up with a segregated Negro beach now or face dealing with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and fully integrated beaches in the near future. The editorial also called for the city and county commissions to quit passing the buck, as "one of the main troubles is the lack of leadership on both sides." On cue, City of Sarasota Mayor Ben H. Hopkins spoke up, calling the whole thing "a county problem."

With leadership lacking and buck-passing accelerating, ignoring the problem wasn't working, either, as Herald-Tribune readers learned the next day, when the paper reported on a third caravan to Lido Beach. The caravan had now grown to 19 cars and more than 100 blacks. Police chief Robert Wilson reported that four police vehicles were on the scene in case of incidents, but that all was "peaceful and quiet."

A Newtown drugstore owner and head of the Sarasota County NAACP, Neil Humphrey, was identified as the leader of the beach campaign. Humphrey, a veteran of World War II who was now in his mid-40s, emphasized that the taxes of both white and black citizens supported the beaches. Then he threw out this challenge: "When we met with the commissioners last June they said to us, 'Help us find a beach for you'-well, we've found one."

The impact of those words on white Sarasota was tremendous. Consider that the Supreme Court's final Brown decision, the event now often cited as the beginning of the modern civil rights movement, had just been issued in May, about two weeks before the County Commission offered Newtown its own swimming pool.

Rosa Parks would be arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat in another two months, in December 1955; and very few people outside of Montgomery, Ala., had yet heard of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the spiritual leader behind the bus boycott that followed Parks' arrest. So in many ways, the small community of Sarasota and its beach controversy were ahead of the historical curve.

It was a harassed chairman Corson that week who promised the "colored people" something definite in the way of a Gulf beach "within the next month." Later, ignoring the results of the previous summer's special beach committee, Corson appointed a new group, a coalition of city and county officials and "white and colored residents." As Corson attempted to build consensus to resolve the issue, Mayor Hopkins and the City Commission closed that week's meeting with a resolution of their own. It contained four points: (1) Continued use of Lido Key beach by the Negro population was not in the best interest of anyone due to the economics of the tourist trade. (2) Both white and colored populations prefer segregated beaches when given a choice. (3) There were still $97,000 in the county's beach bond issue fund. And (4) these resolutions serve "the purpose of recording the ideas, feelings, and position of the City Commission" for the people of Sarasota and not to criticize or reflect upon the judgment of the County Commission.

Much was made at this time of the County Commission being the first all-Republican one in the history of Sarasota. The City Commission members, however, were Democrats. Mayor Hopkins, a local car dealer, was a proud Florida "Cracker" with pre-World War II ties to Sarasota. The County Commission Republicans were all post-war arrivals with Northern roots. It was both a political struggle and a struggle more familiar today: long-time resident versus newcomer. The "Yankees" were making a mess of things, and the "old boys" wanted no part of it.

Corson surprised the new beach committee at its first meeting by proposing a "beach tract, less than three miles from the New Pass Bridge on Longboat Key" for black citizens. The black members of the group were asked to call a Newtown meeting to determine whether the site was acceptable. In return for Corson's pledge that the tract would be purchased, committee member Neil Humphrey agreed to stop the Sunday caravans to Lido Key, which a representative from the Chamber of Commerce claimed had already given Sarasota adverse publicity in the Northern press.

But in a surprise twist the next week, as Longboat property owners met to plan a fight against the Negro beach, 500 members of the Newtown community, encouraged by NAACP leaders from Tampa, voted overwhelmingly to reject the segregated Longboat beach and ask instead for the integration of all county beaches. Meanwhile, unaware of this change, a speaker at the Longboat meeting claimed that the land cited by Corson would not accommodate "the Sarasota blacks and those expected to flock there from neighboring counties by the thousands."

After the vote for integration, Sarasota NAACP leader Humphrey declared, "The time has come for us to assert our claim for equal rights. As citizens, we will assert those rights to attend any public beach available." Suddenly, Sarasota was on the front lines of the burgeoning national battle over civil rights.

