Wish I Was in Dixie

Dania Beach still struggles to find racial harmony

Llopiz advised Dania to settle the case out of court. After all, Barron, who had no lawyer, was asking for less than $17,000. In Llopiz's opinion, Dania would probably lose in court.

For the casual outsider, this Old Florida city, laid out between burgeoning tourist meccas, appears to be a relic of the 1950s. A short tour of "downtown" takes you through the pastel stucco shops of Antique Row, past old bakeries that still emanate the same cinnamon-bun aromas, and along a railroad track that once racially divided the city like a Ginsu.

Dania Beach was once the "Tomato Capital" of the United States.
Broward County Historial commission
Dania Beach was once the "Tomato Capital" of the United States.
Former mayor Bobbie Grace
C. Stiles
Former mayor Bobbie Grace

Broward County's first incorporated city — originally called Modello — was founded by 35 Danes in 1904. For their livelihood, the settlers farmed tomatoes, which by 1910 had become the base of Dania's economy. Canning and packing plants sprang up all over the area, and in 1927, the city held its first Tomato Festival. This involved carnival rides, a parade, and the highly anticipated tomato fights, fueled with overripe and squishy rotten ammo.

Blacks weren't invited to the party, though it was they who picked most of the tomatoes. It was the segregated black schools, not the white ones, that closed so the children could be available to work the fields. To this day, many black Danians refuse to attend the festival out of principle.

Before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the city's African-Americans, living in narrow shotgun homes on the west side of town, weren't allowed across the railroad tracks after 6 p.m. without a good excuse. They were banned from stores, schools, movie theaters, water fountains, bathrooms, beaches, and seemingly everywhere else white people roamed, according to historical accounts.

Mae McKutcheon, a 65-year-old black woman who's spent all her life in Dania, remembers it well. "You weren't allowed in Burdines and Jordan Marsh and none of those stores," she says. "You couldn't try on hats or things."

If she and her family wanted to go to the beach, she says in an account confirmed by other black residents, they'd have to catch a ferry at Port Everglades that would bring them to a hidden stretch of shoreline with no shops or restaurants. For years, if black children in Dania wanted to graduate from high school, they had to find a way to get to Miami. Their local school offered nothing beyond 11th grade.

But with a concerted attack against Jim Crow laws, things slowly started to change. Dania Beach even took a leading role in the county. The city hired the first black police officer in Broward in 1957 and the second in all of Florida. His name was Thomas Henry Hampton, but everybody called him Jabbo and told stories about how he fought a bear. However, he was not immediately allowed to write any tickets, according to longtime residents of the city. For years, Jabbo would have to go to City Hall to get somebody white to sign off.

Jabbo was just one of Dania's black firsts. In 1966, Boisy Waiters became Broward County's first black elected official. Bobbie Grace became the county's first black mayor. Dania doctor Raymond Walker was the first black orthopedic surgeon in the state.

Still, residents and observant outsiders aren't seeing a whole lot of progress. Historian Prudy Taylor Board, who wrote The History of Dania Beach, Florida: A Century of Pioneer Spirit (2004), has written many histories of cities. But she found Dania to be exceptional in its aversion to change and new ideas.

"Dania is a city lost in time," she says. "It's like they're still living in the '50s and the '60s... I shouldn't say this, but they could be a lot more progressive."

The town leadership comes largely from a small entrenched group, Board points out. Many mayors and city commissioners, including Mac McElyea, John Bertino, and Albert Jones, have been elected four and five times in the past three decades.

There aren't many newcomers to the city in general. Aside from annexations that largely diluted the black community (until 2000, Dania was about 24 percent black), the population has grown by only about 1,500 people, to 28,831, in the past seven years. As high-rises shoot up in Fort Lauderdale to the north and Hollywood to the south, the old city's landscape remains roughly the same.

Business owners say they are becoming increasingly frustrated with the city's lack of vitality. Carol Grampa, who with her husband has owned Grampa's Bakery on SW First Street, near Federal Highway, since 1957, says that stagnant leadership over the past couple of decades has caused the city to miss its opportunity for growth. "It's like we're moving backwards," she says.

And it would be one thing if Dania weren't ensconced on prime real estate. But, Grampa says, an oceanside South Florida city that's two minutes from an international airport and a major highway should have more to offer than a few places to buy a boat, the dying sport of jai alai, and a struggling row of antique shops.

"It's like no one knows we're here," agrees one antique-shop owner who asked not to be named. To businesses, no change means lower profits. To residents like Barron, it means that prejudiced bosses and politicians aren't going anywhere.

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