In the late 19th century, there were few beaches African Americans could visit without the fear of discrimination or violence.
Despite the end of slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, strong prejudices were still held across the nation, especially in the often exclusive beach resort towns favored by the white and wealthy.
Abolitionist and activist Frederick Douglass’ youngest son established the first African American beach resort in Maryland in 1893 after being denied entry from a Chesapeake Bay restaurant because of his race.
Others took note – and black beaches began to spring up across the East Coast. The foundation of historically black beaches provided a platform for the development of an African American identity in the United States – one that stretched from post-Civil War America to the Jim Crow era through to modern society.
‘These were very important spaces when it comes to the formation and the transformation of black culture, and ultimately how that came to influence American culture in general,’ author and historian Dr Andrew Kahrl told DailyMail.com.
As time passed, the struggle to hold on to the culture and authenticity the beaches were founded upon has been a pressing issue that only a few have been able to maintain – but the areas remain hugely significant in the history of African Americans and their strive for equality.
Highland Beach, Maryland
Thirty years after the Emancipation Proclamation was declared, freeing enslaved African Americans in the United States, Charles Douglass and his wife visited a restaurant at the Bay Ridge resort in Annapolis, Maryland – but were refused service because they were African American.
Mr Douglass, an infantry veteran of the Civil War and long-time employee of the Treasury Department, decided that he would purchase the 40-acre plot of land directly next door to the restaurant in 1893. He bought the land for $5,000 – the equivalent of about $130,000 today.
He established the land as Highland Beach, which became the first African American vacation town in the United States.
The property grew quickly in popularity, and became a preferred summer spot for prominent figures of the time including Booker T Washington, W.E.B Dubois, and Langston Hughes.
Charles even built a house for his father on the land, which he called Twin Oaks – but Frederick unfortunately passed away before he saw it completed. It is now home to the Frederick Douglass Museum and Cultural Center.
Dr Kahrl, who wrote The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South, said: ‘The families at Highland Beach – these were doctors, lawyers, professors at Howard University, some of the most educated wealthy African American families of the mid-Atlantic region.
‘By and large this was a very quiet place and they intended to keep it that way.’
The high standards of Highland Beach were revered and strongly protected. At one point, the residents of Highland Beach employed an off-duty police officer to guard the entryway to the neighborhood to ensure that only homeowners and guests could access the property.
‘Not that different than what you would find at exclusive white resort communities,’ Dr Kahrl noted.
Highland Beach eventually became its own entity – founding itself as an incorporated municipality in Maryland. For this reason, lawmakers and residents of the area believe that it’s been able to hold on to the uniqueness it was founded on.
‘That was a deliberate move on their part, to what they perceived as a threat, to be pushed off the land or find themselves subject to other forms of discrimination from public officials,’ Dr Kahrl said.
The small plot of land remains entirely residential, after a hotly debated decision was made not to allow commercial properties in the town. Covering under a mile of land, it hosts about 60 homes and a total of just over 100 people.
Many who live full-time on Highland Beach are the direct descendants of original settlers of the town, who found refuge and relaxation during the tense era following the Civil War.
To this day, Highland Beach serves as a haven for the African American elite.
Carr’s and Sparrow’s Beaches, Maryland
Nearby at Carr’s and Sparrow’s beaches, also in Annapolis, a more lively reputation was founded among historically black beaches.
Though just a few miles down the road, Carr’s and Sparrow’s could not have been more different. While residents on Highland Beach prided themselves on quiet solitude that attracted a wealthy, professional crowd, Carr’s beach was more open to the middle-class working African Americans, primarily from Baltimore and Washington DC.
The two sprung up in a more animated time in our nation’s history – though still marred by racial prejudices, which created the need for black-only beaches.
The land was inherited by two sisters, Elizabeth Carr Smith and Florence Carr Sparrow, whose family first purchased the 180 acres as farmland in 1902.
The sisters founded Carr’s Beach and Sparrow’s Beach in 1931 – which operated as separate entities but were side-by-side and run by the two women.
During the day, the YMCA hosted camps for children and lessons on swimming were taught in the cool northeastern waters. The night time, however, was when the beach truly came alive.
Carr’s became known for hosting well-attended and exciting events, including beauty contests, and the weekly WANN broadcast shows which featured the hottest artists of the time, such as James Brown, also known as the ‘Godfather of Soul’, Ray Charles and Hoppy Adams.
The beachside performances grew to be staples in the soul and rhythm and blues genres, prompting raucous dance competitions among visitors who came from as far as Pennsylvania and New York to party at Carr’s. Despite being strongly African American in its foundation, the beach eventually drew an interracial crowd, and the burgeoning music influence served as an equalizing factor among blacks and whites.
By the 1950s, the performances were so revered that the stage became a regular stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit – a collection of venues along the East Coast that catered to African American artists and audiences. The Chitlin’ Circuit operated at the height of the Jim Crow era, which saw the implementation of oppressive segregation laws in the American South in the mid-1900s.
According to BlackPast.org, during Chuck Berry’s performance in the summer of 1956 approximately 70,000 people came to Carr’s Beach for his performance, but only 8,000 made it through the doors due to safety precautions.
As the Civil Rights movement picked up steam in the 1960s, so did the music and culture the African American communities at Carr’s Beach held dear.
Notable jazz musicians performed each Sunday including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. As the genre of rock’n’roll began to emerge, early pioneers such as Fats Domino and Buddy Holly made stops at the famous spot. Little Richard, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin also made appearances throughout the Carr summers.
When the segregation of races was made illegal by President Lyndon Johnson with the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Jim Crow was outlawed. African Americans who were once loyal to Carr’s Beach out of necessity wanted to visit other beaches they were once prohibited from enjoying.
