Paradise Park was a haven for black community
Published: Thursday, August 22, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 21, 2013 at 11:14 p.m.
Editor's note: This is another in a periodic series about the people whose lives are as much a part of the Silver Springs tradition as the crystal waters that bubble up from the earth.
On the southeast side of the Silver River, about a mile from the Silver Springs attraction, scrub pines, saw palmettos and cabbage palms hide a treasured piece of history beneath their scruffy tangle.
Underneath the sun-filtered brush lies a former resort that was popular with blacks from 1949 to 1969.
Designated "for colored people only," the property was developed by Carl Ray and W.M. "Shorty" Davidson, co-owners of Silver Springs from 1924 to 1962. They called it Paradise Park.
While making improvements in the Silver Springs area, Ray and Davidson also took the time to create a tropical setting of palm trees, flowering azaleas and multi-colored pansies, specifically for black people who, because of segregation, were barred from the main attraction.
There was a sandy beach, a pavilion with a dance floor, a concession stand and a picnic area. Visitors played softball and other sports, and they went swimming there.
"I loved it," said Mary Carolyn Williams, wife of retired Ocala Police Chief Sam Williams. A sparkle came to her eyes as she reflected on outings there with two of her brothers.
"My dad would say, 'We're going swimming,' and we knew that meant Paradise Park," she said. "We'd be scampering about, grabbing towels, and putting on our swimsuits. At the park, we would tear out of that station wagon and start running down the hill into the water."
One of three major Florida beaches that catered to black people at that time, Paradise Park drew about 100,000 visitors annually. People came, sometimes by the busload, from as far away as New York and California.
Churches held baptisms and Easter sunrise services there. They had Easter egg hunts and, in the winter, Santa would come down the river on a glass-bottom boat, passing out fruit, nuts and candy to the children. Herpetologist Ross Allen set up an exhibit there. And, on Labor Day, there was a beauty pageant, sponsored by a local American Legion post.
In 1949, Mildred Jones of Sanford was crowned the first Miss Paradise Park.
"It was just an exciting place to go on hot summer days," Mary Williams said. "The water was cool, the beach was sandy, like the bottom of the spring. There was a platform near the deep end. We referred to it as 'the float.' It had ladders on it, and we would climb right up on the float. You would run into people who were doing the same thing."
Born in 1948, Williams grew up with segregation. She knew there were places she couldn't go, but she didn't question it until she was a teenager and got involved in the civil rights movement.
But, as a child, Williams played in happy innocence at Paradise Park.
"We would go down to the edge of the spring and we could see the shops and the glass-bottom boats on the other side," she said. "I was there with my family, and I didn't need anything else. We had people dancing to music and kids jumpin' in the water. We had fun. Why would we want to go somewhere else?"
From the time it opened in 1949 until two years before it closed, Paradise Park was managed by Eddie Leroy Vereen. Born in 1897, Vereen, with only an eighth-grade education, was a self-taught "jack-of-all-trades." In addition to overseeing Paradise Park's operation, he visited schools, colleges, churches and civic groups, where he passed out brochures and promoted the park.
Vereen retired at the age of 70 in 1967, and he died in 1975.
During the park's heyday, Vereen hired several family members to work there. His son, Leroy, was a part-time driver of glass-bottom boats. Eddie's daughters, Henrietta "Chippie" Cunningham and Vivian Tillman, and his nieces, Arizona Vereen and Catherine Vereen (now Montgomery), worked in the gift shop, in the kitchen, and anywhere they were needed.
"We did everything," Montgomery said. "At that time, we only had so many people employed there. We worked from sunup to sundown, right up until the people left. Then, we had all the school groups that would come down from all these different states. So we'd go down at 4 o'clock in the morning, put on the grits and have everything ready for the children when they come in."
Henry Jones, Eddie Vereen's nephew, first visited the park with his Boy Scout troop. Later, as a teenager, he became one of the lifeguards. Except for himself and two friends, Bobby Thomas and George McCants, all the lifeguards are gone now, he said.
