Locals recall the fun, frustration of old segregated beaches
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Reginald Robinson went to a talk about Hampton’s Buckroe Beach in 2013 and he left hot - it had nothing to do with the summer heat.
Only whites were allowed on its sand for many of its 121-year history.
“What about Bay Shore?” someone asked. It was a beach that bordered Buckroe but was separated by a fence.
“Oh,” the speaker said. “That was just a little place for the coloreds.”
Some of Robinson’s best childhood memories were on that “little place.”
“Coloreds. In 2013? That was the igniter in the dynamite,” Robinson said recently. “How can you call six acres, and the list of entertainers like Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong who played there a little place for coloreds?”
This has been a summer to remember. Local cities have held ceremonies to recognize segregated beaches of the past, but people who lived that history want to make sure that the complete story is not forgotten.
In June, the state’s Department of Historic Resources installed a marker to recognize the Bay Shore Hotel. Last month, Norfolk unveiled signage at the area of East Beach that was once the blacks-only City Beach.
Kathleen Edwards, a Norfolk historian, spoke at the ceremony. Weeks before, she attended a presentation in Virginia Beach about Seaview, one of that city’s segregated resorts.
Edwards left that event feeling that too much of the story was whitewashed. In more ways than one.
Robinson says young people need to appreciate how easy it is for them to move around. Edwards agrees. But the beaches, because of the fight to have them, became the place to finally breathe in salt air and to exhale.
“The white residents around City Beach, heckled us, had cars towed, etc.,” said Edwards, who now lives in Virginia Beach. “But we went in droves anyway because finally we had some place that was for us.”
The first local bathing spots for African Americans were provided by African Americans.
Bay Shore, for example, opened in 1898 when a group pooled its money to buy a recreation spot for students at what is now Hampton University. A hotel was built, and the area later welcomed vacationers.
In Newport News, a well-known tailor, Ward Pinkett, allowed locals on his waterfront lot, and it became known as Pinkett’s beach (now part of the city’s King-Lincoln Park).
In the early 1900s, Norfolk banned blacks - more than a third of its population - from its 20-plus miles of waterfront property.
Around 1905, African American businessman Lem Bright built shelters for bathers on his land near Little Willoughby Bay and Mason’s Creek. It became known as “Lem Bright’s Place” or “Little Bay Beach” and was immensely popular. During one event, more than 2,500 crammed onto the three-acre lot.
The community appreciated Bright’s generosity, but they felt its tax dollars should fund a public beach.
“It is entirely too small,” read a letter about Bright’s place in the Sept. 24, 1927 edition of the Norfolk Journal and Guide.
“Here could be a place provided by the city, an ideal recreation park for its colored citizens.”
A year later, most of Bright’s beach buildings were consumed in a mysterious fire. The Guide reported that it was likely set by disgruntled whites. The story also said the arsonists were probably among those who appeared at a zoning meeting and shut down African Americans’ requests to rebuild.
The Guide, one of the country’s oldest African American newspapers, kept summer tallies of the residents who were drowning in Norfolk’s creeks. Eventually, empathetic white citizens joined in the pleas for a beach.
In 1930, more than 1,500 people packed a city council meeting about a beach. White opponents lined up to protest that their Ocean View property values would plummet if the council made way for the “darkies.”
African American attorney J. Eugene Diggs stood and told the all-white council what it didn’t want to hear: The African American populace could push to integrate the white beaches. The only reason why it hadn’t was to keep peace.
“The Negro has waived his rights for this reason so long that many of you have come to believe that he has no rights,” he said. “But I am wondering if the time has not come when the colored man will have to stop waiving his basic citizenship rights.”
Council voted that day to buy property for a segregated beach.
After a lengthy court battle with opponents of the beach, Norfolk settled on a remote piece of land across the city line in Princess Anne County, away from its white businesses. City Beach was in use by 1934 and officially opened the next year.
Meanwhile, other locales were carving out segregated watering holes: Plantation Beach near Dozier’s Corner in Norfolk County opened in 1931. Wise’s beach, a bathing site for whites near Portsmouth, was converted into the Western Branch Colored Beach Club in 1934. In 1933, Rockaway Beach opened near Dam Neck close to Virginia Beach.
That same year, white businessman John C. Davis opened Ocean Breeze Beach and Amusement Park for African Americans near the Lynnhaven Inlet. It would have ice cream, soda, hot dog and hamburger stands, a dance pavilion and bus service from Norfolk to the beach for 35 cents.
“The informal opening, on May 30, will make history for Norfolk as this will be the first time that Negroes will have had a local beach worthy of note,” read the Guide in a May 27, 1933, issue.
Many felt the fight was only entering another round.
For those without bus fare or cars, these beaches might as well have been a world away. In addition, the Depression strained the idea of travel and leisure. Most of the beaches, like Wise’s, would close after a decade.
Andrew W. Kahrl, associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Virginia, has made race and real estate a focus of his research.
Author of the recently released book “Free the Beaches,” he penned an essay that ran in The New York Times in May titled “The North’s Jim Crow.”
He mentioned a couple of times this year when people called the police on African Americans enjoying public space. In April, two men in Philadelphia were arrested while sitting in a Starbucks waiting for a friend. Later that month, a white woman called the police on two black men who were grilling in an Oakland park.
“Like most middle-aged white people, I have spent countless hours in Starbucks without buying anything. Plenty of white people have barbecued, blasted music and drunk alcohol at that same Oakland park, without anyone calling the police,” Kahrl wrote in his opinion piece.
