This is part 7 of my special series called “The Color of Water.” In this series, I’m 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. Today– African American and Indian beaches. You can find the rest of the series here.
After I learned about the African American beach resort called Seabreeze, in New Hanover County (the subject of my last post), I started asking about North Carolina’s other beaches that welcomed people of color during the Jim Crow era. Once I started asking, I felt as if I was discovering new African American and Indian beaches every day.
One of the most extraordinary was Ocean City. Located at North Topsail Island, in Onslow County, Ocean City was developed by a group of black and white business people from Wilmington, N.C. in 1949.
Ocean City offered a peaceful refuge by the sea to a relatively prosperous class of African Americans.
The oceanfront beach community attracted prominent African American business people, physicians, lawyers, college professors, teachers and ministers.
In addition to cottages, the beach community had a motel and restaurant, a chapel, a fishing pier, a camp dormitory and a dining hall.
The fishing pier was especially welcome to those who might not be able to afford a cottage or a night in the community’s motel.
Built in 1959, the Ocean City Fishing Pier was the state’s only ocean fishing pier that was open to people of color at that time.
Some years ago, a Lumbee elder told me that the fishing pier had been a particular favorite with his tribe in Robeson County, N.C. In order to get access to the sea, Lumbee fishermen and women drove 125 miles to Ocean City.
While doing my research, I also heard a great deal about Shell Island, an African American beach resort that opened in 1923.
Before Moore Inlet closed in 1965, Shell Island was a small island in New Hanover County, just north of Wrightsville Beach. At the time that the black resort was open, a ferry connected the two islands. (Shell Island is now one end of Wrightsville Beach.)
Shell Island’s developers hoped to draw black vacationers from far and wide. “The National Negro Playground,” one endearingly enthusiastic ad called it. The resort included a swimming beach, a pavilion, a boardwalk and bathhouses.
The developers apparently dreamed of building an African American version of Atlantic City, with casinos, dance halls and jazz clubs.
The resort only lasted three years, however. It burned under mysterious circumstances in 1926.
B. B. King and Sam Cooke at Chowan Beach
Whenever I am north of the Albemarle Sound, I also hear a lot of stories about Chowan Beach. Once located between Murfreesboro and Winton on a quiet, out-of-the-way part of the Chowan River, the resort drew black and Indian people from across northeastern N.C. and southeastern Va.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, Chowan Beach offered mainly sandy beaches and a chance to go swimming. In time, though, the riverside beach boasted more amenities and diversions: fish fry stands, a dance hall, a bathhouse, a photo studio and a little amusement park.
During its heyday in the 1940s and ‘50s, Chowan Beach was also a part of the “Chitlin Circuit,” a famous collection of music halls and other performance venues scattered across much of the U.S. where black bands and singers could perform in safety, despite Jim Crow.
Over the years, legendary singers like B. B. King, Ruth Brown and Sam Cooke graced the stage at Chowan Beach. Their music wafted through the surrounding swamps and across the cotton fields and down the broad blackwater river.
Chowan Beach was hardly the Royal Peacock in Atlanta or the Cotton Club in Harlem, but just imagine what it must have been like for a one-mule farmer or a tobacco hand to come out of the fields and hear music like that, and to get to dance the night away. It must have been something.
Crabbing, Piccolos & Baptisms
Most of the black and Indian beaches I heard about were not as big as Ocean City, Shell Island, Chowan Beach or Seabreeze. Most, in fact, offered no more than a refreshment stand or a little juke joint, if that, and sometimes a shed where you could change clothes.
Most provided a little stretch of white sand beach on the edge of a sluggish blackwater river or a hidden saltwater bay, where swimmers took care to avoid stumps and cottonmouths.
Children chased blue crabs with dip nets, while old folks sat and talked in the shade.
Some tended a fishing pole and others cast a net to one side or the other of the swimming beach. As the day went on, you might find people frying fish over an open fire.
If the beach had a little store, beachgoers might even enjoy a piccolo—a jukebox. And if the store did have a piccolo, then you could count on dancing and good times come dusk.
Many of those little beaches also doubled as baptismal sites. Not every Sunday, but now and then, the shore filled with sounds of old hymns and penitents going down to the water.
From Rainbow Beach to Asbury Beach
Across coastal North Carolina, only locals knew how to find most of those black- and Indian-friendly beaches.
A few miles from where I grew up, for instance, there was Shady View Beach, which the Dove family operated on the Neuse River, in North Harlowe, a rural community in Craven County. African American families came from as far as New Bern, 35 miles away, to enjoy the beach there.
To the north, people of color in Pamlico County gathered at Rainbow Beach in Maribel, on the Bay River, or they went to Styron’s Beach or Cooper’s Beach in Oriental.
