Other African-American Beaches in Hampton Roads.
African Americans were limited in the spaces that they could occupy. White amusement parks and beaches were clearly off limits. Hampton Roads most popular amusement park, Ocean View, had been whites only for years. Owner Dudley Cooper recalled in a 1978 interview “Ocean View was segregated. We inherited it that way and it was the custom and tradition of the whole country.”[i]
Seaview Beach wasn’t the only African-American beach resort area in Hampton Roads. In Norfolk, residents could enjoy the Chesapeake Bay waterfront at Little Bay Beach and City Beach or on the Elizabeth River at Plantation Beach. Princess Anne County hosted Ocean Breeze and Seaview while Sunset Lake was located in Chesapeake. Bay Shore Beach, near Buckroe Beach, in Hampton was a popular site as well.
The beaches and amusement parks were primarily seasonal and operated from around Memorial Day to Labor Day each year.
Little Bay Beach
Articles in the Norfolk Journal and Guide mention Little Bay Beach as far back as 1916. Lemuel W. Bright, an African-American businessman, known for building the Vernon Hotel in Norfolk, owned and operated Little Bay Beach until his death in 1924. The beach, as was the hotel, was only for use by African Americans.[ii]
The beach resort, located near Willoughby Spit on Little Bay and Mason’s Creek, operated as the only African-American beach in the area for at least 20 years.[iii] The dining and dancing facilities were popular for adults, while merry-go-rounds, shooting galleries and a bowling alley were a hit with the younger crowds.[iv] Attendance was high at the beach resort and numerous club and church events were held at the site. In 1921, an event held by the Sons of Norfolk, attracted a crowd of 3,000.[v]
A fire wiped out the dance hall and boardwalk in 1929.[vi] When the Wilcox estate, which owned the property at the time, attempted to rebuild, they faced opposition from adjacent white owners. The Board of Zoning Appeals refused the permits because of the number of neighbors opposed to the project.[vii]
The grand opening of Plantation Beach, located on the southern branch of the Elizabeth River, was held on Easter Monday, 1930. The resort, described in the Norfolk Journal and Guide as “high-class” boasted a ten-room hotel and offered bathing, fishing and boating.[viii]
Just a few months after the opening, owners announced plans for a $75,000 renovation with boat docks, dance pavilion and amusements and rides.[ix] By 1931, the resort offered baseball, beauty contests,[x] boxing, dancing[xi] and numerous social events.[xii] In July of 1932, an article titled “All Colored Workers at Plantation Beach” noted that the resort had enacted a new policy of all African-American workers, including new manager B.E. Davis.[xiii]
City Beach, located in Princess Anne County near the Little Creek terminal of the Pennsylvania Railroad, was a free municipal beach owned by the city of Norfolk.[xiv] In the late 1920s, a group of African-American men attempted to buy waterfront property for a beach that local African Americans could use. No white landowners would sell to them, so they formed an interracial committee to study the idea and appeal to the city for a municipal beach. The group included P.B. Young, publisher of the Norfolk Journal and Guide and Dr. R.J. Brown, a local dentist and Seaview founder.
In 1930, despite considerable controversy, the city acquired ten acres from the Pennsylvania Railroad for $10,000. The purpose was specifically to create a beach for African Americans who had no public access to the waterfront at the time. After five years of legal battles with adjoining neighbors, and a fight that went all the way to the State Supreme Court, the city finally was able to advance with the project.[xv]
Construction of City Beach began in 1934 and was partially funded and built by the Civil Works Administration (CWA) program. Over one hundred and forty men, primarily African Americans, built the beach and much of its facilities.[xvi]
The beach offered a floating hotel and amusements as well as bathhouses, pavilion, boardwalk and a keeper’s cottage.[xvii] One popular attraction was the “Sunset Ballroom”[xviii] which could accommodate four hundred dancing couples.[xix] Many of the early facilities were built and leased in arrangement with the local Coca Cola bottling company.[xx]
The City Beach Corporation, a group of white businessmen, leased the beach and ran the concessions for the first three years after its opening in June of 1935.[xxi]
In 1938, the city decided that the Norfolk Community Hospital, formerly the Tidewater Colored Hospital, would manage City Beach, leasing the property from the city of Norfolk for one dollar per year.[xxii] The city considered it a philanthropic business venture to provide beach facilities to African Americans.[xxiii]
William T. Mason, business manager of the hospital, was placed in charge of managing the beach resort. The Norfolk Journal and Guide noted it was an “effort to place the management and operation exclusively in the hands of colored people.” All profit would go to maintain the hospital. Mason, who also helped to found Seaview Beach, said, “This is an undertaking unparallel in the history of the hospital or of any institution controlled by Negros in this section.”[xxiv]
African Americans held all operations and management positions. City Beach was even patrolled by two African-American officers, Robert Hale and Van Buren Luke, “the first to be commissioned by the [Princess Anne] county.”[xxv]
City Beach proved to be popular. One weekend in June of 1938, over five thousand people enjoyed the beach and its facilities.[xxvi] In 1940, the hospital began charging admission of five cents per person to cover the hospital’s increasing costs.[xxvii]
