U.S. Beaches - Black American History Edition

Segregation is endemic in American history, and still a major issue that impacts us today. During the Jim Crow era, people of color were prohibited from enjoying public beaches, especially south of the Mason-Dixon line. It is hard to believe that at one point in time something as ubiquitous as a beach couldn’t be shared with someone of a different skin color.

This was an issue throughout the entire US, and black people were often relegated to dangerous swimming conditions with no lifeguards. This led to the death of many young African Americans while trying to enjoy one of life’s basic pleasures.

Black communities for many years would revolt by ignoring the laws of segregation. Oftentimes this would lead to riots where white people and police officers would fight and arrest black people refusing to abide by these imaginary lines that have erroneous limits. In 1919, a black Chicagoan teenager, Eugene Williams, was stoned to death by a white man because he accidentally drifted over a “colored line” in Lake Michigan.

These circumstances and restrictions caused many black families to avoid beaches altogether. Those that still wanted to enjoy the beach were forced to open a market for “colored only” beaches.  These included Garr’s Beach’s off the Chesapeake Bay, opened in 1926, and American Beach, just north of Jacksonville, FL opened in the 1930’s. Garr’s beach became a safe-haven for many black Americans, and people would visit from all over the country. “In Pittsburgh, we never had such a waterfront beach presence, so to see thousands of Black people having so much fun in bathing suits, and picnicking and just having a flat-out ball, I knew it was something unique, and now I realize it was part of Black history,” said Darryl Dunn, a Pittsburgher who traveled to Garr’s Beach with his girlfriend at the time. Garr’s beach had several performances of rock stars and icons including Chuck Berry and James Brown. A beach anyone would love to enjoy!

In 1945, just south of Miami Beach, FL in Key Biscayne, seven black Americans performed a “wade-in” (similar to a “sit-in”) as a peaceful protest. The police were called, but they were advised to not use force against the protestors. This outcry pushed for major change, having the city create a “black only” beach on Virginia Key. This is a big deal considering the population at the time was one third African Americans and Bahamians. Black only beaches popped up in many parts of the country after demonstrations by black communities demanding places to relax and enjoy the beach.

Dr. Gilbert Mason Sr was passionate that all Americans should have access to beaches maintained by American taxpayers’ dollars, so he led many “wade-ins” in the Gulf of Mexico waters of Biloxi, Mississippi. Unfortunately, these peaceful protests were often responded to with violence, but finally in 1968 the justice department of Mississippi, permitted public beaches open to all, regardless of color. 

The powerful change created by these groups of people, communities, cultures, and humans is truly inspiring for what they have achieved. America’s Black history is full of pain, power, and perseverance, which is the essence of this Black History Montage. The ability to enjoy beaches without fear of discrimination, like other basic rights, should be inalienable, and I am honored to be able to write about the people who led the way to create such freedoms. Let’s be inspired by our history, learn from it, and make sure that today’s inequalities, rooted in our past ways of injustice, are eradicated once and for all.



At 40 seconds in on this Black History Montage shows an image of Virginia Key Beach segregation in just last century.

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