An ocean beach resort that was open to people of color also briefly operated on Bogue Banks, a barrier island in Carteret County. Established in 1923, Asbury Beach was located two miles from Fort Macon, on the east end of the island. The little resort had a swimming beach, a pavilion and a bathhouse.
In Bertie County, older black and Indian people told me that they used to go to Black Rock, a little beach on the west bank of the Chowan River.
In the 1920s, a black beach and amusement park called Greenwreath Park was briefly located on the Tar River, in Pitt County.
In Elizabeth City, people of color often swam at Brickhouse Point. Others drove to Bogues Beach, on the Little River, a few miles north of the old village of Nixtonton.
Little Washington had a black beach, and I’ve heard secondhand that another black beach was a little ways down the Pamlico River, on the north side of the river between Washington and Bath.
Cases Landing, Hargraves Beach & Bias Beach
Currituck County also had a number of beaches that welcomed people of color.
Located on Currituck Sound, between Jarvisburg and Powells Point, a beach called Cases Landing had a little store that sold sodas. I was told that Ms. Angernora Case also had some mighty delicious, homemade ice cream there.
Local churches picnicked at Cases Landing, and they also did baptisms in the sound.
Another black beach in Currituck County was a little rowdier. Established by a black entrepreneur from Elizabeth City, Hargraves Beach was located just outside of Duck, which was then a fading little fishing village on Currituck Banks, the most northern of the Outer Banks.
Henry Hargraves and two other black businessmen bought 80 acres on that part of Currituck Banks in 1929. Hargraves turned his third into a nightclub and beach aimed at black working people.
A local woman told me that a fellow named Buck Winslow and his wife Mildred operated Hargraves Beach when she was young. She said it had a reputation for hard drinking and dancing, and she wasn’t allowed to go there.
Like the black resort at Shell Island, the club at Hargraves Beach burned to the ground in the late 1930s under mysterious circumstances.
One of Hargraves’ partners, John Henry Bias, eventually developed a small community of black-owned cottages on the sound side of the island. That community came to be called Bias Beach.
The Museum of the Albemarle, in Elizabeth City, has recently opened an exhibit that features some of the historically black and Indian beaches in that northeast corner of North Carolina. It’s called “Memorable Sands: Beaches of Northeast North Carolina and Southeast Virginia.”
North Carolina’s Coastal State Parks and Jim Crow
I don’t want to forget the coastal state parks that welcomed people of color, either. During the Jim Crow era, most of North Carolina’s state parks were off limits to African Americans, Indians and other people of color.
When the state park closest to where I grew up, Fort Macon State Park, first opened in 1924, for instance, no black or Indian child could roam the old fort’s stone battlements or fish off its jetty or swim at its beach. State policy prohibited integrated state parks until the 1960s.
However, the state park system eventually did set aside three parks for African Americans and other people of color: the first was Jones Lake State Park, which was established in Bladen County in 1939.
The second was Reedy Creek State Park, which opened in Wake County in 1950. It’s now part of the William B. Umstead State Park.
The third was Hammocks Beach State Park, which formally became a state park in 1961. It was centered on Bear Island, a lovely, 4-mile-long barrier island near Swansboro, in Onslow County.
The state’s main advocacy group for black teachers, the North Carolina Teachers Association, managed the “Hammocks” as an African American beach from 1950 to 1961.
You can learn more about the history of Hammocks Beach State Park in an excellent article by one of my former Duke students, Crystal Sanders. A native of Johnston County, N.C., Crystal is now an associate professor of history at Penn State and head of the university’s Africana Research Center.
Crystal’s article is titled “Blue Water, Black Beach: The North Carolina Teachers Association and Hammocks Beach in the Age of Jim Crow.” It appeared in the April 2015 issue of the North Carolina Historical Review.
UNC-TV also made an excellent documentary based on Crystal’s article. It premiered in February 2018 and you can find a link to it here.
The Joys of Summer
My friend Joyce Williams has told me many times about visiting Jones Lake State Park when she was a child.
Joyce grew up in a sharecropping family in Wake County, and she’s always trying to put things in perspective for me.
Like many other black farmers, her family used to make the long drive down to Jones Lake every summer when their crops were laid by and they were waiting for the harvest.
They couldn’t go to the nicer, whites-only beaches, but Joyce said they didn’t let that bother them. A beach, she wanted me to understand, wasn’t only about having a fancy pavilion or a dance hall or even a fishing pier: it was about family and community and spending time with the people you love.
And they could do all that at Jones Lake. Joyce’s family slept in their car and picnicked by the shore. She remembers playing with children from all over eastern North Carolina. And no matter what Jim Crow might decree, she and her brothers and sisters and their friends swam and played to their hearts’ delight.
They rejoiced in the water, and they rejoiced in one another.
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Next up—The Color of Water, part 8: Headed to the Jersey Shore