By Donna Torrence
During segregation, Black shoreline communities such as Atlantic Beach, South Carolina, and Idlewild, Michigan, were vibrant retreats where families could enjoy summer without harassment. Some of them, such as Martha’s Vineyard, are well-known havens for Black beachgoers today.
“Segregation laws kept Blacks off beaches,” explains Andrew W. Kahrl, professor of history and African American Studies at the University of Virginia. He is author of The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South. “The very idea of African Americans enjoying leisure spaces alongside whites was a challenge to Jim Crow because it implied equality.” Out of necessity, says Kahrl, “African American activists and businesspeople created their own beach communities.”
Some of those historic beaches, such as Bruce’s Beach in California’s Los Angeles County, were seized using questionable legal pretenses or terrorist tactics. Others were sold to developers. But some have survived and are thriving. Here are the details on six historic destinations.
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After 97 years, L.A. County officials announced a bill that, if passed, will enable the transfer of Bruce’s Beach, valued at an estimated $75 million, back to the Bruces’ descendants.
- Bruce’s Beach, Manhattan Beach, California
Founders: Willa and Charles Bruce. They bought a sliver of Manhattan Beach, along with three lots around it, in 1912.
Famous beachgoers: Likely, none. Just hardworking folks looking to cool off.
Then: The Bruce family suffered frequent harassment by white residents. In 1924, municipal leaders leveraged eminent domain laws to seize the property, claiming it was needed to build a public park. Once Black citizens were displaced, the land then sat unused for decades.
Now: On April 9, after 97 years, L.A. County officials announced a bill that, if passed, will enable the transfer of Bruce’s Beach, now valued at an estimated $75 million, back to the couple’s descendants. The beautiful stretch of shoreline fronting an upscale community is open to the public. While it isn’t currently known as a destination for Black beachgoers, the news has generated interest.
Play: Bike, skate, sunbathe or swim. Nearby, there’s the Manhattan Beach Pier, The Roundhouse Aquarium, the Art Center, AdventurePlex and lots of shops and restaurants.
Stay: Best Western Plus Manhattan Beach is not on the beach but is chic and reasonable (BestWestern.com). The Sea View Inn is simple and has kitchens and beach views. (TheSeaViewInn.com)
- Sag Harbor Hills, Ninevah and Azurest Subdivisions (SANS), Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York
Founders: Sisters Maude Terry and Amaza Lee Meredith in 1947. They developed the bay-front property into subdivisions.
Famous beachgoers: Susan Taylor, Earl Graves, Johnnie Cochran, B. Smith, Langston Hughes, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington
Then: The planned communities served as a haven for middle-class African American residents and summer vacationers.
Now: The Sag Harbor subdivisions are nestled within the elite and largely white enclave of the Hamptons. Sag Harbor continues to be a thriving private Black beach community and a great place for families. The community welcomes many fundraising galas and luncheons each year.
Play: Fashionable dress shops, restaurants, bars and ice cream parlors line downtown. For brunch check out Page at 63 Main for specialties by Chef Cleon Clarke. For a lunch or dinner by the marina, check out Dockside Bar & Grill. Kids can make new friends while learning to swim, boat and fish in this close-knit neighborhood.
Stay: Rent a house to get a real feel (vrbo.com or airbnb.com) or book a hotel. The American Hotel is in the center of Sag Harbor Village’s quaint downtown (TheAmericanHotel.com). Baron’s Cove is a marina-front property with a pool, tennis court and restaurant (CapeResorts.com).
- Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
Founder: Freeman Charles Shearer opened the Shearer Cottage in Oak Bluffs in 1912. The inn catered to African Americans who weren’t permitted in any other town on the island.
Famous beachgoers: The Obama family, Spike Lee, Maya Angelou, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy West, Madam C.J. Walker, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Ethel Waters
Then: Families, couple and friends came to day trip, rent or buy property after reading about the Shearer Inn in The Negro Motorist Green Book. Recommendations from the inn’s well-known guests brought more influential Black vacationers.
Now: Middle- and upper-class African Americans hobnob with other influential folks on the beach, at celebrations and at social and family events.
Play: Relax at Inkwell Beach or enjoy restaurants and shops on Circuit Avenue. Check out C’est La Vie, one of the few Black-owned shops. Come in August for the star-studded Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival or enjoy the Legacy Week on the Vineyard HBCU takeover in July. Enjoy the African American Heritage Trail tour of the island.
Stay: While the historic Inn at Shearer Cottage is temporarily closed for renovations for the 2021 season, try the Island Inn near the bay with a pool and tennis court on the property (Vacasa.com).
- American Beach, Amelia Island, Florida
Founder: Abraham Lincoln Lewis, founder of Afro-American Life Insurance Company, in 1935
Famous beachgoers: Zora Neale Hurston, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Hank Aaron, Joe Louis, Ossie Davis, Sherman Hemsley
Then: Known as “the Negro ocean playground,” American Beach’s slogan was “recreation, relaxation without humiliation.” The beach town was bustling with motels, restaurants and nightclubs with live music and dancing, all catering to Black guests.
Now: Today American Beach is family-friendly and attracts a diverse crowd. The nightclubs are long gone, but the beach and crystal clear ocean water are still as beautiful as ever.
Play: Enjoy American’s wide pristine and uncrowded beach or take in its history at the American Beach Museum. Join a kid-friendly guided skateboard tour, ride a horse on the beach or explore the waterways on a hydro-bike.
Stay: The Hampton Inn Amelia Island at Fernandina Beach is comfortable and moderately priced (Hilton.com). The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island is a five-star posh hotel on the beach with lots of amenities. (RitzCarlton.com)
- Highland Beach, Maryland
Founder: Charles Remond Douglass, a son of Frederick Douglass, in 1893
Famous beachgoers: Alex Haley, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Langston Hughes and Dr. Mary Church Terrell, along with Washington, D.C.’s Black elite.
Then: After being met with discrimination at a Chesapeake Bay beach resort, Douglass bought a stretch of waterfront property in Highland. He sold parcels to friends and family, creating this affluent beach community.
Now: The welcoming, quiet, private beach community is primarily home to full-time African American retirees, rather than young summer vacationers. Descendants of its first settlers still own many of the homes.
Play: Enjoy a quiet day fishing, picnicking, sun-bathing and swimming in the Chesapeake. Visit the Frederick Douglass Museum and Cultural Center. Take a hike in nearby Quiet Waters Park. Enjoy Maryland crabs at the famous Cantler’s Riverside Inn in Annapolis and homemade ice cream at Annapolis Ice Cream Company.
Stay: In order to have access to the private beach you will need to be a renter. Rentals are available on vrbo.com or airbnb.com.
- Eatonville, Florida
Founders: A group of freedmen engaged in real estate and business in 1887
Famous visitors: Zora Neale Hurston, NFL defensive end Deacon Jones
Then: African American lakeside community and the home Zora Neale Hurston. It was the first incorporated all-Black town in the country.
Now: The picturesque and quiet village’s population of about 2,150 is 76 percent Black.
Play: Attend next year’s 33rd Annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival, a monthlong celebration of arts happening each January. Visit the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts and the Wells’ Built Museum of African American History and Culture.
Stay: The Thurston House bed and breakfast is a charming find in nearby Maitland (ThurstonHouse.com). If you are looking for hotel amenities, try the four-star Alfond Inn in Winter Park (TheAlfondInn.com).