“The selective enforcement of minor ordinances, as many critics note, performs the same work today that segregation laws did in the past.”
Kahrl has studied the bumpy history of Hampton Roads beaches.
Even when African Americans received some beach space, Kahrl said in a phone interview, localities introduced obstacles to make it difficult for them to enjoy it.
Lula Sears Rogers is the youngest of 15 children in her family. An older brother, Alfred Emanuel Sears, drowned at City Beach in 1934 before she was born.
Alfred, 13, was pulled from the water and bystanders, a white officer and a lifeguard from a nearby white YMCA beach. They kept him alive with CPR for 1½ hours waiting for Norfolk’s rescue squad. At first, the fire department told callers that it couldn’t work outside of the city. A black minister called the city manager, who then ordered the squad to respond. By the time they arrived, rigor mortis had begun to set in, according to a news article.
Sears said the family story was that city wasn’t going to respond to the black beach. The Searses were a well-known Norfolk family. After the public outcry over their son’s death, the city changed its policy to respond to future calls.
In 1938, Virginia Beach required blacks who worked at the resort or in the nearby homes to be fingerprinted, photographed and registered with the police.
Kahrl wrote in a study about the history of Virginia Beach that the town, in effect, “made being black, not at work, and anywhere near the beach a criminal act.”
That’s how many African Americans were feeling in the months following the opening of Ocean Breeze, off of Shore Drive.
Law enforcement had an African American man wait on the road near the beach to try to hitch a ride. When a driver stopped, he would insist on giving the driver gas money. Most drivers refused, but a few didn’t. The driver would continue down the road where a state highway patrolman was waiting. The hired man would throw up his hands in surrender and the officer would stop the car. The driver was then charged with operating a car for hire without a license. The minimum fine was $50.
Davis, the white vice-president of the venue, wrote a letter to the state motor vehicle commissioner complaining about the harassment. African American drivers were also being charged and arrested for speeding when they weren’t and for incorrect turns or “passing another car on a curve” when there was no curve.
“We are not writing in any petty spirit,” Davis wrote, “but we are simply appealing to you in order that this whole matter of petty persecution of Negroes who are using our bathing beach may be crushed in the bud.”
In 1951, a group of African Americans filed a lawsuit after they were told they couldn’t enter Seashore State Park in Princess Anne County. The only state park for blacks was three hours away in Prince Edward County. The lawsuit was put on hold to await the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which was testing integration in public schools. After the Supreme Court ruled against segregation in public schools, the state eventually opted to close Seashore in 1955 instead of opening it to blacks.
The state reopened the campground in 1963, but kept the beach and cabins closed. The full park reopened the following year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in public places. The park later became known as First Landing State Park.
People like Clifton Barnhill remember that there was fun along with the tough stuff.
His grandparents were caretakers of City Beach in the 1950s, and he lived with them in the cinderblock house on the beach’s edge.
It was Barnhill’s job to unlock the gates to the beach in the mornings, and the summers were glorious because he had a city of folks to play with.
But it was a lonely place in the off-season. Most of the nearby white families wouldn’t allow their children to play with Barnhill. Some of the Navy families, who were accustomed to integrated beaches on the base, welcomed his family, and sometimes invited his family into their homes for dinner.
Sarah Peoples Perry, a retired educator, loved City Beach. Many members of her church were baptized in its waters.
On weekends, families packed enough food to feed a village and the families shared their chicken, potato salad and homemade cakes with people sitting around them.
Her favorite place might have been Seaview, a segregated beach that opened in Princess Anne County in 1945. Seaview was named “Virginia’s Best Known Negro Resort” in 1947.
Perry would often go with a woman she knew to help clean the rooms that were for rent over the dance hall. Perry loved hanging out in the hall and watching the adults dance.
“People who stayed at the hotel would grab you and say, ‘Let’s dance,’ ” she said. “That’s where I learned to swing dance.”
In Norfolk County, young people could go to Sunset Lake Park, which opened in 1955 in Deep Creek. They could see concerts featuring James Brown, Ben E. King and B.B. King.
Reginald Robinson, who had so been angered by that 2013 talk about the Hampton beaches, grew up Richmond. His mother talked about her young days at Bay Shore in Hampton.
When he was a child in the 1960s, the family piled into the car for the drive to Hampton, because that was the closest resort for African Americans. Even after the Civil Rights Act, he remembered the whites still stuck to their side of Buckroe.
Bay Shore had concessions, rides and games - and a funhouse that he was too afraid to go into.
“Bay Shore,” he said, “Was the paradise of the south.”
He wanted to know more about the beach and spent hours in the Hampton University archives collecting information.
He then started an annual event to recognize Bay Shore; last year he established a Bay Shore Hall of Fame to remember those who played a role in making Bay Shore that paradise he remembered.
More than 200 people came to the event held at the Hampton History Museum. He’s expecting more at the Sept. 22 program as he is commemorating the 120th anniversary of when the beach opened. One of the inductees includes Chuck “Guitar” Chavis, a local musician who performed at Bay Shore before it closed in 1974.
Robinson said he pays for the program out of his pocket, but he asks people to bring old photos and their stories so that a complete history of the beach can be told.
“They reconnect, they get together, it brings back memories that they forgot,” Robinson said. “You should just see the smiles on their faces.”
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com