Historically black beach enclaves are fighting to save their history and identity


By Troy McMullen | Chicago Tribune

Sag Harbor Hills and the neighboring districts of Ninevah Beach and Azurest are unique among beach communities in the Hamptons, the collection of affluent towns on the eastern end of New York’s Long Island long known for attracting wealthy summer residents.

Founded in the village of Sag Harbor after World War II, in an era of deep segregation in the United States, they were home to a robust African American population. Developers offered parcels of land in parched areas of the village for just a few hundred dollars or more. Working-class black families purchased much of the land, eventually creating several communities linked by dirt roads along Route 114.

Though their roots are working class, these neighborhoods of modest ranch houses and bungalows today are a haven for middle-class and upper middle-class black families, populated by doctors and lawyers, artists and academics. They rank as the oldest African American developments in the Hamptons and are among a handful of beach communities in the United States with African American roots.

The racial makeup of the districts kept home prices down for decades with many white buyers choosing to live in other parts of the village.

Yet that is changing as home prices in the Hamptons continue to rise, says Dianne McMillan Brannen, a broker with Douglas Elliman who has lived in Ninevah for more than 25 years. “Investors are being lured to these areas now and are looking for bargains,” she says. She estimates that about a dozen homes sold to investors last summer, up from four or five the previous year. “We welcome investment, but there is a real concern that these areas will lose the cultural identity that made them distinctive.”

Sag Harbor is not alone. Across the country, some historically black beach communities that have long escaped major property development and an influx of real estate investors are increasingly fending off both.

– – –

As values soar in surrounding locations, pricing out many second home buyers, historically black beach enclaves from American Beach near Jacksonville, Florida, to South Carolina’s rural Sea Islands are seeing sharp increases in development and new home buyers.

Like gentrification debates raging in largely urban areas across the nation, the increase in new money, along with a generational shifts, is sparking concerns in some historically black beach communities about the possible loss of their culture and identity.

“The irony is that many of these places were deemed undesirable when African Americans first moved there,” says historian Andrew W. Kahrl, author of “The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South.” “Some of these areas are gold mines today, but those luxury resorts in parts of coastal Georgia, South Carolina and around the Chesapeake were havens for African American life and culture.”

Historically black beach communities date back as far as the 1930s in a handful of coastal areas across the United States. Many sprang up during segregation when blacks were either barred from whites-only beaches or simply unwelcomed. While most were in the South, many took shape in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, evolving into beachheads for thriving economic and social life for African Americans.

Audrey Davis grew up spending her summers in Highland Beach, a historic African American enclave near Annapolis, Maryland. The town was a haven for affluent black Washingtonians seeking refuge from segregation and drew many black intellectuals including Paul Robeson, Booker T. Washington and Langston Hughes.

Her grandfather, teacher and author Arthur P. Davis, purchased the land in the 1940s and built the wooden, two-story home that her parents still own today. “It was actually made from reclaimed wood from a whites-only hotel across the street,” says Davis, who is director of the Alexandria Black History Museum in Virginia. “Our whole family would gather there in the summer because we cherished the sense of community.”

But, she says, there is not a month that goes by that her parents do not receive a letter or two in their mailbox asking if they would consider selling the house. Though the waterfront community is relatively small – about 100 year-round residents – there has been a gradual uptick in home sales the past few years. The once-remote location of Highland Beach is slowly growing more integrated, with about 20 white and five Hispanic residents making Highland Beach their home, according to census data.

“Younger people looking for an affordable home on the water are mostly interested in the area,” she says. “My hope is that newer people to the community will have the same sense of its history and importance as we do.”

African American homeownership along South Carolina’s Sea Islands dates to 1865 when the Union army issued orders to give freed black men the island chain and abandoned rice plantations. Despite decades of decline, fueled by ravaging storms and overzealous development, a dwindling number of black families still live and work on the islands today.

