This is the 5th post in my special series “The Color of Water.” In this series, I am exploring the history of Jim Crow and North Carolina’s coastal waters, including the state’s forgotten history of all-white beaches, “Sundown towns” and racially exclusive resort communities. You can find the other stories in the series here.
The story of Jim Crow and the North Carolina coast also extends to the state’s most popular beaches and beachfront communities. During the Jim Crow era, those cherished vacation destinations barred black families from swimming in their waters, staying in their motels, buying cottages or in many cases even walking on their beaches.
This was true everywhere: Nags Head, Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, Sunset Beach, Atlantic Beach, Topsail Beach and others.
Some of those, like Nags Head, were very old beach resorts. Even before the Civil War, the white cottagers at Nags Head kept the ocean beaches off-limits to people of color, except for one hour late every summer afternoon.
For that hour, whites permitted their enslaved servants to swim and sunbath while they retreated to their cottages for happy hour.
Some of those beach resorts were “sundown towns.” One of my favorite coastal towns, Carolina Beach, was one of those.
Carolina beach is located in New Hanover County, south of Wilmington, on a long peninsula with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Cape Fear River on the other.
Old timers in Carolina Beach told me that the town kept black families away from its beaches, motels and fishing piers during the Jim Crow era.
I did see historical accounts, though, that indicated that, at least for a time, town leaders allowed blacks to use the beaches one day a week, on Mondays.
Whites also warned black visitors from staying in the town after dark.
It had not always been that way. Prior to the white supremacy movement in 1898-1900, Carolina Beach had been open to both whites and blacks.
In fact, African Americans had been among the beachside development’s earliest residents. According to a July 23, 1890 article in Wilmington’s Daily Review, brought to my attention by Catherine Bishir, two of the 32 cottages that had been built at Carolina Beach at that time belonged to men of color.
“There are two colored residents in cottages, John H. Howe and John Brown, two worthy and well known residents of this city,” the newspaper reported.
That changed with the rise of Jim Crow after 1898. Then, instead of coming to Carolina Beach, black families headed to Seabreeze, an African American beach resort on Myrtle Grove Sound.
I will discuss Seabreeze in more detail later in this series.
During the Jim Crow era, however, many people of color worked in Carolina Beach as maids, laundresses, lawn men and cooks. That sometimes led to difficulties for black workers that were supposed to get out of town before dark.
I heard one account, for instance, in which a black housekeeper at one of Carolina Beach’s motels described the fear that she felt when she missed her ride home one evening.
Aware of the potential danger, the hotel’s manager allowed her to stay the night at the hotel in an empty guestroom. However, he warned her that she should lock the door and not come out until daylight.
On the other side of Wilmington, the far tonier Wrightsville Beach was at least as bad when it came to Jim Crow and the beach.
According to an excellent UNC-W master’s thesis written by historian Jenny Edwards, Wrightsville Beach’s white leaders did not allow blacks to own property on the island and required blacks to leave the island by dark.
Black repairmen, maids, cooks and other tourism industry workers could come and go during the day, but white officials did not allow black families to visit the island to enjoy the beaches.
According to Edwards’ research, the town’s white leaders even made it unlawful for blacks that did come onto the island during the day to wear swimsuits.
A recent scholarly article by one of my former Duke students, Crystal Sanders, also refers to Jim Crow at Wrightsville Beach. Now a professor of history at Penn State, Crystal discovered that:
“By 1933 … Wrightsville Beach … had formal ordinances that prevented `blacks from walking on the beach, the boardwalk, or even in front of white cottages facing the ocean’ unless they did so in a service capacity.”
After The Waterman’s Song
In my book The Waterman’s Song, I documented an earlier age on the North Carolina coast, when African Americans displayed a deep attachment to the sea and our other coastal waters. In those days, before the Jim Crow era, blacks dominated many of the state’s maritime trades and lived in every coastal area.
In nearly every part of the North Carolina coast, their skills as swimmers, fishermen and boatmen were legendary.
That attachment to our coastal waters was sorely tested during the Jim Crow era: Nags Head, Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach were typical of white beach resorts and beachfront towns on the North Carolina coast.
Many years later, long after the Jim Crow era had ended, people would visit those places on North Carolina’s seashore and they would wonder where the black people had gone.
They would wonder why black families did not own more land by the water, and they might wonder also why they did not see more black families at the beach or in the historic little towns along the coast.
And since nobody told them different, they would think that it was the natural order of things and that it must have always been that way.
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Next up– The Color of Water, part 6– African American and Indian Beaches