Almost immediately, citing severe erosion and dangerous currents as an excuse, the City of Sarasota attempted to head off any new caravans by closing the section of the Lido Key beach the blacks had visited in the past. In addition, the Tampa Morning Tribune reported, there were rumors that the City Commission was considering selling the popular Lido Casino to "private interests to keep the Negroes off the beach."

The beach issue was divisive even in Newtown, where World War II veterans like Humphrey, fed up with discrimination and determined to claim their rights, clashed with some of their elders, who believed half a loaf was better than none at all. Segregation had been the way of life and many were comfortable with it and even preferred it; but most of all, they feared what pushing for change could bring, even in peaceful Sarasota.

As hope, fear and anger simmered across the county, the County Commission matched the city's lead by considering a referendum to "get out of the beach business" altogether.

According to a "Negro leader" quoted in Sarasota's The News, "the NAACP coming in and swaying our meeting has backfired on them, because our people are not going to do anything about integration. We just want a beach of our own." When an expected caravan to a local beach failed to materialize on Sunday, Oct. 23, many believed it proved that such a Newtown backlash against the NAACP existed. But Humphrey claimed there never were any plans to visit a beach that day and that "a lot of untruths have been printed" about the NAACP and the supposed backlash. He vowed they would continue to pursue integration regardless of the actions of the city and county commissions.

Four months later, in mid-February of 1956, after another failed attempt to secure a site for a black beach on Longboat Key, the County Commission appointed another citizen's committee, this time headed by local contractor George Higgins. By the end of the week, the committee made several recommendations. First, it recommended the purchase of a tract of land near Midnight Pass on Siesta Key-the same location the first beach committee had recommended almost two years before. And if that didn't illustrate enough the circular nature of this issue, the next recommendation was sure to bring "jellyfish and stingrays" to mind. The committee also recommended that the City of Sarasota finance and build a swimming pool for the Newtown community. But as those who had followed the issue from the beginning knew, committees had made recommendations before. It was far from over.

More than 300 residents of the Midnight Pass area and Siesta Key showed up at the County Commission meeting the next evening. So many people filled the commission chambers that the meeting had to be moved to a county courtroom to accommodate the crowd. The meeting lasted for five hours, as 27 people spoke on topics ranging from fair representation on the committee to the supposed instability of the proposed beach, which would make it impossible to construct the necessary facilities. In the early morning hours, Chairman Gustin M. Nelson attempted to turn the tide by reading a telegram from Siesta Key resident and Pulitzer Prize-winning author MacKinlay Kantor. Kantor supported the beach and implored the commissioners to "not be deterred." Amid shouts and grumbles from the audience, Nelson put off any decision on the beach until the following Thursday and closed the meeting.

By Wednesday, the Thursday meeting had been postponed to the following Monday. By Friday, members of Higgins' special beach committee were being scrutinized all over town. Many Siesta Key residents questioned the motives of the committee members and asserted the Midnight Pass beach was chosen mostly to keep it off Longboat or Lido. But whether about racial prejudice then or a dispute over an airport, a prison, a Wal-Mart or nuclear power plant now, this is an eternal conflict that now even has a name: NIMBY, or "not in my back yard."

That Monday, the County Commission planned to address regular business in the morning session and reserve the afternoon for the much-anticipated beach decision. But as they readied to adjourn for lunch, a motion was raised, seconded, and unanimously passed. As the crowd poured in that afternoon, they were instructed by Chairman Nelson to "refrain from any oral expression by cheering or booing." He then read the motion, passed prior to lunchtime recess, that rejected the recommendation of the beach committee on the grounds that the property was "unstable and unsuited" for development. The responding cheers were deafening.

