By Angela Dennis
When we think of black history often times vacation destinations are left out of the dialogue. Our past is well documented with stories of slavery, plantations, and oppressive reality yet little do we know of how some of our ancestors and those who came before us celebrated their lives.
As I decided to write this article I was thinking about the history of African-American tourism. As a little girl, I grew up in Florida and the beach was a regular part of my life. I wondered about the history of African-American beaches in relation to us and discovered some amazing stories.
While many of the historic black beaches in America have seen gentrification and lack of restoration, there are a few that still remain as active and flourishing destinations where you can spend your dollars and enjoy a lovely time. It is estimated that African-Americans spend billions annually – so why not get a dose of sun and history in the process?
As Black History Month ends, summer is about to begin. I want to share some of the top historically black beaches and resort towns in America. Grab your swimsuits, pack a bag, and prepare for an amazing summer drenched in your Blackness.
1. Highland Beach (Maryland)
This is the oldest of all black resort towns in America. Founded by Charles and Laura Douglass in 1893, Charles was the son of the well renowned Frederick Douglass. This beach is located approximately 35 miles outside of Washington D.C. and was the very first black-owned resort in America.
This destination was birthed from an act of racial discrimination when the Douglass’s were denied entry into a restaurant on the Chesapeake Bay. Charles Douglass then decided to delve into the real estate industry and began purchasing beachfront property and selling lots to his friends and family. Some of its earliest purchasers were notable African-American politicians in the DC/Baltimore area that included Senators, Congressman, and Judge Robert Terrell and his wife, Mary. Terrell was the first black judge in the District of Columbia. Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois, and singer Poel Robinson all made summer homes at Highland Beach.
When Charles Douglass died in 1920, its ownership was transferred to his son Haley Douglass who in 1922 led a movement to make Highland Beach the first African-American incorporated municipality in the state’s history.
Today there are approximately 90 homes still owned and occupied by descendants of the original settlers of Highland Beach along with the Frederick Douglass Museum and Cultural Center ‘Twin Oaks’ is a local attraction at this distinctive resort destination.
(Photos are from the Highland Beach Historic Commission)
Florida’s first African-American beach was founded in 1935 on Amelia Island in Jacksonville. This tourist destination was founded by Florida’s first black millionaire Abraham Lincoln Lewis and his Afro-American Life Insurance Company.
It’s another beach which came to fruition in defiance of segregation and Jim Crow laws. Lewis saw this as a safe haven where his friends and employees could peacefully enjoy themselves. The streets along the beach are all named after the African-American founders and their families.
As tourism grew, the beach known as “The Negro Ocean Playground” became sprinkled with food, lodging, and entertainment. It was a place of refuge for black people during a time when other beaches were restricted due to segregation. On any given weekend you might see Ray Charles, Zora Neale Hurston, or Hank Aaron having a good time there.
The beach saw a decline when it was struck by Hurricane Dora in 1964. Many of the tourists began vacationing elsewhere after the Civil Rights Act desegregated beaches. However, it still remains a popular destination and historians and preservationists are committed to preserving its heritage. When you visit be sure to check out The American Beach Museum which documents the history of this fascinating place. If you seek a quieter spot to enjoy the ocean and sand it would be well worth paying a visit while passing through Jacksonville or visiting beautiful Amelia Island or Fernandina Beach.
For more than 100 years African-Americans have flocked to this area on Martha’s Vineyard. One of President Obama’s and the late Maya Angelou’s favorite vacation destinations, this tourist area boasts a rich history rooted in black culture and remains lively today. Some of its first dwellers were runaway slaves and indentured servants. During the era of segregation Martha’s Vineyard was a popular beachfront destination for white tourists. Thanks to Charles Shearer, who was the son of a slave and her white owner, he turned a beach cottage into the first Inn where African-Americans could lodge. This began the expansion of the black community on Martha’s Vineyard.
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture has dedicated an exhibit to honor the work of Charles Shearer entitled “The Power of Place” and features the history of Oak Bluffs and how it has empowered African American culture. It celebrates a myriad of black writers, political and social leaders, musicians, and thinkers that have traveled to the area.
When you visit Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard be sure to take a tour down the African American heritage trail where you will get a chance to view historic homes of people in black history.
4. Sag Harbor (Long Island, NY)
We all have heard of the luxurious destination known as the Hamptons, and Sag Harbor is the black wing of this popular and affluent beachfront. It was an enclave for generations beginning in the early twentieth century. If your pockets allow for some time up north this summer during a trip to New York you will find some great history in this town.
After World War II during segregation Sag Harbor developed a robust community of African-Americans. Working class black families were able to purchase land and start development in the area. Over the years thankfully Sag Harbor has been able to fight off gentrification and property development and keep its roots intact. Keeping its identity has remained important to black residents. Today as you visit you will still see a community of middle-class families with a population of doctors, lawyers, and other professionals.
5. Atlantic Beach (South Carolina)
Known as the “Black Pearl” located between Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach, Atlantic Beach remains the only current black-owned beach in the nation. Many of the properties are black-owned and operated which include hotels, gift shops, restaurants, and night clubs.
Atlantic Beach hosts ‘Black Bike Week’ every year that draws large crowds of African-Americans to its shores.
6. Gullah-Geechee Islands (South Carolina)
If you venture South, the Carolina’s offer a nice mixture of beach destinations. Hilton Head Island and Charleston both offer a historical mix. The Lowcountry is the area of Gullah tradition.
Gullah Geechee Culture, in my opinion, is not recognized in black history. The irony is that the Gullah/Geechees have preserved their history more than any African-American community in the United States.
The Gullah Geechee people are descendants of Central and West Africans and were enslaved together on these isolated islands stretching along the U.S. coastline from North Carolina to St. John’s, Florida.
They developed the Creole language and continue to this day, to preserve African practices in arts, crafts, agriculture, and cuisine.
The Carolinas, Hilton Head Island, and the Georgia coast has many attractions that can enhance your knowledge of history.
The Gullah Heritage Trail Tour on Hilton Head Island takes you to stops at several historic sites. This includes ‘Mitcheville’ the first freedman village in the United States. Also, consider adding the near-by Gullah Geechee Visitor’s Center in Beaufort.
The Penn Center on St. Helena Island was a school for freed slaves from Sea Island. A museum exhibits the history of the school that includes presentations and tours.
In Charleston, SC the McLeod Plantation, Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture, and the Gullah Tours offer a thorough background.
Definitely worth noting are a few more African-American historic beaches that have not been maintained or no longer exist. These beaches have some significant black history to research or explore while vacationing.
- Chicken Bone Beach (Atlantic City, NJ)
- Idlewild (Michigan)
- The Inkwell (Santa Monica, CA)
- Bruce’s Beach (Manhattan Beach, CA)
- Freeman Beach (Wilmington, NC)
- Carr’s Beach (Annapolis, MD)
Angela Dennis is a Freelance Writer and Blogger in Knoxville, TN. You can follow her at https://medium.com/@AngelaDennisWrites