12420290671?profile=RESIZE_710xDelray Beach police search Black men parked at the beach in 1956. Officials did not allow Black people on city beaches until 1962, slowly relenting in the face of negative national publicity. Photo provided by Delray Beach Historical Society

How coastal cities have dealt with written remnants of Jim Crow era

By Anne Geggis

Laws that kept Black residents separate were recently found still on the books in South County, leading Boynton Beach to a symbolic ordinance-burning and Delray Beach to considering how to banish the ghosts of its segregationist past.

This comes decades after Delray Beach stopped using a portion of Ocean Ridge for Black bathers to take a dip because they were restricted from city beaches. It’s happening 51 years after court supervision of Palm Beach County school integration efforts ended.

But debate remains about whether sanitizing city codes is anything more than an empty gesture. In Boca Raton, the discriminatory ordinances disappeared back in the 1990s with no notice taken at all.

12420291266?profile=RESIZE_710xBoynton Beach residents gathered in February to march to Sara Sims Park for the burning of copies of three racist ordinances. Photo provided by City of Boynton Beach

Boynton Beach Ordinance 37 and Ordinance 47, both passed in 1924, defined a “Negro District” and a “White District.” Another, 1933’s Ordinance 136, kept Black residents from crossing certain boundaries at night — a “sundown law” that bears a resemblance to rules passed in thousands of other U.S. municipalities, according to scholarly research.

The three discriminatory laws were discovered during a series of community forums.

“I could not believe they hadn’t been repealed already,” said Boynton Beach Mayor Ty Penserga, recalling what came out of forums funded by the Unity Project of the Mellon Foundation, and the subsequent research into the history that activists and senior citizens recalled.

Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, routinely tells his students to read a city charter from back to front and write about what they find.

The exercise sometimes yields surprises, he said.

“What makes this stand out is that we’re now so far into the Civil Rights era that it is somewhat shocking that this wasn’t discovered at some point before,” Jewett said.

Delray Beach sundown law
Delray Beach also had a sundown law passed in 1938 that originally kept Black people west of Northwest/Southwest Third Avenue, according to Delray Beach Historical Society research. The sundown law was repealed in 1963, but an earlier law, passed in 1935, was recently found on the books as city staff investigated the possibility of designating Frog Alley — a neighborhood Black pioneers settled that runs south of Atlantic Avenue between Southwest Sixth and Southwest Fourth avenues — a historical district.

That law, Delray’s Resolution 146, designated Swinton Avenue as the dividing line for where people were limited from occupying buildings, based on race, except for servants’ quarters. And no repeal of it could be found, according to Michelle Hoyland, principal planner for the historic preservation division of the Planning and Zoning Department.

“It says … there was no business to be completed by Black folk on the east side of Swinton … no buildings to be owned,” Hoyland told the City Commission at a Feb. 20 workshop meeting. “This to me is something that’s unacceptable, but I think it’s great that it’s been uncovered so we can give it the attention that it deserves.”

A historian’s perspective
Susan Gillis, curator at the Boca Raton Historical Society, said cities throughout the area passed the same sorts of laws, especially in the 1930s and 1940s.

“The thought, going along with the Chamber of Commerce, was that this is what our visitors want,” she said. Places like Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale also allowed the recording of property deeds with restrictions that the property never be sold to Jews.

And, during that period, it wasn’t unusual to see a hotel advertised as “restricted” — meaning not open to Jewish people, Gillis said.

These practices and racially restrictive ordinances were rendered unenforceable by federal laws. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and then the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Still, Boynton Beach’s willingness to confront the remnants of its racist past brings it a little closer to realizing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, said Bryce Graham, vice president of the Florida chapter of the National Action Network, speaking at a Feb. 20 Boynton Beach City Commission meeting.

“Out of a mountain of despair comes a stone of hope,” Graham said, quoting King. “And so this gives this community hope.”

Other speakers see an empty gesture in purging what are already remnants of another time. Some speakers at a March 5 meeting suggested Delray Beach write an apology.

“I want you to acknowledge that strategic or structural racism is not a thing of the past,” said resident Chuck Ridley, 66, who has worked on the West Atlantic Redevelopment Coalition and other grassroots organizations. “The fact that government bodies no longer can legally discriminate does not mean institutional racism has ended.”

Mayor Shelly Petrolia said she agreed that the city did need to do more, a sentiment her colleagues echoed.

“We would be making a decision on the fly tonight and I don’t know that would be appropriate for something as important as this,” Petrolia said.

Whatever happens in Delray Beach, Charlene Farrington doesn’t see cause for celebration, like the block party that Boynton Beach had for burning copies of its three ordinances on Feb. 24 at Sara Sims Park.

“I don’t see it (repeal) as an accomplishment,” said Farrington, executive director of the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum. “I see it as something that never should have happened in the first place. But it did. And now it’s time for those who can … to put it in its place in history … like racism and Confederate statues and slavery. It belongs in history.”

‘That wall’ in Boca Raton
Ironically enough, Boca Raton’s code that confined its Black population was repealed without any discussion of its significance. If a 1956 rewriting of the city zoning code didn’t do it, Ordinance 3971, passed in 1991, did. It states that any past ordinance not included in the new code was hereby repealed — and that one was not included.

Steven Abrams was deputy mayor on the Boca Raton City Council back then and just starting his political career.

“I would’ve made a speech, I would have been loving it,” he said. “I’m glad we caught it then and it’s being recognized now.”

Still, relics of the line Black residents were not supposed to cross remain on the landscape — walls in both Delray Beach and Boca Raton still mark the divisions of the past. Marie

Hester was born in Boca Raton’s Pearl City, and few of the Pearl City residents she’s known over her 76 years recognized that the wall was backed by words written in an ordinance.

The wall is still there behind industrial buildings at the corner of Northeast 15th Terrace and Dixie Highway.

The same kind of wall along Lake Ida Road behind Mike Machek Boy Scout Park once stood for the same reason in Delray Beach, Farrington said. The walls were concrete reminders of the enforced separation.

“People were afraid of that wall,” said Hester, who returned to Boca Raton after decades of working in federal agencies, including the Library of Congress. “Your parents would tell you, ‘Stay away from the wall.’”

Now, as of last December, Pearl City is listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service. And the wall is going to stay as a reminder, Hester said.

“Of what my grandparents came through,” she said.

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