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Historically Black beach enclaves are fighting to save their history and identity

Highland Beach is a historic African American enclave near Annapolis. The town was a haven for affluent black Washingtonians. (Cheriss May/For The Washington Post)

Highland Beach is a historic African American enclave near Annapolis. The town was a haven for affluent black Washingtonians. (Cheriss May/For The Washington Post)

Historically Black beach enclaves are fighting to save their history and identity

Historically Black beach communities struggle to maintain their heritage

Sag Harbor Hills and the neighboring districts of Ninevah Beach and Azurest are unique among beach communities in the Hamptons, the collection of affluent towns on the eastern end of New York’s Long Island long known for attracting weal-thy summer residents.

Founded in the village of Sag Harbor after World War II, in an era of deep segregation in the United States, they were home to a robust African American population. Developers offered parcels of land in parched areas of the village for just a few hundred dollars or more. Working-class Black families purchased much of the land, eventually creating several communities linked by dirt roads along Route 114.

Though their roots are working class, these neighborhoods of modest ranch houses and bungalows today are a haven for middle-class and upper middle-class Black families, populated by doctors and lawyers, artists and academics. They rank as the oldest African American developments in the Hamptons and are among a handful of beach communities in the United States with African American roots.

[Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s childhood summer home in East Hampton, N.Y., lists for $52 million]

The racial makeup of the districts kept home prices down for decades with many white buyers choosing to live in other parts of the village.

Yet that is changing as home prices in the Hamptons continue to rise, says Dianne McMillan Brannen, a broker with Douglas Elliman who has lived in Ninevah for more than 25 years. “Investors are being lured to these areas now and are looking for bargains,” she says. She estimates that about a dozen homes sold to investors last summer, up from four or five the previous year. “We welcome investment, but there is a real concern that these areas will lose the cultural identity that made them distinctive.”

Sag Harbor is not alone. Across the country, some historically Black beach communities that have long escaped major property development and an influx of real estate investors are increasingly fending off both.

As values soar in surrounding locations, pricing out many second home buyers, historically Black beach enclaves from American Beach near Jacksonville, Fla., to South Carolina’s rural Sea Islands are seeing sharp increases in development and new home buyers.

Like gentrification debates raging in largely urban areas across the nation, the increase in new money, along with a generational shifts, is sparking concerns in some historically Black beach communities about the possible loss of their culture and identity.

“The irony is that many of these places were deemed un-desirable when African Americans first moved there,” says historian Andrew W. Kahrl, author of “The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South.” “Some of these areas are gold mines today, but those luxury resorts in parts of coastal Georgia, South Carolina and around the Chesapeake were havens for African American life and culture.”

Historically Black beach communities date back as far as the 1930s in a handful of coastal areas across the United States. Many sprang up during segregation when blacks were either barred from whites-only beaches or simply unwelcomed. While most were in the South, many took shape in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, evolving into beachheads for thriving economic and social life for African Americans.

Audrey Davis grew up spending her summers in High-land Beach, a historic African American enclave near Annapolis. The town was a haven for affluent Black Washingtonians seeking refuge from segregation and drew many Black intellectuals including Paul Robeson, Booker T. Washington and Langston Hughes.

Her grandfather, teacher and author Arthur P. Davis, in the 1940s purchased the two-story wooden home that her parents still own today. “It was actually made from reclaimed wood from a whites-only hotel across the street,” says Davis, who is director of the Alexandria Black History Museum in Virginia. “Our whole family would gather there in the summer because we cherished the sense of community.”

[Quiet luxury by the water in the Palmetto State]

But, she says, there is not a month that goes by that her pa-rents do not receive a letter or two in their mailbox asking if they would consider selling the house. Though the waterfront community is relatively small — about 100 year-round residents — there has been a gradual uptick in home sales the past few years. The once-remote location of Highland Beach is slowly growing more integrated, with about 20 white and five Hispanic residents making Highland Beach their home, according to census data.

“Younger people looking for an affordable home on the water are mostly interested in the area,” she says. “My hope is that new people to the community will have the same sense of its history and importance as we do.”

African American homeownership along South Carolina’s Sea Islands dates to 1865 when the Union army issued orders to give freed Black men the island chain and abandoned rice plantations. Despite decades of decline, fueled by ravaging storms and overzealous development, a dwindling number of Black families still live and work on the islands today. Known as the Gullah, they are descendants of enslaved Africans who lived in the Low country regions of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

A firm population count of Blacks on the Sea Islands is difficult to obtain. But as part of an application for protected status in 2005, the Gullah/Geechee estimated their total population in the Carolinas, Georgia and northern Florida at 200,000, according to Marquetta Goodwine, co-founder of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition.

 

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    Carma Lynn Henry Westside Gazette Newspaper 545 N.W. 7th Terrace, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33311 Office: (954) 525-1489 Fax: (954) 525-1861

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