"Newt Perry trained 12 of us as lifeguards," Jones said. "He trained us during the off-season in the wintertime. The water was 72 degrees. It was 62 degrees outside, and we had to go in the water to get warm.
"We had to learn all of the holds and come up alongside the person who was in trouble," Jones continued. "You haven't learned how to swim until you've swum with a concrete block held in front of you to prove you could save somebody."
Jones said the crowd sometimes was a bit overwhelming down by the river.
"We'd blow everybody out of the water with a whistle, and then we'd go down to the bottom and feel around to see if anybody was down there," he said. "Nobody ever drowned at Paradise Park.
"And, there was no drinking allowed," Jones added. "I worked there six days a week, and there was not one incident. We never had to call the police."
At times, the park overflowed with visitors. One day, Arizona Vereen counted 30 buses in the parking lot. On another occasion, while placing stickers on automobile bumpers, Eddie Vereen's grandson, Reginald "Reggie" Lewis, counted 247 cars.
Lewis worked at the park from the time he was 4 years old, picking up bottles with his little red wagon for 50 cents a week, until he left at 19 to join the Air Force.
As a youngster, Lewis posed for an ink blotter advertisement with the message, "No Wonder I'm Smiling! I've Seen Silver Springs." During his teens, he was a lifeguard. He also cooked hamburgers, met the boats when they came in, and helped keep the grounds clean.
"My granddaddy was very adamant about keeping the place clean," Lewis said. "If you went down to meet the boat and there was a piece of paper on the ground, he would remind you to go pick it up on the way back. Everything was spotless."
Best of all, admission to the park was free. Lewis recalled that the swim fee, 35 cents, included a towel and a picnic basket for storing clothes. The cost to ride the glass-bottom boat was $1.25, and the jungle cruise was 65 cents, he said.
All day long, glass-bottom boats and jungle cruises carrying white people glided past Paradise Park. Lewis noticed the white people seemed fascinated with the black playground. From a distance, they could see the children splashing in the water, and they could hear the rousing music from the jukebox.
On one occasion, one of the passengers claimed she had to use the bathroom facility. So, the boat captain docked and let her off.
"She didn't use the bathroom," Lewis said, laughing. "She was out there shakin' her bootie on the dance floor. A lot of people don't believe me when I say one of my grandfather's jobs was to keep the white people from coming in."
The passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 brought long-awaited social reforms to black Americans, particularly in the south. But, in Ocala, the achievement also brought a sense of loss with the eventual dismantling of Paradise Park.
Soon, Ross Allen began moving his reptiles to the Silver Springs area. By the time Lewis returned home from the Air Force in 1969, the park had already closed.
"Everybody was sad, because it was like home to most of the blacks," Lewis said. "Integration was good to a point, but we also lost. It was a part of the black community. When they closed it down, it took something away from everybody."
Today, Paradise Park remains buried beneath the underbrush. However, 10 years ago, Ocala photographer Cynthia Graham set out on a quest to revive memories of the long-forgotten park. She began gathering photos and data for a book to be written through a collaboration with Lucinda Vickers, a writer in Tallahassee. Graham also visited the park with Leon Cheatom, who was employed at Silver Springs at the time.
"We got in a Jeep and drove down Paradise Road, and he took me in by foot," Graham recalled. "Then, he took me on a boat down the river to show me where the park was off the river. Everything was overgrown, and there was debris from the concrete benches. There was nothing else left. You can't get to the beach area. You can't tell there ever was a park back there."
In the beginning, Graham met with disappointment when she realized very little had been written about Paradise Park.
"What I thought would take me six months to write has taken me 10 years just to gather this information," Graham said. "Some individuals may not talk to me, because they don't know me and because they have that heartfelt past they don't want to share. They have painful memories of how they were treated during the era of segregation. Others will share that information, because they want the story to be told."
Graham also expressed her sadness at how a historic and beloved landmark has been neglected for so long.
"My ultimate goal is to put a book on the shelf and to put a marker on the entrance to the road to Paradise Park," Graham said. "My goal is to show that Paradise Park existed."