In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation made slavery in the United States illegal. African American’s were declared free men, but the roots of racial prejudice ran deep. As the tourism industry grew in America, African Americans had to create their own vacation spots that were free from the fear of discrimination and violence. Because of latent Jim-Crow era racism, there were few beaches African Americans could visit without the fear of discrimination or violence.
The first African American Beach resort was Highland Beach in Maryland. After personally experiencing racial prejudice, Frederick Douglas’ youngest son bought 40 acres of land to create an escape for African American’s seeking a safe retreat. The beach was officially founded in 1893, and quickly became the summer getaway for prominent men like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. Families also flocked there, laying the foundation for a community that is still active today.
As Highland Beach flourished, two other summer communities grew in Annapolis. In the early 1900’s, the Carr family purchased acreage on the Peninsula. After seeing the market for African-American friendly resorts, the Carr family founded Carr’s Beach Resort. In 1931, the family expanded their operation and opened a separate beach called Sparrow Beach on land just north of Carr’s.
Beaches like these can be found all along the east coast. From Oaks Bluff in Massachusetts to Atlantic Beach in South Carolina, these getaways were hubs for African American culture. Carr’s held an annual beauty pageant for black women and became a jazz hotspot. Artists like Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown performed at the Carr’s Beach venue, and even began attracting an interracial crowd.
When segregation became illegal in 1964, African American beaches both failed and flourished. Some beaches experienced a steep decline, as their visitors were now able to explore other vacation spots.
Gentrification has also affected original residents throughout the years as property prices rise to extreme heights. Communities that were originally occupied by more “elite” African Americans—like Oak’s Bluff in Martha’s Vineyard—have been able to maintain their legacy.
These summer communities are an often overlooked American subculture that helped preserve the sovereignty of African American culture.