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.
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.
(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.
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:
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:
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."