City Beach was profitable. In 1943, they grossed $14,872 with a net profit of $2,363. That same year, the executive committee of the hospital approved compensation for the managers including four hundred dollars annually to William Mason.[xxviii]
In 1949, the hospital decided not to renew the lease, citing the beach was “no longer an asset to the hospital.”[xxix] The Norfolk Recreation Bureau then took over operations of the beach the same year.[xxx]
On May 30, 1933, while City Beach was still in legal limbo, another for-profit seasonal beach for African Americans opened up. A group of white men; W.W. Consolvo, John C. Davis and Joseph Nelson, were the main investors in the Ocean Breeze Amusement Park, located in Princess Anne County alongside Lake Joyce.[xxxi]
The resort covered 75 partially shaded acres, offered a dancing pavilion, a 1900-foot boardwalk, concessions, restaurant and cottages. Beachgoers had opportunities to see beauty contests and baseball games.[xxxii] Many of the opponents of City Beach pointed to the facilities at Ocean Breeze as a reason to abandon the municipal beach plans.[xxxiii]
By 1936, the owners had added new daily-rental cottages, parking for 300 cars, a 1500-person dance casino, speedboats and a bathhouse that could accommodate 500. In 1937, they added a new pavilion, a merry-go-round and Ferris wheel.[xxxiv] The beach was sold in April of 1954. Soon after the sale, a large fire destroyed much of the facility.[xxxv]
[i] Transcript, “Oral History Interview with Dr. Dudley Cooper.” Interviewed by Peter M. Kusiak, Old Dominion University, Oral Historys, Special Collections and University Archives, Old Dominion University Perry Library. Online: http://dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/oralhistory/id/89 (Accessed June, 13, 2017).
[ii] “An Old Landmark To Make Contribution To Progress: Hotel Was Built By L. W. Bright, Pioneer Of Norfolk.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, October 3, 1953.
[iii] “Colored Norfolkians Left Without A Beach Resort By Decision of Zoning Board.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, June 14, 1930.
[iv] “Cool Breezes Blow At Little Bay Beach” Norfolk Journal and Guide, June 25, 1921.
[v] “More Pep At Little Bay Beach” Norfolk Journal and Guide, August 27, 1921.
[vi] “Little Bay Beach, Local Resort Swept By Flames” Norfolk Journal and Guide, February 16, 1929.
[vii] “Colored Norfolkians Left Without a Beach Resort by Decision of Zoning Board. Norfolk Journal and Guide, June 14, 1930.
[viii] “Plantation Beach, New Shore Resort for Colored of Norfolk and Vicinity will have Gala Opening Easter Mon.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, April 19, 1930.
[ix] “Resort Here to be Enlarged.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, September 20, 1930.
[x] “Five Local Girls Qualify for Beauty Pageant Finals.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, August 13, 1932
[xi] “Boxing Bouts on Elks Smoker.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 15, 1931.
[xii] “Elks Field Day and Smoker set for Monday.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 18, 1931.
[xiii] “All Colored Workers at Plantation Beach.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 30, 1932.
[xiv] “Summer Resorts Plan Gala Memorial Day Openings.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 30, 1936.
[xv] “Love’s Labor Lost” – Story of a Municipal Beach.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 14, 1956.
[xvi] “Road to Municipal Beach Nears Completion.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, February 2, 1934.
[xvii] Editorials: “The City Beach Road.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 6, 1935.
[xviii] “Beaches and Tennis Claim Pleasure Seekers as Season Opens up.” “The City Beach Road.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, June 22, 1935.
[xix] “Summer Resorts Plan Gala Memorial Day Openings.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 30, 1936.
[xx] “Love’s Labor Lost” – Story of a Municipal Beach.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 14, 1956.
[xxi] “Private Group Will ask Lease from City.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, March 26, 1949.
[xxii] “City Beach to Open Season on May 12.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, April 16, 1938.
[xxiii] “Erosion Creates Difficultries [sic] in Developing Norfolk City Beach.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, March 19, 1949.
[xxiv] “Reveal Plans for Operation of City Beach.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 7, 1938.
[xxvi] “5,000 at City Beach Sunday; Race Lifeguards and Officers on Duty.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, June 25, 1938.
[xxvii] “Hospital Seeks Permission to Charge Admission to Beach.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 11, 1940.
[xxviii] “Hospital Group Adopts Budget, Approves City Beach Salaries.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, January 30, 1943.
[xxix] “Norfolk Community Hospital will not Renew Lease on City Beach.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, March 5, 1949.
[xxx] “City Beach will Begin new Season on June 15.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 26, 1962.
[xxxi] “Local Beaches Complete Preparations for Opening.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 27, 1933.
[xxxii] “Black Revels to try Washington Tigers Saturday.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, June 3, 1933.
[xxxiii] “Claims Norfolk Negroes Would Rather pay for use of Beach than use site Purchased by City.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, February 17, 1934.
[xxxiv] “Ocean Breeze is Located on Historic Spot.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 30, 1936.
[xxxv] “Seaview Beach not sold: Plans big ’54 Season.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, April 4, 1954.