The rise and fall of North Carolina’s first all-black resort

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History rarely makes room for black recreation in the age of apartheid. But the coast of North Carolina was once a destination for middle-class blacks.

The island of shells. The island of the Wilmington area, next to Wrightsville Beach, has been a beach resort and family-friendly tourist destination for decades, dating back to the 1920s. Well-to-do families from across the South and East Coast come to relax in the sun.

The difference between yesterday and today? Most visitors to the early 20th century seaside resort were black.

Popular culture rarely considers moments of black joy in the age of apartheid. But luxury and leisure were no stranger to wealthy, aspiring black Americans, or their less creditworthy parents, and they intended to live as full a life as possible. This included recreation by the sea, even when segregated.

“There were only places black people could go. You haven’t gone anywhere, ”said retired educator Richard Newkirk, who grew up in neighboring Pender County. An informal historian of the region, Newkirk remembers using “colored” and “white” installations until 1969.

“You have to see through the eyes of the times, or you’ll miss the full picture,” he warned.

While an affront to their constitutional rights, in a strange twist, these separate spaces often offered black people a bit of refuge. Sitting quietly on the sand and enjoying the waves with loved ones, away from the potential volatility and violence of white citizens, was balm for the soul.

Shell Island as it was envisioned, one of the few resorts for black North Carolina residents in the midst of segregation. (Port City Daily / Courtesy of Marc Farinella)

Money, color and compromise

In the 1920s, black citizens near Wilmington had few opportunities for recreational activities. For about 20 years, they had demanded access to Wrightsville Beach and lobbied to create their own separate beaches on small, relatively unwanted stretches of coastline. Each time, these petitions have been rejected.

“Local owners would say this was going to drive down property values, but they just didn’t want to be near African Americans,” Wilmington historian and political scientist Marc Farinella told Cardinal & Pine. .

Just a generation before, the Wilmington Uprising of 1898 had been a bloody massacre. In the only successful coup on American soil, whites angered by the political and financial successes of newly liberated men and women overthrew the democratically elected government and installed their own cabal.

“Not only did they change the government, but the Jim Crow laws went into effect after that,” Newkirk said. “The federal government did not stop them.

Prior to the November 10 attack, three of the city’s ten aldermen were black, and there were black police, firefighters and magistrates. By the end of the day, between 60 and 300 blacks had been murdered or driven from the city, their businesses set on fire.

But in the midst of the violent victory, the insurgents created an unforeseen problem: they unleashed a mass exodus.

Black residents have left the area in droves, placing their sites on the best economic and social opportunities in the North. This coincided with the Great Migration, when millions of black Americans left the South, decimating the region’s pool of cheap labor.

“There was a concern that they had to find ways to slow the flow of African-American labor to northern cities. And so more and more white business leaders have become sympathetic to the idea that, well, we need to do something to improve the quality of life and the economic and recreational opportunities for blacks around Wilmington, ”he said. said Farinella.

Although repeatedly shut down by more vocal racists, a number of white business leaders supported this compromise, including Thomas H. Wright, the mayor of Wrightsville. A relative of the famous Wright Brothers and a real estate developer and financier by profession, after his tenure he formed a company called Home Realty. With two partners, Charles Parmalee and Robert Northrup, Wright began to create a beach resort for blacks, not on Wrightsville Beach but near Shell Island.

Located north of Wrightsville Beach and separated by a cove, the attractive marshes and beach were inviting for fishing, swimming and bird watching. The resort had beach access, boardwalks, concession stands and vendors, as well as a large pavilion for live music and dancing, and the island was accessible via a combination of tram and ferry. . Transportation was structured so that whites never shared a streetcar with visitors to Shell Island.

Virginia Key Beach Park
A beach goer, circa 1940s, in Virginia Key Beach Park near Miami, Fla. (Image via “blackmiamidade” on Instagram)

Besides hotels and restaurants, Home Realty planned to make money by selling around 270 lots and cabins near the beach to middle-class blacks, who by 1925 were flocking to this seaside resort from across the country. the island.

“Their vision was really bold and extraordinary,” Farinella told Cardinal & Pine. “This is a group of white businessmen planning a planned community for African Americans centered around a beach resort… I don’t think there was anything like that in the country at the time. -the.”

There were a few beaches in the South that black citizens had access to: Atlantic Beach in South Carolina; Highland Beach, Maryland; and Virginia Key Beach in Florida. Most were privately owned black property with fewer amenities and in less desirable locations.

Shell Island targeted middle-class blacks who could afford to take time off work and buy summer cottages. It meant people from Maryland, Virginia, and the Northeast in addition to locals.

Wilmington itself had a vibrant African American middle class of professionals and independent business owners. Five of the latter formed a Home Realty partner company, the Shell Island Beach Development Company, to help promote the resort.

The place opened in 1923 on 70 acres of land, and thousands of visitors have flocked there. It was a destination for the wealthiest black citizens of the eastern United States, but it wouldn’t last long. In three years he had burned down completely.

Chowan Beach Resort in North Carolina
The Chowan Beach Resort in North Carolina, circa 1945. North Carolina had a few resorts for black families during the segregation era. (Fair use image)

A class concern

Despite strong support from middle-class blacks and white business owners, Home Realty struggled to sell lots – the company’s main projected source of income. Of the 270 lots available, they only managed to sell two, according to land transfer records.

Interracial class struggles may have played a role. While it is true that upwardly mobile black Wilmingtonians frequented Shell Island, most of their financial clientele came from the northeast. The Carolinians of the North and the South were simpler people, among them manual laborers and factory workers who sacrificed and saved for a few days of leisure in the sun.

“[They] were country people, ”Newkirk said. “Back then, you didn’t go out to restaurants, you ate at home. So Shell Island had a lot of non-local people from the north and other places that wanted to come to the beach.

Visitors appeared to be economically mixed – and that may have caused some tension.

“The wealthier African Americans who were struggling to be seen as, I don’t know what the right term would be, but more legitimate in white eyes, didn’t want to be closely associated with [poorer] African Americans, ”said Farinella.

Poorer visitors may also have purchased installment lots, forcing borrowers to make all payments in full before a deed is transferred. These would likely have had higher interest rates and would have been subject to forfeiture if borrowers couldn’t make their payments, had a bad growing season, or some other misfortune.

Either way, the developers had a problem. If the affluent target market they hoped to sell chalets to were turned off by the resort’s less elite clients who couldn’t afford them, there was no way to get a return on their investment. A spate of well-timed fires in 1926 put an end to these dreams.

Shell Island lay idle for another four decades, until the cove that separated it from Wrightsville filled up and houses began to bloom at its southern end in the late 1960s. It is now a resort area. leading.

Although short-lived, Shell Island’s separate legacy will not be forgotten. For a brilliant moment in North Carolina history, the beach offered much more than rest and recreation for black and brown visitors. It was a site of resistance, where they quietly staked out their claim to the pursuit of happiness.


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