Beach Access is Unavailable for Many Black Americans

For amazing historical photos of Black beaches, please jump to the photo section at the end of the article.

Beach Access is Unavailable for Many Black Americans

This week, we want to look at Black Beach Access in the United States.  We have four interconnected stories about beach access: The city of Atlantic Beach, SC is resisting new development; Bruce’s Beach in California was returned to the family; Connecticut is proposing to limit municipal beach fees, and the Supreme Court ruled we live in a “color-blind” society where race cannot be considered in any decision by the government. All of these stories have a common theme of being denied the opportunity of recreation and enjoyment in life. We also have recommendations for which beaches to visit if you are traveling. 

First, the community of Atlantic Beach, SC is resisting a high-rise development (Myrtle Beach Sun News). The Black, beach community of about 400 people is located next to Myrtle Beach.   The “Black Pearl,” as it was known during segregation, was a popular Black beach resort. Atlantic Beach vurrently hosts Black Bike Week each year.  

Second, Bruce’s Beach (Guardian), in California was returned to the family last year, after it was stolen during the 1940s.  The value of the property was estimated at $40 million dollars. After considering all development options, the family later sold the beach to the state of California for a park. News stories have failed to cover the legacy of this stolen beach.  The Bruce family was denied the opportunity to develop a Black resort. Think of it as a chance to develop a Black middle-class community with housing and jobs located around a beach resort.

Third, a Connecticut lawmaker is proposing a bill to limit fees at municipal public beaches. The bill states that beach access is open to everyone and that local fees would be limited to twice what residents pay.

And finally, there is still widespread discrimination in practice, today, in the US, which seems to be unknown to the Supreme Court.  There is discrimination in hiring,  education, and most of all, housing. Redlining is a fact that we continue to live with. (Urban Institute, Brookings). The Supreme Court may have waved the magic wand and declared we are a “color blind” society, but facts on the ground dispute that claim. The reality is that taxpayer funded resources are not given out in a “color-blind” manner. All of our tax dollars indirectly fund beaches as a public good. There may be no better example of structural racism and White privilege than beach access. 

Beaches access remains one of the most segregated areas of public accommodation in the US. Beaches are in theory open to all under the public accommodation law of 1964. Congress and State Governments have ruled that the Public Trust Doctrine means that the shore is owned by the people. Yet beach access is unavailable for many Black Americans.

Access to beaches is something White Americans take for granted. Here in NJ, where I live, we have all heard many a White co-workers say: “We are taking the family down the shore” for the weekend. We can only dream.  Is it safe? Are their people like me? Can I play my music? What they mean, is that they have a connection, or a deal, for some beach time in a place Black people cannot go. Blacks must rely on public beaches with transportation or parking, such as Jones Beach, Sandy Hook or Coney Island. Some Black people have given up trying to go to the beach in the US and travel to the Caribbean or Puerto Rico for beach access.

Municipalities continue to restrict access through “custom”, high fees, limited access, limited parking, general unfriendliness or outright intimidation.  As recently as five years ago, the author was called the N-word while playing miniature golf with his kids at a lily-white beach town in NJ.

Even, the National Park Service has acknowledged the problem. National Park Service – Beach segregation

Taxpayer Funding Supports Beaches

Many of these beaches are funded, nourished and protected through federal and state taxpayer dollars, not just local taxes.  Yet most beach access is for local people in the area who own property or rent. There are many examples of Federal and State spending on local beaches.  Beach replenishment is done by the Army Corps of Engineers, state EPAs measure water quality and look for needles and red tides.  Shark sightings are a state responsibility and high surf warnings come from the NOAA.  And the Congress and Supreme Court ruled long ago that beaches are a natural resource that belongs to everyone. Black tax dollars are going to support these beaches, yet Black people cannot go.

What can you do?

  • Go to a Black beach. Get food and ice cream. Simple. See our list. 
  • Go to the local beach. The more Black people that show up and spend money, the more open beaches will be. 
  • Go to the beach, in general. If you have never been, what are you waiting for?
  • Show up at a White beach. Yep. 80% will ignore you. 10% will be hostile and 10% will come over and talk. 
  • Learn to swim or wade or fake it, the water is great.
  • Play sports on the beach like football, soccer, frisbee or that paddle thing.
  • Call your state representative. Call, don’t write. You should have your Rep on speed dial.  Beaches are controlled locally, but they are governed by the state. In the age of internet, E-mail is not taken seriously, a real call makes all the difference.

We all deserve access to a beach

Access to recreation is our birthright as citizens. And that includes beach access. Beaches also serve a unique purpose.  They are a “public forum” guaranteed by the first amendment. In real life, the beach is a rare place where everyone Black, White or Hispanic, rich or poor, new immigrant or 7th generation can mix with the sole purpose of doing: Absolutely Nothing! There is no greater joy than laying in the sun, taking a dip in the ocean, or watching kids collect shells while running from the waves. The joy of the beach should be accessible to all.

Beach access is a great measure of our democracy. It is something we all deserve.