This led to a decline in the number of visitors to Carr’s Beach, and by 1962, after James Brown’s performance, which drew 11,000 spectators, there were no longer large crowds at the once-popular venue.
Today, Carr’s beach itself no longer exists. In its place sits a luxury condominium resort; the legacy of the good times once had dancing on the shore remaining as memories. Additionally, the Carr and Sparrow families have seen very little of the wealth that their land carried, Dr Kahrl said.
‘It typifies the state of many former black beach resorts,’ he continued. ‘It was acquired by developers in the 1970s and was turned into a gated community with the marina – homes there are very expensive and cater to very exclusive crowds.
‘The land itself is virtually unrecognizable from what it was – the shoreline was completely transformed by developers. There’s nothing there that you could even make out what it used to be.’
Atlantic Beach, South Carolina
In the swampy Sea Islands of South Carolina lies Atlantic Beach, which is better known as ‘The Black Pearl’.
Its nickname reflects the crowd it drew after its establishment as a vacation hub for primarily wealthy African American physicians from North and South Carolina in the 1940s to 1950s.
It was first founded in the 1930s for the same reason as Carr’s and Sparrow’s beach – a safe place for black community members to swim, fish and dance in the sand without the threat of prejudice.
Like Highland Beach, Atlantic Beach became its own municipality in 1966, making it one of the few African American owned and governed beach communities in America. The town celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Its history, however, runs much deeper than the reveling crowds it drew in the 20th century.
The first foundation of Atlantic Beach and surrounding Sea Islands was by the Gullah-Geechee people, descendants of slaves who were brought to the United States from West Africa centuries ago. After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the Gullah-Geechee people took over the lands of their former masters and made them their own.
The Gullah-Geechees still live in pockets throughout the coast of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, where they practice a unique culture, speak their own language, and live life connected to their indigenous roots. To this day, they make sweetgrass baskets, bury their dead by sea and live off the land like the generations before them did.
In an effort to revitalize visitation to Atlantic Beach, which also experienced a decline after Jim Crow was outlawed, city officials instituted the Gullah-Geechee Festival, which takes place every August and draws scores of visitors interested in the community’s history.
The town has also begun an annual celebration of what they call ‘Black Biker Week’ – which has caused strife between them and the neighboring town of Myrtle Beach.
Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard – Massachusetts
African American residence in Martha’s Vineyard began in the Oak Bluffs neighborhood at a small inn called Shearer Cottage, which was established in 1912.
It was founded by Charles Shearer, a former slave who was rescued by Union soldiers during the Civil War. He was found chained up in a barn by his master who had abandoned him there.
Charles went on to attend Hampton University, a historically black university, in Virginia and saw a business opportunity when he realized that black residents in Martha’s Vineyard weren’t allowed to rent homes there during segregation.
He purchased the cottage in Oak Bluffs, which he opened to any African Americans wanting to visit the area who couldn’t find lodging elsewhere.
Charles’ granddaughter Doris Pope Jackson is still living, and described her grandfather as ‘tall and straight and handsome’.
‘He was articulate — you’d always see him in a starched shirt and tie and a Panama hat, always very proud. He was about six feet two. He was like a prince and he looked like one,’ she said in an oral history interview published in the Vineyard Gazette.
As Shearer Cottage began to gain recognition, it drew African American visitors from all over the northeast. Primarily, its first guests were the ‘Black Brahmin’ – elite African American families with deep roots in Boston.
‘The guests were very prosperous people. All of these blacks were very well educated,’ Doris continued. ‘Artists, judges, lawyers, principals of schools, teachers, congressmen, they all stayed up at Shearer Cottage.
‘Everyone says that Shearer Cottage has a special feeling,’ she said.
Some even fell in love with the area after visiting and decided to settle. One such resident was Dorothy West, a writer who was instrumental during the Harlem Renaissance, a time of great evolution for the African American identity in New York in the 1920s.
As time passed, the West home and Oak Bluffs as a whole retained its historic reverence. Last year, Charles Shearer’s work and community were featured in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
More recently, Oak Bluffs made headlines with another of its frequent visitors: President Barack Obama and his family. With First Lady Michelle, Malia and Sasha in tow, the four were seen often during his presidency vacationing in the area. President Obama could be spotted often at the Farm Neck Golf Club there teeing up a few holes, and occasionally the family would hit up a local food joint, Nancy’s.
Dr Krahl said: ‘I’m sure the Obamas helped raise its profile, but it seems that has long been recognized by African Americans across the country as a summer place of their own.’
Sag Harbor, New York
Just after World War II, homes were sold to working-class African-American families for just a few hundred dollars in Sag Harbor, New York.
Today, beachfront property in the quiet, affluent neighborhood has soared to tens of millions of dollars and hosts some of the nation’s wealthiest African American residents.
Sag Harbor and the neighboring beaches of Ninevah and Azurest were the first African American developments in the Hamptons, which now carry the reputation of glitz and glamour on New York’s Long Island.
Though many of the homeowners in Sag Harbor are still African American, gentrification has changed the area – as it has with many historically black neighborhoods in New York City.
Dr Krahl said: ‘A resident of Sag Harbor reached out to me in 2016 because there’s an effort to help address the problem that many folks who live there – longtime homeowners – were facing out of this intensive appreciation in property values and tense development pressures in the area, in an effort to preserve Sag Harbor’s cultural identity.’
From talking to many longtime residents of the community, it appeared that many felt they were being pushed out by extremely wealthy investors and developers moving in on the once affordable properties.
‘Some of whom are buying older homes – cottages that once gave that area its identity and defined it being torn down and replaced with these big gaudy mansions,’ he continued.