The photo that inspired the book. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Wilson-Graham.

 Paradise Park offered an oasis for black people in a time of segregation.

Hanging in the foyer of Howard Academy in Ocala is a black-and-white photograph of a boat floating in open water. Leaning out the side are six black women in vintage bathing suits, smiling and attempting to feed shallow-swimming fish nearby. In 2005, it caught the eye of photographer Cynthia Wilson-Graham.

The Academy, formerly the site of Ocala’s first black school, is now a community center. Wilson-Graham was at a volunteer meeting when she noticed the photograph taken at Paradise Park, the once-segregated portion of Silver Springs, a nature preserve 40 miles south of Gainesville and famous for its glass-bottom boat rides.

Paradise Park was open for 20 years before it was demolished in 1969 after the Civil Rights Act outlawed segregated businesses. Wilson-Graham, an Ocala native, visited Silver Springs as a child, but she didn’t know it was segregated, and she’d never heard of Paradise Park.

“It totally caught me off guard,” Graham said. “That one picture really opened my eyes to the lack of history that’s displayed in Marion County.”

After Wilson-Graham learned of the erased history of the park in 2005, she set to work gathering more information with the idea that she might write a book.

She discovered that her neighbor, most of the older residents in her community, and even her kindergarten school teacher (who she later found posed in a red bathing suit for a photograph) all had stories about Paradise Park. She had interviewed over 45 individuals before Lu Vickers, a professor at Tallahassee Community College, called her in 2013. 

A decade after she encountered the photo, Wilson-Graham published “Remembering Paradise Park: Tourism and Segregation at Silver Springs,” with Vickers in 2015. The book is stocked with interviews and collected photographs taken at the park. 

That was the type of place that it was. You became lost in the beauty and the camaraderie, with the people…everything.”

Remembering Paradise Park” is just the beginning. Wilson-Graham wants the state of Florida to reopen Paradise Park at Silver Springs and re-establish its cultural importance in the history of North Florida.

Before there was Disney World, there was Silver Springs—”nature’s underwater fairyland”—one of Florida’s oldest and most popular tourist attractions.

Though the tourists at Silver Springs were white, their boat captains were almost all black, and though most of them grew up on the Silver River, neither they nor their families could enter or tour the park. When black people would accidentally enter the Springs, it was the boat captains who were tasked with asking them to leave.

Convinced by their boat captains and eyeing the untapped economic potential of black tourism, the owners of Silver Springs bought out a competing park on the south side of the Silver River and converted it into Paradise Park in 1949.

Paradise Park was open every day, free of admission. It was segregated, but it was also a safe haven for black families, who could dance, swim and picnic without worrying about antagonization from white people in a hostile era. Many racial clashes were instigated by incidents on beaches. In 1919, Eugene Williams, a black teenager, was stoned to death after he drifted to the white side of Lake Michigan, sparking race riots in Chicago. An old Paradise Park brochure advertises “Lifeguards will protect the children!” in bold.

“It was an oasis away from reality in a sense because once you got out there you were in a different world,” Reginald Lewis, a former lifeguard at Paradise Park, said. “It was all black. Everything there was catered to the individual.”

Reginald Lewis, as a baby, on an advertisement for Paradise Park.

Paradise Park was a vital force in the black community, attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. It was called a “mecca for thousands of holiday celebrants” by Ebony Magazine. It was also featured in the Green Book, a 1936 guide that documented safe businesses for black people traveling in the U.S.

Though busloads of tourists arrived at Paradise Park each day, there was only one black hotel in Ocala. The park manager, Eddie Vereen, was tasked with finding visitors places to sleep within churches and homes in the local community.

Eddie Vereen was a boat captain at Silver Springs and a well-respected, religious man in the community. He was determined to make Paradise Park just as nice as Silver Springs.

Every Monday after Easter, Lewis, who is also Vereen’s grandson, and his family hid hundreds of eggs for children to find. Local churches held baptisms in the waters of Silver River. Every Christmas, Santa rode a glass-bottom boat into Paradise Park to hand out paper packages of trinkets and oranges.

