March 12, 2015

Atlantic Beach: Historic African-American Enclave in South Carolina

  • By: Jamesha Gibson

In the state of “Smiling Faces and Beautiful Places,” between Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach, lies a pearl.

Atlantic Beach, nicknamed “The Black Pearl” for its rich history and African-American owned businesses, is located in Horry County (pronounced OH-ree) in the northeast corner of South Carolina. Though it was conceived as a result of segregationist laws, Atlantic Beach flourished as a thriving African-American vacation spot and as a nucleus for the surrounding communities of Crescent Beach, Windy Hill, Ocean Drive, and Cherry Grove that would later become part of North Myrtle Beach. Today, those living in the Black Pearl strive to preserve and communicate the distinctive history of this African-American enclave and the Gullah-Geechee culture that has shaped it.

In 1934 George W. Tyson, a bold and astute entrepreneur who owned businesses that serviced the African-American community of Conway, approached R.V. Ward (one of his few white business connections) about purchasing tracts of land along the ocean front in Horry County. Ward agreed to sell 47 acres of his estate to Tyson for the sum of $2,000.

After purchasing the land, Tyson built the Black Hawk Night Club, which became a popular entertainment venue for African-Americans in the area who were prohibited from going to white entertainment venues due to segregation laws during the Jim Crow era.

Map of Grand Strand

photo by: Jim McMahon

Atlantic Beach, or "The Black Pearl," sits between North Myrtle Beach and Myrtle Beach.

Couple on oceanfront in Atlantic Beach

photo by: Town of Atlantic Beach

A couple stands on the oceanfront of Atlantic Beach (date unknown).

Tyson also began to encourage other African-Americans in and around his community to buy plots on the land he’d bought and to develop them. On March 3, 1936, 10 purchases were made for plots on Atlantic Beach. This success prompted Tyson to purchase the 49 acres of land adjacent to his tract.

He continued to sell plots of land for African-American owners to develop until 1943, when he gave ownership of the property of Atlantic Beach over to the Atlantic Beach Company (ABC). The ABC continued to sell parcels of land to African-American buyers until 1957.

These buyers, and eventual developers and residents, ranged from physicians to factory workers. Some even pooled funds to buy property together. These buyers were also descendents of the Gullah-Geechee people, people of various African ethnicities that were enslaved along the North American coast from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida. After becoming residents, these descendents added their distinct cultural flavor to the Atlantic Beach oceanfront.

As these buyers began to develop the Atlantic Beach landscape throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, the Black Pearl entered a heyday in which it experienced an era of exponential growth. As the number of hotels, banks, and restaurants increased, so too did the number of vacationers.

“Atlantic Beach was booming in those days,” said Etrulia Dozier, historian and librarian for the former Atlantic Beach Historical Society, in a 2002 oral history interview that the Historical Society conducted. “Because in those days, Black [sic] people came from all around. There had been a lot of Black folk that had gone North because of employment and when they came back to Horry County to visit their relatives, Atlantic Beach was the place they wanted to go … they were going to Atlantic Beach to have a good time.”

Atlantic Beach Sign

photo by: Town of Atlantic Beach

During its heyday, African-American tourists from all over the United States flocked to Atlantic Beach.

Bike Fest

photo by: Town of Atlantic Beach

Atlantic Beach hosts its annual Bike Fest during the Memorial Day Weekend.

And have a good time they did. Between April and October, residents and tourists enjoyed everything from recreational activities like fishing and dancing on the “patios,” or open air bars and dance floors, to annual events such as the October Fish Fry. Because of segregationist laws and practices, Atlantic Beach also became the host for many prominent R&B singers who performed at nearby Myrtle Beach.

Despite the fun and success, it all soon ended with the advent of two monumental events. The first was Hurricane Hazel in 1954. Hazel leveled the wood buildings that were erected during the 1930s and ‘40s. Some ambitious entrepreneurs who rebuilt on Atlantic Beach and a brief influx of tourists frequenting the beach gave hope for the revival of the Black Pearl.

However, this hope was dimmed once anti-segregation laws were enforced during the 1960s and ‘70s. Many of the African-American tourists decided to spread out and explore other vacation spots, leading to disinvestment in Atlantic Beach.

In 1966, as the surrounding communities of Little River, Conway, Longs, and Wampee began to gather under the North Myrtle Beach umbrella, Atlantic Beach decided to incorporate itself as an independent city. Under the new title Town of Atlantic Beach, the Black Pearl was determined to revitalize its economic status and preserve its history. In 1980, as an effort to stimulate tourism and bring in revenue to the city, town officials initiated a community event known as Bike Fest. This event proved successful, bringing in motorcyclists from all over the country and providing a popular annual festival on Memorial Day weekend not only for Atlantic Beach residents, but also for those in surrounding North Myrtle Beach communities.

Afro Fest

photo by: Town of Atlantic Beach

Afro Fest in Atlantic Beach in 1990.

In 2001, Atlantic Beach residents Brenda Rowell-Bromell, Toby Dixon, Rosa Stanley, and Dot Floyd, under the direction of Sherry Suttles, incorporated the Atlantic Beach Historical Society (ABHS). The mission of the Historical Society was “to preserve the history of the Coastal Carolinas' African-American heritage through oral histories and memorabilia, year-round family events, and personal and real property.”

One way they achieved this was by establishing the Gullah-Geechee Festival, an annual event in August that recognized Gullah-Geechee culture. The ABHS also pursued a project entitled “The Colored Wall Oral History Project,” where it interviewed former and present residents of Atlantic Beach regarding its vibrant history. The ABHS’s project expanded and, in partnership with the Horry County Museum, crafted the exhibit, “The Black Pearl: A Celebration of the Times and Lives of Atlantic Beach, South Carolina.”

Despite this innovative progress in documenting and preserving Atlantic Beach history, the ABHS disbanded in 2007. Its president Sherry Suttles, however, continued to document Atlantic Beach’s history, first with her 2009 publication "Images of America: Atlantic Beach," and second, with the establishment of the Gullah-Geechee Group.

Although the ABHS has dissolved, the Town of Atlantic Beach still seeks to preserve and communicate its history. It continues to organize the Gullah-Geechee Festival and Bike Fest, and is discussing establishing a museum in Atlantic Beach as well as participating in the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. And in 2016, the Town of Atlantic Beach will be celebrating its 50th anniversary as an independent incorporated town.

Atlantic Beach remains one of the few African-American-owned beach communities in the United States. It continues to struggle for its survival, but the Black Pearl meets that struggle with confidence in the profound historical and cultural roots that have sustained it.

The author wishes to thank the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, Ms. Sherry Suttles, and Ms. Linda Cheatham, Assistant Town Manager for the Town of Atlantic Beach, for their contributions to the research for this article.

Jamesha Gibson is an Editorial Intern at the National Trust. She is passionate about using historic preservation as an avenue for underrepresented communities to share their unique stories. Jamesha also enjoys learning about other cultures through reading, art, language, dancing, and especially cuisine.

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