History rarely makes a place for Black leisure in the era of segregation. But North Carolina’s coast was once a destination for middle-class Black people.
Shell Island. The Wilmington-area isle next to Wrightsville Beach has been a family-friendly resort and tourist destination for decades, dating back to the 1920s. Prosperous families from all over the South and East Coast come to relax in the sun.
The difference between then and now? Most visitors to the early 20th century resort were Black.
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Popular culture rarely considers moments of Black joy in the Segregation Era. But luxury and leisure were not foreign to wealthy and upwardly aspiring Black Americans, or their less solvent kin, and they meant to live as full lives as possible. That included beachfront recreation, even under segregation.
“There were only some places Blacks could go. You didn’t just go anywhere,” explained retired educator Richard Newkirk, who grew up in nearby Pender County. An informal historian of the area, Newkirk recalled using “Colored” and “White” facilities as late as 1969.
“You have to see through the eyes of the times, or you’ll miss the complete picture,” he cautioned.
Despite being an affront to their Constitutional rights, in a strange twist these segregated spaces often offered Black people a bit of refuge. To sit unbothered on the sand and enjoy the waves with loved ones, away from the potential volatility and violence of white citizens, was a balm for the soul.
Cash, Color and Compromise
In the 1920s, Black citizens near Wilmington had few opportunities for recreational activity. For about 20 years, they had petitioned for beach access at Wrightsville and lobbied to create their own segregated beaches on small, relatively undesirable stretches of coast. Each time, these petitions were denied.
“Local property owners would argue that it was going to make property values go down, but they just didn’t want to be in proximity to African Americans,” Wilmington historian and political science scholar Marc Farinella told Cardinal & Pine.
Just a generation prior, the Wilmington insurrection of 1898 had been a bloody massacre. In the only successful coup on American soil, whites angered by newly freed men and women’s political and financial successes overthrew the democratically elected government and installed a cabal of their own.
“Not only did they change the government, Jim Crow laws came into existence after that,” Newkirk said. “The federal government did not stop them.”
Prior to the Nov. 10 attack, three out of the city’s ten aldermen were Black, and there were Black police officers, firefighters, and magistrates. By the day’s end, between 60 and 300 Blacks had been murdered or run out of town, their businesses burned to the ground.
But amid the violent victory, the insurrectionists created an unforeseen problem: They sparked a mass exodus.
Black residents left the region in droves, setting their sites on the better economic and social opportunities of the North. It 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 needed to find ways to slow the flow of African-American labor to Northern cities. And so increasingly white business leaders became supportive of the idea that, well, we need to do something to improve the quality of life and economic and recreational opportunities for Blacks around Wilmington,” Farinella said.
Though repeatedly shut down by more virulent racists, a number of white business leaders supported this trade-off, including Thomas H. Wright, the mayor of Wrightsville. A relative of the famed Wright Brothers and a developer and real estate financier by profession, once he completed his term in office he formed a company called Home Realty. With two partners, Charles Parmalee and Robert Northrup, Wright began creating a beach resort for Black people, not on Wrightsville Beach but neighboring Shell Island.
Located to the north of Wrightsville Beach and separated by an inlet, the attractive marshes and beach invited fishing, swimming and bird watching. The summer resort had beach access, boardwalks, concession stands and vendors, plus a large pavilion for live music and dancing, and the island could be accessed via a streetcar and ferry combination. Transportation was structured so that white people never shared a trolley car with Shell Island visitors.
Aside from the hotels and restaurants, Home Realty planned to make money by selling about 270 lots and cottages near the beach to middle-class Blacks, who by 1925 were flocking from all over the country to this island resort.
“Their vision was really audacious and extraordinary,” Farinella told Cardinal & Pine. “This is a bunch of white business guys planning a planned community for African Americans centered around a beach resort…I don’t think there was anything like this in the nation at that point.”
There were a few beaches across the South that Black citizens had access to: Atlantic Beach in South Carolina; Highland Beach, Maryland; and Florida’s Virginia Key Beach. Most were Black-owned, private properties with fewer amenities and in less desirable locations.
Shell Island targeted middle-class Blacks who could afford to take time away from work and purchase summer cottages. That 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 partner company to Home Realty, the Shell Island Beach Development Company, to help promote the resort.
The place opened for business in 1923 on 70 acres of land, and thousands of visitors flocked to it. It was a destination for wealthier Black citizens in the Eastern US, but it wouldn’t last long. Within three years, it had burned to the ground.
A Class Concern
Despite the strong support of both middle-class Blacks and white business owners, Home Realty had trouble selling lots – the company’s main projected source of revenue. Out of the 270 lots available, they only succeeded in selling two, according to land transfer records.
Interracial class struggles might have played a part. While it’s true that upwardly mobile Black Wilmingtonians frequented Shell Island, the bulk of their monied patronage came from the Northeast. North and South Carolinians were plainer people, among them manual laborers and mill workers who sacrificed and saved for a couple of days of leisure in the sun.
“[They] were working 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 who wanted to come to the beach.”
The visitors seemed to be economically mixed – and that may have caused some tension.
“The wealthier African Americans who were struggling to be perceived as, I don’t know what would be the right term, but more legitimate in the eyes of white people, didn’t want to be closely associated with [poorer] African Americans,” Farinella said.
Poorer visitors may have also bought lots on installment plans, which require borrowers to make all the payments in full before a deed is transferred. These would have likely had higher interest rates and been subject to forfeiture if borrowers couldn’t make their payments, if they had a poor growing season or other such misfortune.
Either way, developers had a problem. If the affluent target market they hoped to sell cottages to was turned off by the resort’s less elite guests who couldn’t afford them, there was no way to make a return on their investment. A well-timed series of fires in 1926 ended those dreams.
Shell Island remained undeveloped for four more decades, until the inlet separating it from Wrightsville filled in and houses began springing up on its south end in the late 1960s. It is now a prominent resort area.
Though short-lived, Shell Island’s segregated legacy will not be forgotten. For a shining moment in North Carolina history, the beach provided much more than rest and recreation for Black and brown visitors. It was a site of resistance, where they quietly staked their claim to the pursuit of happiness.