EDITOR’S NOTE: During the next few weeks, News13 will celebrate Black History Month through a series of stories highlighting Black achievement and educating the public on the struggles and triumphs African Americans faced for centuries.
ATLANTIC BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — The small town of Atlantic Beach was established in the 1930s as an oceanfront community for Gullah Geechee people, descendants of slaves, who were denied access to beaches along the South Carolina coast because of their race.
From the 1930s to the 1970s, Atlantic Beach — nicknamed the “Black Pearl” — was a mecca for Black people and one of the most popular beach resorts for minorities from Virginia to Florida. Despite devastating hurricanes, the town is progressing, and community leaders are making sure its history is preserved.
“It was a thriving, thriving, community, former Mayor and historian Irene Evans-Armstrong said. “This being my home. I’ve seen the good, the bad, the ugly.”
Atlantic Beach covers a little more than 96 acres spread over four blocks — 28th Avenue North to 31st Avenue North — and comes from humble beginnings.
A Black man from North Carolina, George Tyson, acquired Atlantic Beach land in the 1930s from the Spiveys, a family that would bring its maids and butlers to the remote wooded beachfront on their days off. It was the only place where slaves on the South Carolina Coast could vacation.
“If African Americans could not vacation and visit other beach fronts in the state of South Carolina and Georgia, Florida, even Virginia, because they didn’t have the rights to enter those beaches, you can imagine what it looked like in Atlantic Beach,” Evans-Armstrong said.
Eventually, Tyson ran into financial problems and had to mortgage both Pearl Beach and Atlantic Beach sections. Evans-Armstrong said the Atlantic Beach Company was then formed. It was made up of 10 Black shareholders to save the land.
“They all sold off to like-minded individuals who were doctors, lawyers and educators,” Evans-Armstrong said.
The second and third generations of those families are the current owners of properties in Atlantic Beach. The father of former Councilman John Sketers owned property on Atlantic Beach more than 50 years ago.
“We use to travel from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Atlantic Beach during the summer to operate Sketers place,” Sketers said.
Sketers Place served as a restaurant and a hotel, and Sketers said the family atmosphere transcended the town.
“We put money back into ourselves there, and I can remember the time when Atlantic Beach was just one big family of investors that came here,” Sketers said.
Black folks enjoyed great food and live music during the Jim Crow era on Atlantic Beach. Evans-Armstrong said there were Ferris wheels, amusement parks, hotels and restaurants along all four blocks. However, in 1954, Hurricane Hazel would change that, and decades later the town was devastated by Hurricane Hugo.
“Hurricane Hugo was in the 80s, but it wouldn’t have been so bad had the business owners been able to get insurance,” Evans-Armstrong said.
Following Hurricane Hazel, white insurance companies would not insure Black owners and businesses, and banks would not give them loans to rebuild. Present-day, Atlantic Beach still struggles economically but has managed to stay afloat. It is thriving because of events like the Gullah Geechee Festival and the Atlantic Beach Bike Fest, partly started by Sketers and Armstrong.
“We started inviting other motorcycle groups to come to Atlantic Beach to celebrate Memorial Day weekend with us,” Sketers said.
“Atlantic Beach has a resiliency that’s like no other,” Evans-Armstrong stressed.
In 1966, Atlantic Beach sought and was granted a municipal charter from the state of South Carolina, making it an independent town, electing its own Black government into office. Evans-Armstrong said it remains the only, “black-owned” oceanfront chartered town in the country.