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By Kitty Oliver, Author/Oral Historian

Over the last 100 years Greater Fort Lauderdale has mushroomed from a sparsely-inhabited farming community to a center of international tourism, and history has always co-existed comfortably with transformation and change. As anthropologist Dr. Niara Sudarkasa, retired president of Lincoln University and Fort Lauderdale native, reflected: "The area has such a proud and diverse cultural heritage with people from the African Diaspora and settlers have come now from all over the Americas, and elsewhere." Greater Fort Lauderdale charmed early arrivals as a place of transition and discovery just as it continues to lure residents and visitors today.

gems of diversity in central broward county 

The Central Broward corridor of Broward County has emerged as an international crossroads of African American, Caribbean and Hispanic cultures. The Central Regional Park offers cricket and Australian rules football. The American Tennis Association, the oldest Black tennis organization in the country, is looking at a site there for its permanent home. And, the newly-renovated Westfield Mall, in the heart of Greater Fort Lauderdale, has become the meeting place for affordable family-friendly vacation fun.

Once a quiet suburban area just west of downtown Fort Lauderdale and the beaches, Central Broward has become a new tourism hub - a diverse community with convenient hotels and conference spaces, recreational activities, dining, entertainment and shopping aimed at the multicultural traveler. Westfield Mall has been a big part of that transformation with a $40 million facelift, a 12-screen Regal movie theater, and amenities such as an updated dining court, family lounge, play space and five new dine-in restaurants.

An array of artistic and cultural activities presented around the theme, "Where Community Celebrates Culture," capitalizes on the richness of heritages in the African Diaspora and the homelands of Caribbean and Hispanic residents and makes the mall a place where many can feel at home. A year-round art gallery features revolving exhibits by promising local artists.

Special events include a Black History Month celebration in February featuring African American music by a lineup of noted jazz, blues and reggae performers.

In June, Caribbean Heritage Month, the mall will participate in the South Florida-wide Caribbean Style Festival highlighting new brands and designs and a Caribbean Film Festival with exhibits and film premieres.

On any day, shoppers may encounter filming of a television show, including Hispanic TV telenovelas.

The Westfield Mall is a site for the "Inside Out" global community art project that is part of the Broward 100 celebration, and the candid snapshot display of visitors now on view show the diversity in cultures, ages, and religions that enliven the Central Broward area.

greeks make history at winterfest broward 100 event

Members of Delta Sigma Theta and Omega Psi Phi cruised into Broward County history in a Broward 100 event at the 43rd annual Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Boat Parade in 2014 becoming the first Black organization to help lead the famous Intracoastal Waterway procession in Fort Lauderdale behind Grand Marshall and rapper Flo Rida. Partying to the theme "TV's Greatest Hits," the two local chapters hosted a diverse group of Greeks and other dignitaries for a weekend of activities where they came to "Vacation Like a VIP" and participate in one of the top 10 parades in the world that draws international media attention. 

Plans are underway for more projects in partnership with the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. The Greeks see the opportunity to gain exposure and fundraise for scholarships and mentorships while promoting the CVB's economic development and tourism initiative which is drawing influential groups to the area including the National Urban League in July.  

early history and change

(Courtesy of: My Soul Is a Witness: A History of Black Fort Lauderdale, Donning Publishers, 2001; African Americans Remember , Bonnet House,Inc., 1999, Voices of America: Race and Change in Hollywood, Florida (Arcadia Publishing 2000.)

Black settlers, workers, educational leaders, and activists have played significant roles in Greater Fort Lauderdale's evolution, often facing formidable obstacles. They are the area's pioneer multicultural residents. Black men served aboard Spanish ships that first explored the Florida coast in the 1500s and 1600s. Later, runaway slaves carved out a refuge in what was considered uninhabitable land until Florida became a state in 1821, and they served in the United States Army as scouts and interpreters. They also fought alongside Seminoles during the Second Seminole War of the 1830s and 1840s when Major William Lauderdale led a detachment to battle the Native American Indian warriors and capture their farmlands. A Black cook, whose name is unknown, was the only companion of young Ohioan Frank Stranahan aside from Seminole traders when he opened an overnight camp and ferry crossing in the late 1890s. The Stranahan Trading Post on the New River in what would become downtown Fort Lauderdale became a South Florida landmark. The Stranahan House was restored and now offers public tours.

