Lu Vickers and Cynthia Wilson-Graham explore the Florida attraction Paradise Park in their book, Remembering Paradise Park.

This Florida Park Was an Oasis for Black Americans During Jim Crow

This Florida Park Was an Oasis for Black Americans During Jim Crow

Behold
The Photo Blog
Sept. 24 2015 12:56 PM

This Florida Park Was an Oasis for Black Americans During Jim Crow

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Posing in their swimsuits in an advertisement for Paradise Park are (left to right) Ida Lee Donaldson, unknown, Susie Long, Alma Jacobs, Patricia Bright, and Ernestine Stevenson, 1950.

Photo by Bruce Mozert. By permission of Bruce Mozert. Courtesy of Cynthia Wilson-Graham. Reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida.

During the dark days of Jim Crow, Florida, which had a higher number of lynchings per capita than any other state, was one of the most dangerous places in America for black people. But it was also home to Paradise Park, one of the rare successful recreational facilities in the South exclusively for black Americans, which opened along the edge of the Silver River in 1949.

“Paradise Park was an oasis where [black] Americans could go with their families and relax, safe from the indignities and threats of violence perpetrated by whites. [Manager] Eddie Vereen ran the park like a peaceable kingdom where all were made to feel welcome. Even the alligators left people alone,” said Lu Vickers via email. Vickers, with Cynthia Wilson-Graham, wrote Remembering Paradise Park, which University Press of Florida published this month.

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Family members gather on the dock over the Silver River to watch over the children swimming at Paradise Park.

Photo by Bruce Mozert. By permission of Bruce Mozert. Courtesy of the Marion County Black Archives. Reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida.

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Picnickers from Camp Clarissa Scott, a YWCA camp named after the writer and poet Clarissa Scott Delaney, at Highland Beach, Maryland, in 1931. Charles Douglass, son of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, founded Highland Beach in the 1890s.

Photo by Addison Scurlock. By permission of the Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida.

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A group of visitors look out toward the float in the swimming area of Paradise Park. The boat dock is to the right.

Photo by Bruce Mozert. By permission of Bruce Mozert. Reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida.

Paradise Park, a separate division of the adjacent tourist destination for whites, Silver Springs, had white-sand beaches and clear water, lush grass, glass-bottom boat rides, a soda fountain, and a reptile exhibit. Bruce Mozert, who was the official photographer at Silver Springs for decades, was the only professional photographer given permission by the owners of the two facilities, Carl Ray and Shorty Davidson, to take photos at Paradise Park. Almost all of the Paradise Park photos in the book come from Mozert, who is now 98. Others come from visitors or employees of the park.

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Vereen was a tireless promoter of the park. He traveled around the southeast with a big “Paradise Park” sign attached to the top of his car and sent letters about the place to church associations and schools. As a result of his efforts, Paradise Park attracted black Americans from all over the country. Though Silver Springs and Paradise Park shared the same river, visitors to the respective segregated facilities rarely interacted. 

“Reginald Lewis, the grandson of manager Eddie Vereen, told me one of his jobs was to keep white people out, but occasionally a white person would sneak in. Once found out, they were asked to leave. The irony of course is that Silver Springs only employed African-American boat drivers, so they drove boats for both white and African-Americans. Both parks shared the same boats and boat captains, and African-Americans could make the trip up to the headsprings but weren’t allowed to go onto the grounds,” Vickers said.

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A group of scouts watch their friends feeding the fish from the glass bottom boat.

Photo by Bruce Mozert. By permission of Bruce Mozert. Courtesy of Marion County Black Archives. Reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida.

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The boardwalk was a popular place to take pictures at Paradise Park.

Photo by Bruce Mozert. By permission of Bruce Mozert. Courtesy of Cynthia Wilson-Graham.

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A group of young women pose next to the azaleas on the grounds of Paradise Park.

Photo by Bruce Mozert. By permission of Bruce Mozert. Courtesy of Marion County Black Archives. Reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida.

Vereen retired as manager of Paradise Park in 1967. The park closed unceremoniously in 1969, and like many other facilities made for black Americans at the time, the buildings were bulldozed during desegregation.

“Many people felt that Paradise Park should have been saved, and lamented the fact that the community had no say in what happened to it. What happened after it closed was sad too: It was erased from history. But you cannot erase people’s experiences or memories. As Cynthia and I talked to people, hearing their stories and sharing in their laughter, Paradise Park came alive again.”

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The Christmas holiday season was a time when many families gathered at Paradise Park. Often the park staff would distribute oranges to the families.

Photo by Bruce Mozert. By permission of Bruce Mozert. Courtesy of the Marion County Black Archives. Reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida.

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Left: Tourists aboard the river steamboat Okeehumkee at Silver Springs, Florida. Hubbard Hart built the boat in 1873 for his Hart Line. He hired many black American men as captains and crew. Right: Basketball was a popular pastime for young men and women who visited the park.

Left: By permission of the State Archives of Florida. Reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida. Right: Photo by Bruce Mozert. By permission of Bruce Mozert. Courtesy of Cynthia Wilson-Graham. Reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida.

Jordan G. Teicher is the associate editor of Slates Behold blog. Follow him on Twitter.