Known as the Gullah, they are descendants of enslaved Africans who lived in the Lowcountry regions of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

A firm population count of blacks on the Sea Islands is difficult to obtain. But as part of an application for protected status in 2005, the Gullah/Geechee estimated their total population in the Carolinas, Georgia and northern Florida at 200,000, according to Marquetta Goodwine, co-founder of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition.

Though much of the island chain in South Carolina has been declared a Cultural Heritage Corridor by the National Park Service, that has not stopped developers from chipping away at waterfront locations. Property projects large and small now dot many locations, and some locals fear it will eventually resemble Hilton Head, the upmarket waterfront resort in South Carolina that was once home to the Gullahs.

“They’re communicating with the developers, but when you have a multimillion-dollar development coming into an area, it’s always going to be an unequal conversation,” says Bernie Mazyck, president of the South Carolina Association of Community Development Corporations.

Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, a sliver of Martha’s Vineyard that is home to a lively African American population, has long attracted wealthy second home buyers. But the town holds a unique history for African Americans.

Located seven miles off the Cape Cod coastline, on the northern tip of the Vineyard, its harbor drew freed slaves and laborers in the 18th century and white locals sold them land. The town eventually became a popular destination for freed blacks, who came to work in the fishing industries.

In the late 19th and 20th centuries, middle-class blacks began buying and renting summer homes in Oak Bluffs, eventually turning the town into a mecca for successful African Americans. Martin Luther King Jr. vacationed in Oak Bluffs, as did Joe Louis, Harry Belafonte and Dorothy West, a Harlem Renaissance writer. Barack Obama made regular trips to the town during his time in office.

Oak Bluffs Beach, known as the Inkwell, is a famed stretch of sand some say was named by Harlem Renaissance writers who came to the Vineyard and found inspiration near the water and thus named the beach that was once segregated from the white beach.

Yet despite its history and oceanfront location, Oak Bluffs has not experienced the same kind of real estate squeeze as other historically black beach communities, says Richard Taylor, a real estate executive and director of the Center for Real Estate at Suffolk University in Boston. He is also the author of “Martha’s Vineyard: Race, Property, and the Power of Place.” He credits local officials, who have tightened already demanding rules on residential development to fend off new buyers’ dreams of building larger homes closer to the ocean.

And while the town has seen a fair share of new buyers – white and black – the Vineyard’s long history of celebrating African American culture has kept it as a vibrant location for black homeowners, Taylor says. “We have film festivals and book clubs and churches all dedicated to the history and culture of African American life,” says Taylor, who has owned a home in the East Chop section of Oak Bluffs since the 1970s. He pointed to the popularity of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard, a preservation effort started in 1997 by a local high school teacher. “Black culture is deeply integrated into a way of life on the Vineyard, and that’s helped keep this history vibrant and alive.”

In Sag Harbor, the influx of money underscores the challenges facing many historically black beaches. While home prices and the pace of sales are falling across the Hamptons, Sag Harbor is bucking the downward trend.

Last year, the median price of a house in the Hamptons fell 5.3 percent from 2015, while the number of sales was down 13.7 percent, according to appraiser Jonathan Miller. But Sag Harbor saw a 25 percent increase in the median home sale price in 2016 compared with a year earlier, rising from $1.2 million to $1.5 million.

Though homes in the historically black sections of Sag Harbor have not yet reached those sales levels, prices are rising, says Frank Wimberley, a 90-year-old artist who has kept a home in Sag Harbor Hills almost half his lifetime. Still active today, the abstract painter creates new works in a studio at the back of his modest beach bungalow.

“It’s worrisome because it’s beginning to feel like a takeover,” he says. “These areas were born when blacks were unwelcome in a lot of places. And for me and many longtime residents, they will always be places of special significance.”

Brannen, the broker with Douglas Elliman, is more blunt. “Rising home values are good, but eventually this part of Sag Harbor will look like just another upscale beach resort,” she says. “And I don’t think anyone wants that.” ■

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

scroll to top