This is part 8 of my special series “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 racial exclusive resort communities. Today– heading north to the Jersey Shore! You can find the rest of the series here.
When I talked with coastal old timers about Jim Crow, I also heard many stories about African Americans leaving North Carolina in the summertime and going north to get close to the water. Again and again, black Carolinians told me stories about traveling especially to Atlantic City, Wildwood and other towns on the Jersey Shore to work at beach resorts and enjoy the seashore.
Of course, most black families did not leave the state to get access to the sea and shore, but many did.
My old friend Eddie McCoy, a Vietnam vet and a militant civil rights activist back in the day, was typical.
From Oxford N.C. to the Jersey Shore
Eddie comes from a hardscrabble, working-class black family in Oxford, N.C., but he told me how his family sent him to the Jersey Shore in the summertime to work in resort hotels.
Eddie was in high school then, and he explained that going to the Jersey Shore was a way for a young black man like himself to earn money, broaden his horizons and enjoy the seashore.
But he emphasized that sending a child to the Jersey Shore in the summer had another kind of urgency, too. At least that was his mother’s point of view, and that of many other black parents.
According to Eddie, his elders sought to remove brash, rebellious and quick-tempered young men like him from the potentially disastrous consequences of thumbing their noses at Jim Crow here in North Carolina.
Eddie, by the way, is a central figure in my friend Tim Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name,a riveting, lyrical and haunting memoir of growing up in Oxford during the civil rights era.
If you’ve read Tim’s book, you know that Eddie’s mother had good reason to worry about her son and Jim Crow!
Fortunately, by the time Eddie got back from Vietnam, he knew how to take care of himself. (Then it was Jim Crow that was in trouble!) But when he was younger and greener, his mother no doubt knew what she was doing when she sent him to the Jersey Shore.
Chicken Bone Beach
Ironically, the Jersey Shore beaches were just as segregated by race as those here in North Carolina. Most had once been integrated, but southern white vacationers had successfully pressured the resorts to segregate African Americans and whites in the 1890s and early 1900s.
By the 1920s, the Jersey Shore resort towns all refused to allow people of color to stay in their hotels and they provided segregated beaches and picnic facilities.
Imagine: some of the greatest musicians and singers in American history, including performing artists such as Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald, being refused rooms in the seaside hotels where they performed!
The African American beach in Atlantic City came to be known as “Chicken Bone Beach.” At that time, you could find other “chicken bone beaches” at resorts up and down the Jersey Shore.
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You can find an article I wrote about Eddie McCoy’s younger days here. You can find an essay that I wrote about his oral history project with African American elders in Granville County here. And you can find a link to Tim Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name here.
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The Wilkins Family Goes North
Bunny Sanders, the mayor of Roper, N.C., told me a similar story about her father. Every summer her father and a number of other local black educators traveled to New Jersey’s beach communities in order to work in resort jobs, after the last day of school.
Young people often accompanied them to the Jersey Shore. Mayor Sanders’ father, E. V. Wilkins, was a legendary schoolteacher and principal in Roper, which is an old lumber mill town in Washington County, on the south side of the Albemarle Sound.
One of the wisest men I’ve ever met, E. V. Wilkins was also a pioneering civil rights activist and one of the state’s most influential African American political leaders from the 1940s to the 1970s.
Long before his daughter stepped into the job, he was also Roper’s mayor. In fact, he was one of the first blacks elected mayor in a white-majority town anywhere in the South.
Mayor Sanders told me that her father and other members of the Wilkins clan regularly traveled north to the Jersey Shore at the end of the school year.
Often they carried a student or two with them for very much the same reasons as Eddie McCoy’s mother sent him north: to give the young man or woman a chance to see the world and earn much-needed money, but also to protect the student from the perils of Jim Crow life at that age when teenagers, of all races, tend to act first and think later.
It wasn’t that New Jersey was free of Jim Crow. Yet, in sometimes small, but important ways, Jim Crow seemed softer there: the rules less strict, the meanness of it all generally less spiteful and the perils, and repercussions, of crossing the color line, if that should happen, less grave.
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If you’re interested, you can learn more about Bunny Sanders’ father, E. V. Wilkins, her aunt Willie Mae (a pioneering NAACP activist) and the civil rights movement in Washington County in an article that I wrote in 2004. I’ll provide a link to that article here.
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Atlantic City & Wildwood, New Jersey
Across eastern North Carolina, I heard similar stories. The African Americans with whom I spoke mentioned the beach resorts in Atlantic City and Wildwood, New Jersey, an especially lot.
Both of those resort towns had segregated beaches, yet many African American families found them incomparably safer and more enjoyable than staying home and going to local Jim Crow beaches.
Ben Speller emphasized that side of things when I talked with him. Now retired, Ben was for many years the dean of the school of library science at North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C. He’s also been a leader in historic preservation efforts across the state.
Ben grew up in Bertie County, North Carolina, on the western end of the Albemarle Sound.
As a child, he lived a short drive from Black Rock, Chowan Beach and other African American swim holes and beaches. However, his family’s imposing matriarch, his grandmother, did not allow him to go swimming at any of them.
Instead, she made him wait until August, when she’d send him to Philadelphia to stay with relatives and go swimming at Atlantic City.
Like other black and Indian elders, Ben’s grandmother sought to shield her grandson from the dangers and indignities of Jim Crow in the South, even if that meant that he would still be consigned to Chicken Bone Beach or another northern beach only meant for people of his race.
The Great Migration
By the 1940s and ‘50s, a young black man or woman taking a trip to the Jersey Shore was hardly unusual, and particularly not for North Carolina families that didn’t rely on their children’s help on a farm.
Even if a family wasn’t comfortably middle class, a young man or woman of color might still find a way to go north. During the Great Migration, millions of southern blacks had left the south and moved to northern cities.
For that reason, black parents back home in North Carolina could almost always find a relative willing to take in a child somewhere above the Mason Dixon Line—and often that aunt or sister or cousin lived in towns and cities near the seashore.
Once there, the young person could stay for no rent, get a job and earn money so that they could buy school clothes in the fall or save money for college tuition and books. And, of course, they could have fun at the beach.
I also heard several times that some of the Jersey Shore resort hotels offered free or reduced room and board to black kids who took jobs as housekeepers, cooks, dishwashers and bellhops, the way, I’ve heard, they do with Russians and Eastern Europeans now.
No Black or White at Night
For many of those African American young people, their summers at the Jersey Shore proved to be an important experience in their lives. For one thing, those northern beach resorts gave many of those small-town and country kids their first taste of life outside the Jim Crow South.
They met other young people from African American communities up and down the East Coast, too, which gave them a chance to learn about life beyond their own little corner of eastern N.C.
On the Jersey Shore, those young people were hardly safe from racial prejudice or Jim Crow segregation. Yet a number of people told me that they had their first experiences having white co-workers and making friends on the other side of the color line while they were up there.
And, as has happened at the beach for time immemorial, some of those black and white kids became more than friends. Some had romances that would have been very, very dangerous back home in North Carolina.
Building personal relationships with the white kids on the Jersey Shore also had an important side benefit, at least for some of those young black men and women.
Several told me that the experience of working at Jersey Shore resorts when they were teenagers later helped them to work more effectively with white allies during the civil rights movement.
And there was this: after dark you couldn’t tell who was black and who was white on the beaches and in the ocean waves. More than one veteran of summertime trips to the Jersey Shore told me that. And that, they also told me, was an important lesson about life, too.
Next up– The Color of Water, part 9: Wade-Ins & Swim-Ins