In 1947, Life Magazine published a photo essay on Seaview Beach calling it “Virginia’s best-known Negro resort.” The article noted that it drew up to 10,000 tourists on the weekends. Images showed well-to-do African-American professionals enjoying social life at the beach and adjacent amusement park. This was contrary to much of the negative media coverage of African Americans at the time and casts a light on a hidden upper-class population in Virginia.
The history of Seaview Beach and Amusement Park began in 1944, when three African-American professionals, with the help of Dudley Cooper, the driving force behind the all-white Ocean View Park, began construction on an amusement park designated for “coloreds only.” Twenty-one local African-American businessmen helped to fund the enterprise, which opened on May 30, 1945 on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. The park was wildly popular and featured famous musicians and artists such as Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino Jr.
In the early 1960s, desegregation rules led to open beaches for all races making separate beaches unnecessary. The amusement park, located on Shore Drive, operated until 1964 and was demolished in 1966. The space now houses a condominium complex called Seagate Colony Condos.
This amusement park was a vital part of Virginia’s upper and middle-class African-American society and its history is important to the area. Hampton Roads African Americans in particular were often stereotyped as economically and educationally disadvantaged. The Seaview Beach and Amusement Park history shows there are other race narratives showing African Americans in a more positive and advanced light.
The focus of this research is on the founders and businessmen whose vision enabled a vibrant space for African Americans as well as the use of the park as a space for recreation and social stratification during a period when African Americans were limited in the spaces that they could occupy.
Seaview Beach and Amusement Park
For many years, Seaview, Ocean Breeze, and City Beach had competing advertisements on the same page in the Norfolk Journal and Guide. Each, however, served their own purpose and audience.[i] Seaview was a resort for African Americans who were educated and affluent. Every week, the Social Whirl column in the newspaper mentioned who was seen at Seaview, often what they were wearing and what social activities were happening.
In 1945, a group of twenty-one successful African-American businessmen and professionals from Norfolk and Portsmouth pooled their money to create an elite space where they could flourish and enjoy leisure time without interference or harassment from whites.
The group, under the auspices of the Seaview Beach and Hotel Corporation, purchased a former club along with six and a half acres for $45,000. They also purchased a surrounding fifty-acre tract of land for $35,000 with the intention of dividing and selling lots for permanent resort homes.[ii]
At least three of the men were already well known for business ventures in the community; William T. Mason, said to be one of the first black millionaires in Virginia, Dr. Wilbur Watts, a Portsmouth dentist and local businessman and William E. Waters, principal of I.C. Norcom High School.[iii]
Mason served as president, Watts, vice-president, Rev. J. A. Handy, secretary and Dr. R.J. Brown, treasurer. The 17 other investors were named as the board of directors.[iv]
Seaview Beach was located on Bay Shore Drive, now called Shore Drive, near Seashore State Park.[v] This area was referred to locally as London Bridge.[vi] When Seaview opened, reviews in the newspaper were glowing, especially with descriptions of the white sand and colorful décor.
The former club was 300-foot long, two stories high and painted white with a red roof. A modern ballroom was the main attraction with 10 other rooms scattered throughout the building. Outside, the “Starlight Plaza,” an outdoor dance pavilion was “shaded by colorful umbrellas.”[vii]
The 20-year old building was originally built for the Knight’s Templar group. It was used for several years as a white dance club called the “Hygeia Club” and for another “swanky” beach club called “Club 500” before its sale to the Seaview founders.[viii]
There were many complaints at the time about currents and dangerous riptides at Ocean Breeze Park. The beach at Seaview, however, was described as a 700-foot shoreline with gradual descent and calm waters.[ix] The resort quickly drew large crowds. When the grand opening was held on Memorial Day, 1945, the attendance reached 2,500. The facilities were already booked as social organizations reserved spaces for their dances and events.[x]
“See You at Seaview” was the popular refrain among locals who visited the beach. The phrase was repeated often in the “Social Whirl” column of the newspaper.[xi] Weekly events often attracted hundreds of people. In 1945, over 700 people attended a sport dance and cocktail party, held for the “sweethearts and wives of the Seaman’s Club.”[xii]
