Alfred “Zack” Straghn, 92, Helped to Construct the Cultural Architecture for Change in Delray Beach
Alfred “Zack” Straghn, a longtime funeral home operator, softball coach, Sunday school teacher and fighter who was instrumental in Delray Beach hiring black police officers and the integration of the city’s beach, died Dec. 3 at Delray Medical Center. He was 92.
The lifelong Delray Beach resident wore many hats in the community. While many of his roles were unofficial or did not even have titles, he simply did what needed to be done, without expectation of personal gain.
In the 1950s and 60s, while working for a funeral home, he and a handful of community activists addressed the most important and volatile issues of the times — segregation, lynching, education and economic justice.
Mr. Straghn was a walking archive of the history and a voice of reasoning to many. His faith was the center of his life and he studied his tattered Bible daily.
He would welcome journalists seeking local historical information into his office where he would give lessons on Delray Beach of yesteryear. Regardless of the topic of the interview, Mr. Straghn had to share two feats: a 1954 effort, which, led to the desegregation of the beach eight years later and the integration of the police force.
In the 1950s blacks were prohibited from going to the city’s public beach or the nearby municipal pool, then on the southwest corner of Atlantic Avenue and State Road A1A. In fact, city employees drained the pool at 3 p.m. each day to prevent black kids from using it after hours, he told me.
When some youth, including his cousin, defied the order and swam in the Atlantic Ocean, his cousin drowned in an area, heavily populated with sharp rocks. While the boy screamed for help, onlookers ignored their pleas, he said.
Angered in-part by the tragedy, Mr. Straghn and a group of blacks staged a “wade-in” protest, which resulted in arrests of black beachgoers, and even cross burnings. The saga gained national attention.
“We are going to swim in the three miles of beach here and nobody is going to stop us because this belongs to us, we pay tax in this city and this is where we are going to swim,” he told a WPTV-Ch 5 reporter in a February 2019 interview.
Mr. Straghn then tried unsuccessfully to get then police chief, R. C. Croft, to hire more blacks on the force. The few blacks on the force could only patrol and make arrests within the black community.
After Croft retired in 1972, his successor, James S. “Jimmy” Grantham reached out to Mr. Straghn and asked for his help to recruit black officers.
Lorenzo Brooks was one of those hires.
“That was very important to Zack,” said Brooks, who retired after 23 years as a captain. “He knew the importance of integration and the fact that [blacks] couldn’t do certain things…, such as use the beach or the swimming pool, was very concerning to him.”
Sixty years later, the agency has boosted its numbers to 25 black officers, including 20 males.
Delray Beach police Chief Javaro Sims, who is credited with increasing the minority hiring, calls Mr. Straghn “a staple and cornerstone in the city.”
“He has been a catalyst to African-Americans in the city and certainly within the Delray Beach Police Department,” said Sims, whose father and Mr. Straghn were classmates. “Mr. Straghn was also huge supporter of me in my capacity at the police department. There will never be another Zack Straghn.”
His verbal melees did not stop there. He fought so blacks could use a coin operated laundry and to be served at a restaurant downtown, Brooks said.
“Delray Beach has progressed a long way as far as integration and working with people to come together as one, thanks to him,” Brooks said.
Between fighting the establishment, Mr. Straghn found time to coach softball. Long before the term nonprofit organization was even coined, he had a traveling softball team that toured the state.
I met Mr. Straghn when I moved to the city in the late 1980s and became a member of his church, Greater Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church. He was my Sunday school teacher (something he truly enjoyed), one of my mentors and someone who genuinely cared about me as a person.
As a cub reporter, I would spend time with him learning the checkered history of this oceanfront enclave, where I had planned to “get my ticket punched” and move on after two years.
I soon learned that while often unnamed or underappreciated, he led the fight to free this city from the vestiges of Jim Crow. And while many of his fights were under the auspices as president of the local NAACP, many were invisible to the public.
Mr. Straghn loved singing bass with the Delray Community Choir, his church choir and the Men’s Chorus. I anticipated the rare occasions when we would do a duet.
Until a few years ago when his health began declining he would walk for miles from his home on Southwest 5th Avenue to the beach every week day, something he did for more than 60 years.
Five years ago, Palm Healthcare Foundation honored him with the Let’s Move Legendary Award for his inspiration, which led to its annual “Let’s Move” walk.
Long before the area was saturated with black funeral homes, it was almost guaranteed that when an elderly person died, Straghn & Son’s Tri City Funeral Home would do the services. Mr. Straghn made friends with the families he counseled. He was a consummate professional with a unique mix of business acumen and compassion for the thousands of families he served over the years.
Two sons, Keith and Vince, preceded him in death. Survivors include his childhood sweetheart and wife for more than 70 years, Lois, and a host of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Services are pending.C. Ron Allen can be reached at 561-665-0151 or crallen@DelrayBeachTribune.com.