Wish I Was in Dixie

Dania Beach still struggles to find racial harmony

When Wrice died in 2000, Chunn decided to continue the legacy of citizen action by making a run for City Commission. To his surprise, some established community leaders rallied behind him. Sophia Steele, Beulah Lair, and commissioner Pat Flury backed Chunn — some say to split the black vote and defeat another black candidate, Bobbie Grace. But they never expected him to come in with the second most votes of any candidate. That meant, under city bylaws, that in his second year, he'd become the mayor of Dania. His white backers asked Chunn, a welder with no political experience, to relinquish Dania's highest honor, but Chunn had other ideas. When he disobeyed his advisers, Chunn claims, they got nasty.

A dozen witnesses swear they heard Steele, a former housing authority board member, and Lair, who sat on the code enforcement board, refer to Chunn as a "nigger." It happened at a liquor store. It happened in a City Council meeting. (The late Steele denied the allegation.) The media covered the story extensively, with headlines like: "Dania Beach hopes to squash tension over slur charge" and "Meeting addresses racism accusation." And finally, the Miami Herald on July 10, 2002: "Dania takes no action on racial controversy."

At the meeting, commissioner Bob Mikes told a crowd of angry residents, "What do you expect the commission to do?... You're never going to end prejudice."

Workers from the Dania Public Works Department clean up after the 1947 hurricane.
Dania Beach Historial Society
Workers from the Dania Public Works Department clean up after the 1947 hurricane.
After 6 p.m., black residents had to stay on the west side of the tracks.
C. Stiles
After 6 p.m., black residents had to stay on the west side of the tracks.

Bob Adams, director of Broward County's Human Rights Board, urged the City Commission to be more forceful in dealing with discriminatory behavior. "Their silence speaks very loudly," Adams told the Miami Herald.

Chunn says he was so concerned about white reaction to his election that he declined offers of food and drink at City Hall. "I wouldn't eat or drink anything in City Commission meetings," he says. No water. No cookies. No coffee. Nothing.

During Chunn's term, a predominantly black neighborhood called Camp Blanding was plagued with the effects of toxic chemicals after a developer started digging into a former illegal dumpsite. Residents were coming down with respiratory problems, skin rashes, and nosebleeds. When Debra Wallace complained to Ivan Pato that her pets were dying, the city responded by citing Wallace with four minor code violations on her own property.

According to Chunn, city leaders, preoccupied with plans to expand Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, did nothing for Camp Blanding residents. City attorney Tom Ansbro told New Times last year that Dania didn't have the staff to handle the situation.

"They didn't do anything to address the issue of those folks being sick," says Chunn, who has aided affected residents to initiate a class-action suit against Dania Distribution Centre Inc., the company that had once operated a plant on the site. Chunn says that when he investigated the site, he was affected by fumes from the toxic chemicals. "I went out there," he says. "I got sick."

Chunn served four contentious years, with much of the controversy concerning city appointments and with Chunn usually on the losing side. On the day his mayoralty ended, Chunn says, he went home to his long-suffering wife. When he walked in the door, they embraced, and she told him, "I'm so glad it's over."

Being mayor wasn't nearly so difficult for C.K. "Mac" McElyea. He's done it five times already, and he's hoping someday to make it six.

McElyea, who is white, is a tow company mogul and a former crop duster in the tomato fields. His family's got five generations of history in Dania. So when you're looking for him in Grampa's Diner, an old-fashioned café with peach-colored walls and curtains in the windows, the hostess has no trouble pointing in the big guy's direction.

McElyea is squeezed into a booth noshing on grits and toast. It's his ritual after the weekly car auction in Davie. Today, he bought six junkers he intends to dismantle and sell for parts. He owns a slew of properties in Dania Beach worth millions of dollars, as well as a garage full of antique cars, two airplanes, a trawler boat, a North Carolina farmhouse, and a cottage on the beach that he uses "just for a playhouse."

"I got all the toys you could want," he says with a smile that stretches an oversized Band-Aid on his nose, covering the former site of a skin cancer and giving him a tough-guy look. In 1991, he shot at two teenagers with a 12-gauge shotgun when they tried to break into Mac's Towing, wounding them both, and he's been involved in fisticuffs over numerous towing incidents.

After breakfast, we hop into one of McElyea's trucks. The former mayor is going to give the scoop on whether his city is quietly racist.

First stop: the home of Bobbie Grace, the first black mayor of Dania Beach. And actually, the fact that we're going to Grace's is its own small piece of progress. Several years ago, Grace refused to be McElyea's vice mayor or even talk to him because, according to McElyea, she thought he was a racist.

McElyea's great-grandfather may have owned slaves in Kentucky, but he's not at all racist. "A lot of people think I'm an old Dania boy and I don't like blacks," he says. "But my mother always taught me, 'They hurt just like you do.' "

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