Changes in operation
In 1946, Wilbur and Irving Watts filed a deed to lease the property for a five-year period. Their intention was to sublet the lease to the Seaview Amusement Company.[xiii]
Dudley Cooper, owner of Ocean View Amusement Park, along with seven other white men, was partners in this new company. They were to sub-lease all the facilities except for the “Club Room.”[xiv]
The Norfolk Journal and Guide reported the corporation was formed “out of the necessity of procuring new amusement features.” The article suggested Seaview founders were unable to purchase amusements and had to turn elsewhere for assistance. Under the agreement, the new corporation would only operate the amusements and concessions, not including the “hotel, bath facilities and picnic pavilion.”[xv]
The sublease continued for the duration of the park’s existence. Not all of the investors were pleased about the arrangement, however. In 1955, Jet Magazine’s Cocktail Chit Chat column reported a “Norfolk physician who invested $12,000 in Seaview Beach, the area’s Negro Coney Island, was peeved with the board of directors who leased the resort to white operators for $10,000 a year.”[xvi]
Dudley Cooper arranged for advertisements and the purchase of rides through the Seaview Amusement Corporation. In one correspondence with the Globe Poster Corporation, Cooper wrote “if possible would like to have the figures in the stock sheets shown as colored, perhaps in a light tan.”[xvii]
Several of the receipts in the Cooper’s archives at Old Dominion University identify the rides purchased for Seaview Park. In one letter to the Allan Herschell Company in 1946, Cooper indicated an order for amusement rides including a Carrousel [sic] for his “colored park” for $9,765.000.[xviii]
Seaview became popular quickly. Over the Fourth of July weekend in 1947, an estimated 15,000 people visited the beach.[xix] Dr. Irving Watts noted in a Norfolk Journal and Guide article that it was “not uncommon to see between 35 and 50 chartered buses at Seaview.”[xx]
One of the most popular events was the annual Miss Seaview Beach contest and the Miss Tidewater contest, both of which attracted crowds of over 1,000.[xxi] In 1954, the contest, co-sponsored by Seaview and the Norfolk Journal and Guide, drew a crowd of 3,500.[xxii] The Norfolk Journal and Guide called Seaview “Virginia’s only complete colored amusement park”[xxiii] and noted it had the largest crowd in its ten-year history with a Friday night crowd of 8,000 people.[xxiv]
In October of 1956, Billboard Magazine published an article about the success of the “Norfolk Trio” of amusements. The article noted in the previous year an “estimated two million people” had visited the three Norfolk area amusement parks with Ocean View at $1.5 million, Seaside at 400,000 and Seaview at 200,000.[xxv]
An incredible number of organizations used Seaview’s facilities for their weekly, monthly and annual events. The “Social Whirl” section of the Norfolk Journal and Guide regularly posted social activities held at the beach resort. These social club events often had large audiences.[xxvi] In 1947, a Eureka Club cotillion attracted 700 people.[xxvii]
A 1947 article in Life Magazine highlighted Seaview Beach. The magazine described the beach resort as a “gathering place for Norfolk’s Negro elite” and noted it was where “Norfolk’s social elite holds its formal dances.” The photograph showed a group of women in formal gowns standing next to Dr. Alfred Fentress, one of Seaview’s founders.[xxviii]
Dancing was perhaps the most popular attraction at Seaview. The ballroom was often reserved for informal dances for groups with names like the Kit Kat Club. Formal affairs, especially with fraternal organizations, were popular as well.[xxix] Organizations meeting at Seaview included financial clubs like the Morning Glory Social and Savings Club.[xxx] Churches, as well, regularly used the facilities to hold meetings, picnics and parties for ushers, choirs and Sunday school classes.[xxxi] The ballroom was not the only attraction however. Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops spent weekends camping at Seaview. In September of 1945, almost six hundred boy scouts participated in the “Makahiki” festival of games there.[xxxii]
Each year that Seaview was open, the owners added more attractions, bigger entertainment acts and facility upgrades. In 1946, in just the second year of operation, a $200,000 expansion was underway with a new restaurant, amusement rides, facility upgrades and Ferris wheel.[xxxiii] Opening day of 1947 featured a new $25,000 scooter car ride,[xxxiv] weekly fireworks and a parking lot that could accommodate hundreds of automobiles. The Norfolk Journal and Guide noted the park would employ over 100 people during the summer season and called Seaview “one of the leading resort centers in the nation.”[xxxv]