“That was the type of place that it was,” Lewis said. “You became lost in the beauty and the camaraderie, with the people…everything.”

The most popular event was the annual Labor Day Beauty contest. Girls from all over the state vied to be crowned Miss Paradise Park.

Carrier Parker Warren was one of those girls. She was one of three generational beauty queens: Her mother placed at the first-ever competition.

“Paradise Park for that period in our lives was something that was very positive,” she said. “We should keep it alive and keep it a part of history. I don’t see how you can talk about Silver Springs, and in your next breath, Paradise Park doesn’t come out.”

She hopes to see Paradise Park reopen, with a museum on the premises.

Wilson-Graham and Vickers were able to tour the now-overgrown remains of Paradise Park in 2001. Almost nothing from the original park is recognizable, save for some scattered broken bottles, a ladder and concrete benches, the tops barely perceptible through the dirt.

It was a far cry from the images of the 1950s, which depicted women posed beneath big bushes of azaleas, children swimming and eating hamburgers for lunch, and captivated tourists following fish swim beneath glass-bottom boats.

When Paradise Park closed in 1969, Silver Springs was slowly desegregated. But feeling like it wasn’t meant for them, many black tourists stopped going to the springs altogether. And the new generation wasn’t interested in revisiting a place marked by stigma.

“[Silver Springs] just didn’t have the same feeling,” Vickers said. “You couldn’t picnic, you couldn’t have your dance. None of those things over there.”

In 2007, armed with only a couple images and an old brochure, Wilson-Graham began lecturing around Ocala. A year later she met Bruce Mozert, the official photographer of Paradise Park, and she began speaking with the management at Silver Springs about commemorating and reopening the Paradise Park, but nothing materialized.   

In 2013, Silver Springs was bought by the state and absorbed into the 4,700 acres of Silver River. Due to record-low attendance at the park, the previous owners terminated their lease early. The flow of the river is half of what it used to be, and increased nitrate pollution has put it under environmental threat. The fish population had been decimated.

Every 10 years, the state develops what are called “unit management plans” for its state parks which identify measures implement long-term objectives. These plans also require the state to hold public workshops.

Wilson-Graham and others in the community attended those workshops in December 2014, urging the historic importance of Paradise Park. With their help, Craig Littauer, the Park Services Specialist, created a permanent exhibit to honor Paradise Park, which features pictures taken by Mozert and antique video footage.

“I feel like I missed high school, middle school. We talked about history and African American history, but nothing on a more positive aspect. That we were leaders as well in the community.”

In honor of the park, Silver Springs has also renamed the ballroom “Paradise Ballroom,” and ice cream and fudge is sold at “Paradise Treats.”

Littauer said he is also trying to find a way to link archival photos and videos of Paradise Park on the state park website, which still has no mention of Paradise Park.

According to the management plan, Silver Springs plans to build a new trail south of the Silver River “dedicated to the important cultural heritage” of Silver Springs. This will include a “Paradise Park Interpretive Overlook” with displays about Paradise Park.

The former ground of Paradise Park still needs to be properly evaluated as well, according to the plan, for historic artifacts.

In 2014, Wilson-Graham applied to have a Florida Heritage Marker built to honor the history of Paradise Park. It was built the following year, at the original entrance. It’s the only Florida Heritage Marker honoring black people in Marion County.

Wilson-Graham and Vickers still want to reopen Paradise Park.

Littauer said reopening Paradise Park is a possibility, but he ventured it was still at least 2 to 3 years—and 5 million dollars—away.

Graham would also like to see more Heritage Markers. Inspired by Paradise Park, she is still collecting interviews from older residents in the community and working to preserve black history in Marion County.

“Writing a book was just the start of documenting the history of different businesses or individuals in the community that had significant purposes,” Graham said. “I feel like I missed high school, middle school. We talked about history and African American history, but nothing on a more positive aspect. That we were leaders as well in the community.” •