Black workers helped build the extension of Henry Flagler's railroad from Jacksonville to Miami and clear the way for development of the area. They worked side-by-side with White settlers from Pompano Beach south to Hallandale as farmers growing tomatoes and other vegetables and packing and shipping them off to market. After Fort Lauderdale was incorporated in 1910, however, segregation became entrenched as the area began to grow, and Black residents were proscribed to areas west of the tracks. Still, historic photographs record a robust community life by the 1930s as more Blacks moved in from other parts of the South changing the largely rural area.

landmark places - then and now

A few Blacks actually lived on the beach during those days on the stretch of wealthy property which now lies between the upscale Galleria Mall and Fort Lauderdale beach. The Bonnet House Museum and Birch State Park, at the foot of Sunrise Boulevard, were once winter vacation homes for two wealthy Midwestern families and the year-round Black caretakers who raised children there. Their link to the mainland was Dillard Colored School, a primary school that provided the only educational opportunity for  Blacks in Fort Lauderdale. When grades 9-12 were eventually added, it became the only high school for Blacks in Broward County until the 1950s. The Old Dillard Museum is now an historical landmark which honors the school and the Fort Lauderdale neighborhood surrounding it became the heartbeat of the county's largest and most vibrant Black community. A few reminders remain of sites of interest that have significance today:

  • The North Fork of the New River, Samuel Delevoe Park, NW 27th Ave. and Sistrunk Blvd. One of two branches of the historic New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Once a site for community barbeques and picnicking when Blacks had limited access to the area's beaches. The North Fork is one of the last vestiges of Fort Lauderdale in its natural state, a rare habitat now dotted by new pricey residences. The river snakes northward through the changing neighborhood to what is today the Swap Shop, a popular shopping bazaar. Point of interest: Neighborhood fishing and ecological canoe rides along the river.
  • John U. Lloyd State Park and Recreation Area, Dania Beach - Once the "Negro" or "colored" beach, established in the 1950s. Patrons had to rely on the county to provide a ferry from Port Everglades across the Intracoastal to the site once or twice a year until a road was finally built in 1965. The area was turned into a state park in 1970, and draws thousands of hikers and campers each year. Point of interest: A movement underway to memorialize the site's historic role in African American history. 
  • Sistrunk Boulevard-Runs between Andrews Ave. and NW 27th Ave. The street is best known historically as the site of Provident Hospital, the only medical facility for Blacks from 1938 to the mid-1960s and a shopping district. It is named for Dr. James Sistrunk, the first black doctor to stay in the community. Plans are underway for revitalization as a pedestrian attraction. Point of Interest: Betty's Soul Food Restaurant and Barbeque where politicians, celebrities, and everyday folks enjoy hefty portions of soul food. A second location is planned in South Florida on the east side of town. Special Collections, the African American Research Library and Cultural Center - Sistrunk Blvd. and NW 27th Avenue. The second-floor Special Collections area houses rare artifacts, oral histories, and other information on the African American and Caribbean history in Broward County. 

growth and diversity

Broward County now leads the nation in attracting Black residents in large part because of the influx of Caribbean immigrants from Jamaica, Haiti, and Trinidad. Since the 1990s, Hispanics have become the fastest growing ethnic group, comprising over 15% of the population. People from South and Central America and the Caribbean have made a definitive mark. The success of the Vilariño family is an example. They came from Cuba during the Mariel Boat Lift of 1980 and founded Las Vegas Restaurant, a hot spot of family-style Cuban cuisine that  now has five locations in Broward. New threads of cultural diversity are woven throughout Greater Fort Lauderdale, and some history, too:

  • South Broward - Liberia, a Hollywood community near the Oakwood Shopping Plaza is a Bahamian-influenced community noted for its Caribbean roots and intertwined families from the islands. Now, a sign signals entrance to the neighborhood and oral histories have been collected. Several churches and houses bear distinctive marks of Bahamian construction and craftsmanship. Point of interest: High-end relaxation and spas for the upscale traveler at beachfront property a few miles south.
  • Central Broward - The city of Lauderhill, once home to cow pastures and a dairy, became a sports center with the late comedian Jackie Gleason's Golf Classic at Inverrary in the 1970s. Now, the new municipal park and multi-purpose stadium hosts international cricket matches, Australia rules football, rugby, and soccer. Plans are underway for the International Gospel Complex for Preservation and Education, and an entertainment and commercial district. Point of interest: Popular with family reunions because of the reasonably-priced hotels, access to sporting and cultural events, and mid-point location between beach to the east and Everglades to the west.
  • Western Broward-The city of Weston, incorporated in 1996, was named one of America's best small cities by Money magazine, and it is also one of the most affluent, drawing high-profile residents and visitors. Forty percent of the population is Hispanic and there is a sizeable Brazilian population as well. (A prominent Brazilian business community is also located in the northern Broward area of Pompano Beach). Point of interest: Draws international travelers who enjoy high-end cultural and recreational activities and resort-spa experiences in a relaxed pastoral setting with the international shopping of Sawgrass Mills and the eco-tourism of the Everglades just a few minutes away.
  • New to Southwestern Broward-Opening of the Cultural Center/Arts Park, a cultural jewel in the city of Miramar, featuring nationally renowned performing artists in concert, award winning theatrical productions, classical and pops music, and family fun.

In Greater Fort Lauderdale, the past is always a present day experience.

Kitty Oliver is an educator, television producer, author, and founder of the Race and Change Oral History Collection; visit kittyoliveronline.com. See her latest project on Ron Howard's "Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years."