By 1947, plans included a one hundred-room fireproof hotel with an estimated cost of $350,000 and a 3,000-seat auditorium. A golf course and tennis courts were planned as well. During this period, attendance on Sundays ranged from eight to twelve thousand people.[xxxvi] In 1951, a new $50,000 picnic section that could accommodate 1,000 people was installed. The resort also hired ten African-American special police officers for the summer season.[xxxvii]
Amusements for Seaview’s sixth season included skeeball, a merry-go-round and sightseeing motorboats.[xxxviii] The rides, especially the Ferris wheel, were a large part of Seaview’s allure. The resort was described as having five “major-sized rides” and numerous others.[xxxix]
Over the years, free bus transportation was provided from stops in Norfolk and Portsmouth. The service was discontinued in 1951.[xl] In 1961, a special bus service operated by the “Seaview Social and Savings Club” offered $1 round trip tickets to the beach.[xli] Seaview owners continued to spend money for improvements. By 1956, new attractions included an Allan Herschell merry-go-round valued at $15,000, a $20,000 moon rocket ride and $50,000 worth of bumper cars.[xlii] Other new investments included a modern bathhouse with showers and lockers with “ a million dollar look.”[xliii]
In 1956, the Norfolk Journal and Guide reported Seaview owners had total investments reaching up to $1 million in land, buildings and amusement rides.[xliv] By 1957, the 40-room hotel was entirely renovated, all rides were overhauled and a new bathhouse had been built.[xlv]
Entertainment was a huge draw for the resort. As an amusement park, it featured the typical oddities like “Hopalong Bingo,” a trained chimpanzee,[xlvi] but more importantly, gave an outlet to rising musicians unable to perform in mainstream venues. Some of Seaview’s acts included those well known on the African-American circuit, such as the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra,[xlvii] Patterson and Jackson,[xlviii] and Hot Lips Page.[xlix] Others, like the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an interracial all-female jazz band, were well-known musicians who toured nationally.[l]
The concerts drew large crowds, even for local musicians. Ruth Brown, a Portsmouth native often referred to as “the Mother of Rhythm and Blues” performed at Seaview in 1956 to an audience of two thousand.[li] After the first year, the acts became bigger. In 1946, the Norfolk Journal and Guide quoted Seaview founder Wilbur Watts, “the club will feature the finest acts which can be bought” and noted upcoming performers included Count Basie, Mercer Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie.[lii] Other big entertainers booked were Ella Fitzgerald[liii] and Louie Armstrong.[liv]
Locals flocked to Seaview for regular shows like the “Seaview Chorus” described as “a rhymatic line of dancing darlings”[lv] and “record spinning” by local radio personality Jack Holmes.[lvi] Another big draw was the weekly cash give-aways. The amount ranged from one to four hundred dollars each weekend.[lvii] In 1950, a Deluxe Hudson Sedan was awarded.[lviii]
The resort was not without fault however, and there were a few questionable incidents in its history. In 1953, one of the special policemen at Seaview accidently shot and killed another officer during a scuffle with a soldier at the beach.[lix] In 1955, during a countywide crackdown on illegal gambling halls, Seaview was raided and six men were arrested for having a craps table. One of the men, Seaview Beach Club manager Ike Wells, was arrested and charged with gambling and selling whiskey.[lx]
Internally, there were issues as well. A 1956 article in the Norfolk Journal and Guide titled “Four Seaview Directors Out After Annual Meeting” explained that a recent board meeting had led to the formation of a new board and the re-election of only five of the nine directors. The four men dropped from the board were; Dr. Alfred Fentress, Andrew Sutton, Herbert Carter and Talmadge Johnson. They had all been stakeholders and directors since the 1945 inception.[lxi]
The new board of directors were; W.T. Mason, president, Dr. Irving Watts, vice president, Thomas H. Brown, treasurer Reverend J. Handy, secretary and William E. Waters.[lxii]
In response to being dropped from the board, the four minority stockholders sued Seaview Hotel and Beach Corporation. They cited several unscrupulous business practices including “padding” the books and not reporting profits. The men asked to have the board members removed and an external audit of the record books.[lxiii] The article explained the Seaview Hotel and Beach Corporation holding included the resort, as well as fifty acres of waterfront. Over the years, an additional one hundred and fifty-acre tract of land had been subdivided and “sold exclusively to white people.”[lxiv]
