The end of March marks my annual trip to Miami, Florida for one of the biggest weeks in the dance music industry. I head to South Florida for
Miami Music Week, a week long celebration of electronic music which ends with the grandiose party, Ultra Music Festival. During the 2019 edition, Ultra Music Festival called a new venue home. The Festival moved across the bay to Marine Stadium and Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, which are located on Virginia Key. The island has hosted events in the past but none on the scale and size of Ultra Music Festival. This year’s edition of Ultra brought 170,000 people to the island for three days of music and over the top production.
The life of a festival traveler is a privilege. It’s a luxury not afforded to most. While some take the ability to travel for granted, some willingly seek out and absorb culture and the history of places unknown. Amidst the music and parties that go with festival traveling, one can learn more about iconic destinations and the stories of the people who call these places home. It is here that you begin to find the truths that created the pasts and affect the present of a community. It’s important to meet and listen to people from the community you are visiting because they are the influencers and leaders who will shape their city’s future.
During February, Black History Month, I saw a post on Ultra Music Festival’s Instagram page. The post mentioned the importance of Virginia Key Beach Park in Black History. I was full of curiosity as I knew little about the location leading up to the festival. It wasn’t until I saw that post, that I began to dig deeper into the history of the destination I was traveling to. Realizing I didn’t know much about the history of Black Miami, I began to wonder, “how many other attendees are just as unaware of this history?” The unintended action of Ultra Music Festival’s choice of venue made me ask “why or how does Virginia Key Beach Park hold a place in Black History?” While Miami natives are aware of this history, the festival created the perfect opportunity for someone like me, someone visiting, to learn about the importance of this historic park and its impact on the history of Black Miami.
For years Virginia Key Beach Park was the only place for people of color to enjoy the beach while in Miami. Famous African Americans such as Muhammed Ali or Sammy Davis Jr. could get hotel accommodations at Black establishments on Miami Beach, but were unable to swim in the waters due to segregation of beaches at the time. According to the Virginia Key Beach
website, there were mutual places of understanding where Black Miamians could enjoy the beach but Virginia Beach, a Dade County Park for the exclusive use of Negroes, was opened on August 1, 1945, creating a place of recreation for people of color.
I made it a priority to learn as much as I could leading up to Ultra Music Festival by reaching out to officials from the park to write this very story. This is where the beauty of being a curious festival traveler has its advantages. Seeking truths and sharing ideas with others is the main reason I travel. The fact that I can do it through my love of dance music is a bonus. With that feeling of excitement and being proud that I would learn more about black history, I sent my first email to Historic Virginia Key Beach Park.
Kechi Okpala, City of Miami, returned that correspondence with an invite to “Activism & 20th Century Black Miami”, a symposium created by The Virginia Key Beach Park Trust and FIU Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs. Here, I would learn the stories of historians, scholars, city officials and business leaders who all lived the history of what is now today Historic Virginia Key Beach Park. Their stories made it clear Virginia Key Beach Park was more than a venue for a music festival. The beach was a part of history that many Black Americans and Caribbean immigrants lived during their arrival and stay in Miami, Florida.
As soon as I touched down at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport, I headed straight to the
Kovens Conference Center to learn about the historic beach where I would be spending the next three days partying with over 100,000 of my closest friends. The Kovens Center, located on the campus of Florida International University, was the home of the symposium and upon entering, I was surrounded by reminders of the history of Virginia Key Beach. Life size cutouts of the people and iconic symbols of the beach filled the foyer. The history I had only read about on social media was now staring me in my face.
The symposium, the first held by the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, focused on the new digital archive project. The trust has a mission to preserve the history and to archive the stories and memories as accurately as possible through photos and videos. Florida International University provides support to the trust as they help with the correct tagging of metadata and digitally archiving the records. These records include conceptual drawings, aerial views of Virginia Key, and thousands of photographs. The collection size is close to 4,000 items, all pertaining to Virginia Key Beach.
Dr. Nathan Conolly, a Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at John Hopkins University gave the keynote speech. This keynote was about more than the beach. I learned about the history of Miami through the lens of city planning, real estate development, and economic development. The story told is a familiar one that many African Americans faced at the time with lending practices such a redlining that limited the places people of color could call home during the development and growth of a city.
During a break in the symposium, I had a chance to catch up with Guy Forchion, Executive Director of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust. We talked briefly about the importance of the beach as well as the hopes of what Ultra Music Festival can do for the park. There is a bigger purpose with the goals of wetland restoration, digitizing the records of the beach, and creating a place for hikers, and park goers in this hidden jewel of Miami. Guy reminded me that this is not just a job for the trust, but for all people who care about preserving the history of their community.
While there were many challenges to Ultra Music Festival securing the venue, the deal was done and regardless of the reasoning for dissent, one day removed from the festival opening its gates, I wanted to see a positive outcome. I would never wish anyone to fail, especially a music event as important as Ultra Music Festival. People come from all over the world for this event. It has truly grown from a local to a global event with all eyes in the dance music world are on Miami for one whole week.
The festival could be a potential trigger for new revenue streams and a tool to recruit young people to volunteer and help with the preservation of the historic beach. There are also hopes and plans for a museum on the grounds of the beach and what better way to drum up enthusiasm than with tens of thousands of new minds and bodies walking the grounds of the historic park.
As the symposium continued, voices from FIU and the scholars Dr. Marvin Dunn, Dr. Donette Francis, and Dr. Valerie Patterson spoke about preserving the stories and images as accurately as possible regarding Virginia Key Beach. Stories were shared about black troops who were trained during the second world war on the beach along with stories of civilian life, families dressed in their Sunday best for a day at the beach. The beach served as a place for baptisms, picnics and social gatherings. In the middle of Jim Crow Miami, Virginia Key Beach was a place of social gatherings for people of color from the city of Miami and those visiting from out of town.
On the final weekend in March, over 170,000 people had the opportunity to visit Virginia Key Beach during Ultra Music Festival. The Virginia Key Beach Park Trust was on site at Ultra’s Eco Village located at the heart of the park near the concessions area and gazebo. While attendees danced to the sounds of House Music and Techno, they were dancing amongst the history of people of color gathering, dancing and celebrating on the only beach designated for them at the time. The Eco Village, filled with other environmentally conscious organizations and businesses, provided attendees with an opportunity to learn more about the park as and ways to get involved with preservation of the park and local environment ecosystem.
My experience was enriched due to the knowledge that I gained from the symposium a day earlier. It gave me a different appreciation of Ultra Music Festival. We danced on a site filled with history. A history that I shared in conversations with other attendees as we talked about our experiences at the new home of one of the world’s best music festivals. Meeting new people and sharing ideas is a common theme in the dance music community and maybe the conversations shared planted the seed to place a water bottle in the proper recycle bin or to pick up a piece of trash.
The knowledge gained influenced me so much that I shared it with others during my weekend and now I share with my followers, friends and anyone who asks me about my experience at the 2019 edition of Ultra Music Festival. In that same spirit, I do believe there are other festival travelers who are sharing the stories of their experiences. These stories also help preserve the memory of those who lived through the history of Historic Virginia Key Beach Park.
For more information about Historic Virginia Key Beach, visit their website or Facebook. Donations to Historic Virginia Key Beach Park can be made here. For information about volunteering, please go here.