By Constance Mitchell Ford
Nearly 100 years ago, a Black family owned a resort in an area that is now part of Manhattan Beach, Calif. The Bruce family’s property thrived by catering to African-Americans from Los Angeles, and, over the years, a community of Black homeowners sprang up around the resort.
But in 1924, under pressure from white residents nearby, the town shut down the resort and forced the family to sell its property to the city. The town is now considering returning the land to descendants of the Bruce family as restitution, according to the New York Times .
That story made us wonder — how many predominately Black vacation-home communities were there in the U.S. historically, and how many still exist today?
For the answer, we talked with Andrew Kahrl, a history professor at the University of Virginia and author of “The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South.”
At the start of the 20 century, according to Kahrl, there were hundreds of predominantly Black beach and lakefront communities from sea to shining sea. But only a small number still exist today.
The creation of Black beach leisure destinations and vacation-home communities was somewhat accidental. After the Civil War, African-Americans began acquiring land in coastal areas largely because it was less expensive than inland property and there was an abundant supply.
The U.S. economy at the time was still heavily tied to agriculture, so coastal land was considered less attractive for farming because it was not as productive and more vulnerable to storms and extreme weather conditions. For African-Americans, however, such properties provided an escape from the discrimination they faced in the broader community and an opportunity to become independent landowners.
In the early 1900s, when Americans began to flock to the ocean for leisure, “some African-Americans were able to capitalize on their land by turning the properties into seaside resorts” and by selling small lots of farmland to other Black families to build vacation homes, said Kahrl. The type of communities varied. “Some were the exclusive havens for the Black elite and were very insular while others were much more commercial places for the general Black public.”
After the 1964 Civil Rights Act desegregated public accommodations, including restaurants, hotels and beaches, most of the Black commercial destinations and vacation-home communities disappeared. Many were sold — sometimes by force and sometimes by mutual agreement — to white real- estate companies and redeveloped.
But a few historic Black vacation-home communities remain today and are populated mainly by affluent families. Here are a few of the most popular communities. All are struggling to preserve their heritage, which isn’t easy at a time when demand for vacation homes from all Americans is strong.
Highland Beach, Md.
Located on the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis, Highland Beach is often listed as the oldest existing African-American vacation home community in the U.S. It attracts residents from Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. The area was founded in 1893 by Charles Douglass , a son of the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass . As legend has it, Charles Douglass purchased a 40-acre tract of land from a black farmer, then gifted or resold lots to friends and family. Later he purchased additional waterfront property and divided that land into lots as well, creating America’s first Black vacation-home community. Currently, prices for homes on the market range from $250,000 to $950,000. But buying a home in Highland Beach isn’t easy because inventory is low.
American Beach, Fl a.
Located on Amelia Island near Jacksonville, American Beach was founded in 1935 by Florida’s first black millionaire, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, who co-founded the Afro-American Life Insurance Co. Initially, most vacation-home owners and residents of American Beach were employees of Lewis’s life insurance company. But eventually, as hotels, entertainment venues and restaurants sprang up, American Beach attracted some of America’s most influential politicians, celebrities and athletes. American Beach began to decline in 1964 after Hurricane Dora destroyed many homes and businesses. The passage of the Civil Rights Act further eroded its popularity. Still, the American Beach Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. The beach still exists, although many of the Black families that once owned homes there migrated to other areas.
Sag Harbor, N.Y.
Located on the north shore of Long Island in the towns of East Hampton and Southampton, Sag Harbor is one of the most expensive and exclusive of the Black vacation-home communities. But it wasn’t always that way. When African-Americans from New York City began buying land in sections of Sag Harbor after World War II, prices were as little as $750 per lot and beachfront properties could be purchased for just $3,000. As a result, the area was affordable for affluent families and the working class alike. Today, second and third generations of families still own homes in Sag Harbor, along with some well-heeled newcomers. Black families live mainly in a few sections of the town, including Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest and a few others. Home prices start at about $500,000 and go well up into the millions.
Oak Bluffs, on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
Martha’s Vineyard has long been a well-known vacation-home community for affluent families from Washington, New York and Boston. But it wasn’t until former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, began visiting friends there that it became widely known that a part of Martha’s Vineyard is home to a large African-American community. The community is in the town of Oak Bluffs, and it has a long history. In the early 1900s when African-American professionals began looking for property to buy or build vacation homes, Oak Bluffs was the only town on Martha’s Vineyard that welcomed Black families. Oak Bluffs is famous for its Gingerbread houses, some of which have been owned by the same families for several generations. And like Sag Harbor, prices start at about $500,000 and run into the millions. (The Obamas purchased a home on Martha’s Vineyard two years ago, in nearby Edgartown.)