Black Beaches You Should Visit

Black Beaches to Visit

7 Best Black Beach Towns in the US (Green Book)

6 Historically Black Summer Getaways You Need to Know About (Michigan Chronicle)

8 historically Black beaches across the US (TripAdvisor)

Atlantic Beach

Atlantic Beach was a ‘Black Pearl.’ Locals want to see it shine again(Washington Post) – The Black pearl was a famous black beach in South Carolina. Black History Spotlight: Atlantic Beach (WMBF News). Atlantic Beach leaders clear the way for a $100 million hotel. Residents are outraged (Myrtle Beach Sun News)

Seminole Beach, Jacksonville

Bruce’s Beach — Bruce’s Beach to be returned to Black family 100 years after city ‘used the law to steal it’ (Guardian). A Look Back at California’s Long-Lost Black Beaches and Vacation Spots (LA Magazine)

Asbury Park — Asbury Park NJ — 150 Years of Change and Transformation A Segregation Seashore (Asbury Park Museum)

Chicken Bone Beach — Chicken bone beach, Atlantic City, NJ – The Legacy of Chicken Bone Beach in segregated Jim Crow-era Atlantic City lives on (

Bethune Beach — Once bastion for blacks, Bethune Beach named historic site (Daytona Beach News-Journal)

American Beach on Amelia Island. The history of American Beach (National Park Service)

Highland Beach, Maryland — Highland Beach (Black Past). Highland Beach: A historic refuge from racism finds itself at a crossroads (Washington Post).

Idlewild, Michigan — Idlewild: Michigan’s ‘Black Eden’(WTTW)

Martha’s Vineyard

Martha’s Vineyard has a special place in the mythology of the Black upper middle class. As a rare welcoming enclave in the northeast, MV has welcomed Blacks for decades. However high rents and transportation have limited access. Intentional or not, there is an underlying, exclusive, “our kind of people” vibe. Good and not good. See “Jumping the Broom.”

How Martha’s Vineyard Became a Welcoming Oasis for Generations of Black Travelers (Robb Report). How Martha’s Vineyard Became a Black summertime sanctuary (Vox)

Jill Nelson (Volunteer Slavery) also wrote Martha’s Vineyard Finding Martha’s Vineyard: African-Americans at Home on an Island (Publishers Weekly)

Long Island and Sag Harbor

Sag Harbor provided housing for Black servants on long island and later became its own resort town. The Hamptons in long island, notoriously, restricts parking. The Sag Island area has been gentrified. On Long Island, a Beachfront Haven for Black Families (NY Times)

Jones Beach and Riis Beach

Jones Beach is still great. It took my kids there all the time from New Jersey, when they were growing up. Riis Beach is good has a gigantic parking lot plus the B25 shuttle bus from Kings Plaza.  

I just want to spotlight what Jones Beach has become. Open in 1929, created by Robert Moses, who designed “low clearances for the bridges over the Southern State Parkway, a major east-west route to Jones Beach. This was done to prevent poor and minority people from accessing the beach by public bus.” However, Jones Beach has blossomed into the best and largest public beach in the United States. I have never felt more comfortable at a beach anywhere in the world. It is something all states should aspire to.


The long history of Beach Segregation

Racism Kept Connecticut’s Beaches White Up Through the 1970s (Smithsonian Magazine)

The past and present of beach segregation in Connecticut (Connecticut Public Radio) – The podcast takes a long look at beach segregation.

Andrew Kahrl has documented beach access discrimination

One scholar has been studying beach segregation for years: Andrew Kahrl.  America’s segregated shores: beaches’ long history as a racial battleground (Guardian)

Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline — Andrew W. Kahrl — Book tells the story of Ned Coll, White anti-poverty activists

The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South — Andrew W. Kahrl

New Jersey has long studied beach access

Free, but for a Fee: Addressing Racially Discriminatory Burdens on New Jersey Beaches, One Beach Tag at a Time One Beach Tag at a Time (Monmouth University)

Connecticut lawmaker wants to Open up Beach Access

Connecticut State Representative Roland Lemar (D-New Haven) has sponsored House Bill 6650 which would ensure access to everyone not from the municipality and limits fees to twice what locals pay.

Greenwich Officials Spar with New Haven State Rep over Non-Resident Beach Fees (Greenwich Free Press)

The Bill – Highlights include: “To ensure that the state and the coastal municipalities provide adequate planning for facilities and resources which are in the national interest as defined in section 22a-93, as amended by this act, and to ensure that any restrictions or exclusions of such facilities or uses are reasonable.”

“Notwithstanding any provision of the general statutes or any special act, municipal charter or home rule ordinance, no municipality shall (1) prohibit nonresidents of such municipality from entering or using a municipal park or municipal beach adjacent to marine or tidal waters, or a municipal facility associated with such park or beach, unless such prohibition applies to residents of such municipality; or (2) impose on nonresidents a fee for such entrance or use, or parking associated with such entrance or use, that is greater than twice the amount of any fee charged to residents for the same purpose.”

Bill Introduced to Ease Non-Resident Beach Access at CT Town Beaches (Greenwich Free Press)

White residents are resistant since they view exclusive beach access as part of the asset value of their property. They claim it will reduce property values. But the truth is that mixing with different people is hard.

Amazing photos of historic Black Beaches

Sadly, there is no single archive of Historical Black Beach Photos. We have assembled some of the best here. You are left to google the rest.

Directory of Black Recreational Websites

Directory of Black Recreational Websites


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