The next day a letter from MacKinlay Kantor appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. He described a recent dream in which he had encountered a young Negro boy who was once his yardman. This was "odd," he wrote, "because the boy had been dead more than 12 years." As they discussed the changes that had occurred in Sarasota, the young boy said that he had heard that there was now a "colored folks' beach." No, Kantor had to tell him, he was mistaken about that. People had been talking about it but had not been able to bring it about yet. The young man reacted in surprise: "But they were talking about it before I left." Kantor and the boy went on to discuss several other issues-property, education, and segregation-revealing that not much had changed about any of those, either. Finally Kantor told his young friend that he was getting too "uppity" and he needed to get back to the United States Military Cemetery in northern France, where he belonged. With his points made, Kantor signed off.

It's likely that this letter was composed prior to the Commission's action. Though its intention was unmistakable, its tone was more prodding than punishing. But Kantor did not stop with this letter. The next day, he sent a telegram to the commissioners, calling their decision to reject the Siesta site an act of "political and ethical cowardice." At a press conference, Kantor threatened to write an article for a national magazine entitled, "Sarasota Cheats Its Black Children." Kantor stressed he was not some "starry-eyed Yankee" calling for integration. He supported a segregated beach and called the lack of one a "grave injustice." When asked whether his threats could be called blackmail, Kantor replied, "Make the most of it."

Kantor's stand provided rich fodder for letters to the editor over the next several days. Some letter writers congratulated him, while others criticized his grandstanding as "not helpful." One writer asked if Kantor ever let his young black friend swim at his house after a hard day of working in his yard. It is notable that there were no critiques for his implied stand against integration. That shift in society had yet to occur.

In early October of 1956, the city announced plans for a Newtown swimming pool, and the county revisited an ingenious idea that seemed designed to avoid offending any potential neighbors: dredging Big Pass between Lido and Siesta Key to form an island that could serve as a black beach. The pool was completed and opened the following year, but no black beach, whether on an island or the mainland, materialized.

The first all-Republican Sarasota County Commission came to an end with the 1956 elections, as Leach and Jacob Baumgartner chose not to run and were replaced by Democrats. Only Edwin F. McCann, who died in office in 1960, ever sought re-election. Corson and Nelson served out their second terms. Nelson moved on to politics at the state level; Corson retired altogether. All of them gladly put the "Negro beach issue" behind them.

Though not officially sanctioned, eventually a beach just south of Venice became the de facto destination for Negro beachgoers. Today known as Caspersen Beach, it sits adjacent to the Venice airport and, at that time, also shared space with a City of Venice sewage treatment plant.

Current City Commissioner Fredd Atkins, who became the first black mayor of Sarasota in 1986, remembers his childhood trips with a favorite aunt. "She loved to go to the beach," he recalls. "She'd pack breakfast, lunch and dinner because if you got to go that far, you might as well stay all day." The round trip from Newtown was more than 40 miles. Later on, when integration of the beaches was no longer a point of contention, not much changed. Atkins says, "Basically, once we were allowed to go, we really didn't want to. We knew we weren't really wanted out there."

If there is a hero in this tale, it is Neil Humphrey. Born in Plant City, Fla., in 1910, Humphrey moved to Sarasota in 1935. After serving in the Navy in World War II, he operated Humphrey's Drugstore in Newtown until retirement and died in November of 2000 at the age of 90. Even in tranquil little Sarasota, this black man-who had a wife, two children, and a business he had struggled to build-was putting everything at risk in taking such a public stand. This past January, a family member described Humphrey as "a man small in stature but huge in heart, who wanted everyone to get along, black and white." If there is justice in this city, someday on Lido Key, the children of Sarasota will run and play between the "jelly fish and stingrays" on Neil Humphrey Beach.

This Sept. 25, 2005, will mark the 50th anniversary of the first beach caravan organized by Neil Humphrey to Lido Beach.

Michael D. Sprout has lived in Sarasota along with his wife, Holly, since 1985. They have three children, aged 13 to 24. He teaches history, government and economics at the Pendleton School at IMG Academies in Bradenton.

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