In 1960, an eighty-acre tract of the property south of the highway extending to Long Creek was sold for $250,000 to a group of white business developers.[lxv] When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, African Americans were free to patronize formerly white resorts and businesses. This led to a drop in attendance at Seaview and a general decline in African-American owned businesses.[lxvi]
Dr. Watts announced in November of 1965 that Seaview would close. He said, “We couldn’t compete with the amusement parks at Ocean View and on the ocean at Virginia Beach once they let the Negroes in.”[lxvii] The Seaview Amusement Corporation filed a suit against Watts and the other corporation members and won the right to renew the lease, which had been extended a few years earlier. However, the groups came to a consensus and the lease was dropped leaving the title clear for purchase.[lxviii]
In 1965, the site, along with ninety acres of land and three thousand feet of Chesapeake Bay shoreline, was sold to white developer David Levine for $500,000. The sale had apparently been in the works for several years and Levine’s intention was to turn the land into beach resort investments.[lxix] A few months later, about ten acres of the property was purchased by the city of Virginia Beach as a spoil area for dredging.[lxx]
Levine described the property as “the largest privately owned tract of beach front property north of downtown Virginia Beach,” adding “I feel that this tract of land is one of the most important in the future development of Virginia Beach.”[lxxi]
In 1966, the Virginian Pilot reported that Virginia Beach fire inspectors required the building to be repaired or removed, as it was a “fire hazard.” The article noted the building had been a hangout for vandals for two years and was in disrepair.[lxxii]
In February of 1966, wreckers demolished the two-story building and facilities. In an article about the final demise of Seaview, the Norfolk Journal and Guide called it “the largest and best Negro beach resort in America during its existence.”[lxxiii]
[i] Display ad “The King is Here” and “Spend Labor Day Weekend at Ocean Breeze Beach.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 14, 1946.
[ii] “$100,000 Beach Resort to open here on May 30.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 19, 1945.
[v] Now known as First Landing State Park.
[vi] “Negro Funspot Plans Opening.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, June 2, 1956.
[vii] “$100,000 Beach Resort to open here on May 30.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 19, 1945.
[ix] “$100,000 Beach Resort to open here on May 30.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 19, 1945.
[x] Column “Social Whirl in Norfolk.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, June 2, 1945.
[xi] “Seaview Beach Being Demolished by Wreckers.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, February 26, 1966.
[xii] “Kappa Alpha Psi Provincial Guests of Norfolk Alumni Chapter.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, September 8, 1945.
[xiii] “Seaview Hotel and Beach Corporation” Princess Anne County Deed of Purchase Book, page 463, June 4, 1947.
[xiv] “Certificate of all persons or corporations composing the corporation or partnership of Seaview Amusement Co.,” Princess Anne County Partnership Book 1, page 133, recorded 6-4-1947
[xv] “$200,000 Expansion Program Under way at Seaview Beach.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, December 21, 1946.
[xvi] “Cocktail Chit Chat” Jet Magazine, August 18, 1955.
[xvii] Globe Poster Company Correspondence, Box 2, Folder 1, Series 1: Correspondence,Dudley Cooper and Ocean View Amusement Park Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Patricia W. and J. Douglas Perry Library, Old Dominion University Libraries, Norfolk, VA 23529.
[xviii] Allan Herschell Company correspondence, Box 4, Folder 13 (Rides), Dudley Cooper and Ocean View Amusement Park Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Patricia W. and J. Douglas Perry Library, Old Dominion University Libraries, Norfolk, VA 23529.
[xix] “Work on New Structure will Start in fall.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 26, 1947.
[xx] “Resort Operators Preparing for Gala Season; Openings set” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 29, 1948, E21.
[xxi] “Newport News Co-ed is “Miss Seaview.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 26, 1947.
[xxii] “Seaview had a Good ’54 Season.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, December 11, 1954.
[xxiii] “Seaview Beach Gives Away $200 Fri., Sundays.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, June 2, 1956.
[xxiv] “Beach has its top Friday in 10-year History.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, June 23, 1956.
[xxv] “Norfolk trio Surpasses 1955 by four per cent.” Billboard Magazine, October 13, 1956.
[xxvi] “Miss Seaview Contest set for July 20.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 5, 1947.
