Wish I Was in Dixie

Dania Beach still struggles to find racial harmony

In almost the same breath, though, he relays another of his mother's lessons: "Black birds don't mate with red birds, and red birds don't mate with blue birds." Though he wouldn't go so far as to criminalize interracial marriage, the lesson stuck. "I don't agree with mixing colors — that's just me," McElyea says. "I think the children will pay down the road."

After getting to know him better and taking him to church a few times, Grace changed her mind about McElyea, he says, driving over the railroad tracks and heading down SW Sixth Street to Grace's peach-colored home, across from Modello Park.

The interior is cleanly decorated in soft pinks, elegant roses, and dozens of African-American figurines. Grace, a tired-seeming woman, comes out in a T-shirt and sweatpants. She's recovering from breast cancer, the recent loss of her mother, and the loss of her daughter to lupus several years ago. But she's relaxed and cordial and offers beverages.

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.

In talking about Dania, her big brown eyes become animated and watchful. It's clear she's passionate about the city, and she doesn't want people thinking it's racist.

"When we first came here, it was in 1951, and it was very visible," she says. "But as the years progressed, so did the residents and the diversity that we have in the city of Dania Beach." There are new faces in government and a wide selection of job opportunities for minorities, she says, noting that in the 1960s and '70s, Dania had more black employees than any other city in Broward. Businesses like Grampa's Bakery, Jaxson's Ice Cream, and the Pick'N'Pay grocery store began hiring blacks in the early '60s, she says.

Recently, Grace has been active in bringing in more affordable single-family homes to the northwest area, which used to be comprised of rundown wooden shacks for migrant workers, sometimes living ten to a room. Arlen Rice's citizen patrol project, Turn-Around-Dania, helped thwart much of the drug crime, she says with pride, and there has been improvement in the sidewalks, lighting, code enforcement, and after-school programs for children.

Kids can play in the park across the street — with its baseball diamond, a lush green field, and a basketball court — until 6 p.m. every weekday. Dania Beach looks like it's come a very long way.

But like the rest of Dania's current and former public officials, Grace says she isn't very familiar with the situation at the water plant.

"Segregating the bathrooms?" she asks. "I didn't hear about it. But that should never happen."

She did, however, catch wind of an incident in 1997, when hanging nooses appeared in the city lunchroom and the shop where mostly blacks worked. One white manager said somebody "just hung it up for no reason but to hang it up." Another said it was a misunderstanding.

"It was done as a joke, but that's no joke," Grace says. "There's nothing funny about it."

Then there was the picture of the Confederate flag that once hung in Baker's office. Was Grace aware of that?

"If you are a strong-minded person, you don't take it personal," she says, comparing it to her days working for Southern Bell, when she had to deal with a manager who wore a pin with an image of Alabama Gov.George Wallace, that state's champion of "separate but equal" schools.

When the subject of Chunn's rocky mayoralty comes up, McElyea sounds a conciliatory note.

"They thought he was an n, but he wasn't," he says. "He was a smart man. Didn't have a lot of education, but he was a smart man. A good man."

Grace smirks and seems to be looking through McElyea to the table behind him, where her figurines are stationed. They're all painted in various shades of brown and situated in different costumes and poses. There are cheerleaders and doctors, basketball players and angels. They all represent members of Grace's family, but not all the figurines come from the same place, she says.

"Some of them are porcelain. Some of them are not. Some are very expensive. Some are not. But they all live together," Grace says. "Yeah, they all live together. It's just like us. Some are more fortunate than others, but they all..."

Onier Llopiz's investigation, which has not been widely read, appears to knock the wind out of McElyea's depiction of a serene Dania Beach where everybody gets along. In an effort to help Llopiz decide if Barron had a case against Dania, its employees trotted out every incident of racism they could recall.

For example, Baker conceded that after 1976, the Water Treatment Plant bathrooms were segregated. He wasn't sure when the segregation ended, but he said he believed it was after the Sun-Sentinel reported on the topic.

New Times could find no such article. According to Chunn, in 2002, Broward Times journalist Elgin Jones was trying to get the maintenance workers from the Public Works Department on the record about racism in the department, but they were afraid of losing their jobs.

The segregation setup was enforced with locked doors, Llopiz found. The plant's so-called "utility" workers, most of whom were white, had keys to one men's room while an adjacent men's room was open for maintenance workers, most of whom were black. Ahmad Thomas, who works at the nearby sewer plant, told Llopiz that in 1996, he saw Baker hang signs in front of each bathroom that said "Utility" and "Maintenance."

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