When we finally decided on Tybee Island, the debate over critical race theory was pretty far from my mind. My main concern was finding a safe place within driving distance to have a honeymoon, and we believed that 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 to step into the yawning canyon of leadership left by Kemp.
On March 20, 2020, before there were any confirmed COVID-19 cases among the island’s 3,000 permanent residents, Tybee Island closed its beaches. On March 28, Sessions closed all non-essential businesses, as well as public playgrounds. She also banned recreational sports and any gatherings of more than 10 people in public parks.
However, all of this was upended on April 2, when Gov. Kemp finally got around to issuing a statewide stay-at-home order, while he simultaneously opened all of the state’s beaches, superseding all local measures. Sessions and the city council were aghast. It’s hard to blame them. After all, the nearest hospital is in Savannah, and it takes 29 minutes to get there in normal traffic. The only road connecting the island to the outside world is U.S. 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 their best to enforce what safety measures they could, but pleaded for everyone to stay home.
In an interview with local Fox affiliate WTGS, Sessions revealed that there would not be any beach access or parking for the time being, Kemp’s order notwithstanding. She also added that there would be no lifeguards. She also told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that, given the prospect of community spread even in small groups, “now is not the best time to have a good experience on Tybee.” Tybee Island’s response moved it the top of our list of possible honeymoon destinations. I believed that if Sessions was willing to stand up to Kemp to keep the island safe, Tybee deserved our business once things got back to something approaching normal.
This June—over a year later—after driving down from Charlotte and spending the night in Savannah, we made the half-hour drive to Tybee Island. On our next-to-last day there, we biked to Tybee’s famed lighthouse, on the island’s northern end. It’s one of the few colonial-era lighthouses still in operation. The lighthouse is next door to Fort Screven, a decommissioned Army 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 “wade-ins” on Tybee Island in the 1960s, during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement.
The informative plaques, which the community calls “storyboards,” had only been unveiled in May, just over a month before we trekked to Tybee. Watch coverage of the unveiling from local NBC affiliate WSAV.
The storyboards provide a jarring reminder that it’s only been in the last half-century that Black people can do something as mundane as go to the same beaches as white people. As early as 1952, Black people in the Savannah area sought to be allowed on Savannah Beach, as Tybee Island was called from 1929 to 1978. For years, if Black people in and around Savannah wanted to go to the beach, they were only allowed in designated areas of Hilton Head Island, across the South Carolina border. The only Black people allowed on Savannah Beach were the descendants of those who once owned parcels of land on the island, or those who worked as hired help in hotels or beachfront homes.
Things ramped up in August 1960, when several Black students who were members of the NAACP’s Savannah Youth Council, drove to Savannah Beach, and waded into the ocean at 10th Street. Eleven of them were arrested for disrobing in public. Nevertheless, they persisted—at considerable risk to their own safety. Not only were they on an island where there was only one way in and one way out, but many of them couldn’t swim. Among the waders was Edna Jackson, who later served as Savannah’s second Black mayor.
By the last wade-in in July 1963, it was apparent 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 a number of beaches around the South had been segregated well into the 1960s.
When I first went to Myrtle Beach as a boy in the early 1980s—before it exploded in popularity—it had only been integrated for a little under 20 years. Until then, Black people who wanted to have fun on what became the Grand Strand could only go to Atlantic Beach, up the coast from Myrtle Beach. Atlantic Beach was created in the 1930s, after several descendants of the Gullah-Geechee people bought parcels of land in the area. For three decades, it was a haven for Black tourists from around the country. It also played host to a number of popular Black artists like James Brown and Count Basie, who were barred from staying at hotels on Myrtle Beach even after they performed there. It’s a sad commentary of the time that some of these legendary performers could be darlings of white audiences, but the hotels where those audiences stayed saw them as just another “n-word.”
When I shared this exhibit on Facebook, I got a reminder of why this history shouldn’t be, for lack of a better term, canceled. One of the first replies 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 to Tybee from her home near Asheville, and had no idea that it had once been segregated. I’ve shared this with a number 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 erased in the last half-century.
This is just another reason why this history needs to be taught. As only the second generation of my family to 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 not have people question their right to take up space. This goal is doubly important for me, as a Black man married to a white woman. Even today, when I walk the streets of Charlotte, holding hands with my lady, I gird myself for people giving us funny looks. We didn’t get too many of those looks while dating, even though she lived in crimson-red north Georgia—think Doug Collins/Andrew Clyde country—at the time; we didn’t get any of those glares on Tybee Island.
But when I think about how, half a century ago, I wouldn’t have even been allowed on Tybee Island, and that Black people had to fight for the right just to be there, I find myself asking how teaching such truths can possibly be considered “socialist.” Then I remember that there are still places where simply walking in the park while Black can get you profiled.
That’s why it rankles me to see Republicans pitch a hissy fit over what they (incorrectly) call critical race theory. After all, how can simply having a long-overdue conversation about the hurdles 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 portion of the Grand Strand merged. However, the residents of Atlantic Beach balked at joining in the merger. This was in part because Atlantic Beach residents still remembered the days when white property owners cordoned off the beaches near their homes and put up signs explicitly warning Black tourists not to come. A common saying in Atlantic Beach back then was “even the ocean is segregated.”
As a result, the Grand Strand’s main drag, Ocean Boulevard, stops abruptly at the line between North Myrtle Beach and Atlantic Beach, with fences and hedges blocking the road. Most other roads are fenced off as well; U.S. 17 is virtually the beach town’s only link that the town’s 440 permanent residents have to the outside world. Many efforts to develop the area have foundered because residents don’t trust developers.
Atlantic Beach has long been one of the poorest areas of 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 assure them that they will have a voice, this area could share in the Grand Strand’s recent prosperity. Instead, Atlantic Beach’s biggest annual event is Black Bike Week, a gigantic party that white neighbors revile.
The legacy of segregation in resort 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 history is, it needs to be taught.