[xxvii] Somerville, Annette “Social Chat in Portsmouth.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, April 26, 1947.
[xxviii] Life Magazine “A fine day at the Beach. Life, August 18, 1947, 115.
[xxix] “Social Whirl Column, “Let’s Take an Inventory” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 28, 1949.
[xxx] “Portsmouth Club Notes.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 19, 1952.
[xxxi] “Bethlehem School Outing Monday.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 18, 1964.
[xxxii] “Nearly 600 Scouts have fun Galore at First Makahiki at Seaview Beach.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, September 15, 1945.
[xxxiii] “$200,000 Expansion Program Under way at Seaview Beach.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, December 21, 1946.
[xxxiv] “Seaview Beach to open.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, April 19, 1947.
[xxxv] “Seaview Beach to open soon.” A16 Norfolk Journal and Guide, April 26, 1947.
[xxxvi] “Work on new Structure will Start in fall.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 26, 1947.
[xxxvii] “Seaview Beach set for Gala ’51 Opening May 25.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 12, 1951.
[xxxviii] “Improved Seaview Beach Ready for Gala Opening.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 24, 1952.
[xxxix] “Seaview had a good ’54 Season.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, December 11, 1954.
[xl] “Seaview Beach set for Gala ’51 Opening May 25.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 12, 1951.
[xli] “Buses to Seaview Fridays, Sundays.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 22, 1961.
[xlii] “Seaview opens May 27th with $ Million new look.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 19, 1956.
[xlv] “Many Improvements at Seaview; Opens May 29.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 25, 1957.
[xlvi] “Trained Chimp Appears at Seaview Next Week.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 21, 1951, A23.
[xlvii] “Jimmie Lunceford at Seaview Beach Oct. 8.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, October 6, 1945.
[xlviii] “Seaview Books Famed Stars for show, Beginning May 30.” B17 Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 25, 1946.
[xlix] ““Hot Lips” Page and Orchestra Features Orlando Robeson.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 27, 1946, 20.
[l] “Sweethearts of Rhythm Come to Seaview Sunday.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, September 13, 1947.
[li] “Seaview sets Attractions for Summer.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, June 30, 1956.
[lii] “The Seaview Revue gave Sunrise Freebie.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, June 8, 1946.
[liii] “Seaview Books Famed Starts for Show, Beginning May 30.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 25, 1946.
[liv] “Louis Armstrong to Play Labor Day Dance at Seaview.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, August 31, 1946, A20.
[lvi] “Seaview Beach Crowd is Biggest for the Season.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 23, 1955.
[lvii] Display ad. “The New Seaview Beach” Norfolk Journal and Guide, September 5, 1964, A4.
[lviii] “Wins Hudson Sedan at Seaview Beach.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, September 16, 1950.
[lix] “Seaview Officer is held in Beach Death.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, August 4, 1954.
[lx] “Seaview Beach Raided; Gambling Room Found.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, August 27, 1955.
[lxi] “Four Seaview Directors out After Annual Meeting.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, March 26, 1955.
[lxiii] “Minority Stockholders sue Seaview Beach Corp.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, June 23, 1956.
[lxiv] In addition to the board members who were dropped, listed in the lawsuit were: Dr. Harry Boffman, Charles Artis, and Harry Parker. Two other stockholders not listed on the suit were Dr. U.S.G. Jones and James Purvis
[lxv] “Part of Seaview Tract Being sold for $250.000.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, December 30, 1961.
[lxvi] “Seaview Beach Being Demolished by Wreckers.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, February 26, 1966.
[lxvii] McCollum, Obie, Column “Looking on in Norfolk.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, November 6, 1965, A15.
[lxviii] “Seaview Park Wins Battle over Lease.” Ledger-Dispatch, June 10, 1964.
[lxix] McCollum, Obie, Column “Looking on in Norfolk.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, November 6, 1965, A15.
[lxx] “Seaview Beach Being Demolished by Wreckers.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, February 26, 1966.
[lxxi] “120-Acre Bay Track Sold.” Ledger Star, November 2, 1965.
[lxxii] “Seaview Bows to Wreckers.” Virginian Pilot, February 21, 1966.
[lxxiii] “Seaview Beach Being Demolished by Wreckers.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, February 26, 1966.