When we finally settled on Tybee Island, the critical race theory debate was pretty far from my mind. My main concern was finding a safe place within driving distance to have a honeymoon, and we believed Tybee fit the bill. After all, the island’s first-term mayor, Shirley Sessions, was one of many local officials in and around Atlanta and Savannah who stepped into Kemp’s massive canyon of leadership.
On March 20In 2020, before there were confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the 3,000 permanent residents of the island, Tybee Island closed its beaches. On 28th MarchThe sessions closed all non-essential businesses, as well as public playgrounds. It also banned recreational sports and any gathering of more than 10 people in public parks.
However, all of this changed on April 2, when Governor Kemp was finally able to issue a stay-at-home order across the state, while simultaneously opening up every beach in the state, replacing all local measures. Sessions and the city council were horrified. It’s hard to blame them. After all, the closest hospital is in Savannah, and it takes 29 minutes to get there in normal traffic. The only highway connecting the island to the outside world is US 80, with two bridges so narrow that the normal speed limit of 55 mph drops to 45 mph.
Sessions took to Facebook to say that she and the Tybee Island City Council would do whatever they could to enforce any security measures they could, but pleaded for everyone to stay home.
In an interview with Fox local affiliate WTGSSessions revealed that there would be no access to the beach or parking at the moment, despite Kemp’s order. He also added that there would be no lifeguards. She also said The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that, given the potential for the community to spread out even in small groups, “now is not the best time to have a good Tybee experience.” Tybee Island’s response put her at the top of our list of potential honeymoon destinations. I believed that if Sessions was willing to take on Kemp to keep the island safe, Tybee deserved our business once things got back to normal.
This June, over a year later, after driving from Charlotte and spending the night in Savannah, we made the half-hour drive to Tybee Island. On our penultimate day there, we biked to Tybee’s famous lighthouse, in the extreme north of the island. It is one of the few colonial-era lighthouses that are still in operation. The lighthouse is next to Fort Screven, a dismantled military base. The entire complex forms the Tybee Light Station and Museum.
Not long after walking our bikes the short distance from the lighthouse to the fort, I saw a plaque dedicated to the “waders” on Tybee Island in the 1960s, during the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement.
The informational plaques, which the community calls “storyboards,” had only been presented in may, just over a month before we traveled to Tybee. Watch coverage of the presentation from WSAV, a local NBC affiliate.
Storyboards provide a jarring reminder that only in the last half century can blacks do something as mundane as hitting the same beaches as whites. As early as 1952, Blacks in the Savannah area sought to be allowed into Savannah Beach, as Tybee Island was called from 1929 to 1978. For years, if blacks in and around Savannah wanted to go to the beach, they were just allowed in designated areas of Hilton Head Island, across the border from South Carolina. The only blacks allowed on Savannah Beach were the descendants of those who once owned parcels of land on the island, or those who worked as hired helpers in hotels or beachfront homes.
Things escalated in August 1960, when several black students who were members of the NAACP’s Savannah Youth Council drove to Savannah Beach and jumped into the ocean on 10th Street. Eleven of them were arrested for stripping in public. Yet they persisted, at considerable risk to their own safety. Not only were they on an island where there was only one entrance and one exit, but many of them did not know how to swim. Among the waders was Edna Jackson, who later served as the second black mayor of Savannah.
By the last wading in July 1963, it was clear that segregation could not be maintained forever, and local leaders finally agreed to integrate the beach, just eight months before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Of course, I knew that several southern beaches had been segregated well into the 1960s.
When I first went to Myrtle Beach as a kid in the early 1980s, before it exploded in popularity, it had only integrated to a little less than 20 years. Until then, blacks who wanted to have fun in what became the Grand Strand could only go to Atlantic Beach, on the coast of Myrtle Beach. Atlantic Beach was created in the 1930s, after several descendants of the Gullah-Geechee people bought plots of land in the area. For three decades, it was a haven for black tourists from across the country. It also hosted several popular black artists such as James Brown and Count Basie, who were banned from staying in hotels in Myrtle Beach even after performing there. It’s a sad comment from the time that some of these legendary artists might be favorites of white audiences, but the hotels where those audiences were staying saw them as just another “n-word”.
When I shared this exhibit on Facebook, I received a reminder why this story shouldn’t be canceled, for lack of a better term. One of the first responses came from an old friend of mine from my graduating class at the University of North Carolina, who had even been president of the UNC Young Democrats during our sophomore and junior years. She frequently drives Tybee from her home near Asheville and had no idea that she had ever been segregated. I shared this with several of my friends, many of whom had no idea that their favorite beaches had been segregated, much less that the color line had only been blurred in the last half century.
This is just another reason why this story needs to be taught. As only the second generation of my family do not Experience Jim Crow, I know that a basic goal of the civil rights movement was simply to ensure that blacks could live their lives and that people did not question their right to occupy space. This goal is doubly important to me, as a black man married to a white woman. Even today, when I walk the streets of Charlotte, hand in hand with my lady, I prepare myself to see people who look at us strangely. We didn’t get many of those stares on our way out, even though she lived in the crimson red north of Georgia, think Doug Collins / Andrew Clyde country, at the time; we didn’t get any of those looks on Tybee Island.
But when I think about how, half a century ago, I wouldn’t even have been allowed to enter Tybee Island, and that blacks had to fight for the right just to be there, I wonder how such truths can be taught. considered “socialist”. Then I remember that there are still places where simply walking in the park while black It can make you profile.
That’s why it irritates me to see the republicans launch a whistling attack about what they (incorrectly) call critical race theory. After all, how can simply having a long-awaited conversation about the obstacles people of color have faced over the years be a radical socialist plot?
Atlantic Beach still bears some of the scars from the Jim Crow era. Atlantic Beach is surrounded on almost all sides by North Myrtle Beach, which was created in 1968 when several other small beach towns in the northern part of the Grand Strand merged. However, Atlantic Beach residents refused to join the merger. This was partly because Atlantic Beach residents still remembered the days when white homeowners cordoned off the beaches near their homes and posted signs explicitly warning black tourists not to come. A common saying on Atlantic Beach back then was “even the ocean is segregated.”
As a result, the Grand Strand’s main street, Ocean Boulevard, comes to an abrupt stop on the line between North Myrtle Beach and Atlantic Beach, with fences and hedges blocking the road. Most of the other roads they are also fenced; US 17 is pretty much the only coastal city link that the city’s 440 permanent residents have to the outside world. Many efforts to develop the area have failed because residents do not trust the developers.
Atlantic Beach has long been one of the poorest areas in the state; As of 2019, it has a median income of just $ 24,700, not even half that of Myrtle Beach. Perhaps if developers did more to understand why residents don’t trust them and reassure them that they will have a voice, this area could share in the recent prosperity of the Grand Strand. Instead, Atlantic Beach’s biggest annual event is Black Bike Week, a gigantic party that the white neighbors revile.
The legacy of segregation in tourist areas like Tybee Island and the Grand Strand is one of the many black eyes of the Jim Crow era. But as uncomfortable as that story is, it must be taught.