The shorelines are indistinguishable from ones adjacent. They’re stretches of sand lapped by the Chesapeake Bay’s waves, full of life and memory, ceding ground as the sea level rises. These beaches are small slivers of the Bay’s 11,684 miles of waterfront. They always were, even when a segregated society set them apart and deemed them a couple of the only spots African Americans were able to enjoy all the recreation the Bay had to offer.
In the course of my search for disappearing history, I’ve happened upon a few spots that were once beaches reserved for African Americans. After World War II, Henry’s Beach in Somerset County, Maryland and Seaview Beach in Virginia Beach, Virginia were centers of African American community and culture. Notable performers entertained guests at these day resorts. Beach goers packed the floor of Seaview’s dance hall to the likes of Duke Ellington. Day trippers cheered on African American baseball teams that came to play on the fields at Henry’s Beach.
Two views of present-day Seaview Beach
Even though these were places that many Americans found entertainment, solace, good company, however, they nevertheless existed because some folks deemed others second class citizens. African Americans were not welcome at nearby beaches. Henry’s Beach was the only beach of its kind in all of Maryland.
That may explain why these beaches’ traces are gone and widespread recognition of them is all but nonexistent. A handful of old timers and historians can tell you what splendid resorts these once were, of the thrilling amusement park at Seaview Beach, for example, or the pleasant breezes and soft sand at Henry’s Beach. Still, many people were all too eager, with good cause, to abandon them as relics of a segregated past that they’d just as soon forget.
The condos that replaced Seaview’s amusement park and dance hall
Henry’s Beach is now well-kept private property, and the only reminder of the three decades of entertainment that thousands of people enjoyed there is an historical marker a mile away. Seaview Beach isn’t even that lucky; the resort closed in 1964 after a twenty-year run and developers razed the dance hall there. High-rise condos and a parking lot now occupy the spot Billie Holiday once poured her soul onto Seaview’s stage.
Other historically African American beaches, such as Bayshore, which was beside Buckroe Beach in Hampton, have continued on as popular waterfront, and people of all types and stripes now share good times there, but the memories, the significance of what these places once were has been given back to the Bay, to the ages.
Top: Two views of the private property that was once Henry’s Beach. The red-roofed structure housed a restaurant and changing rooms.
Bottom: Henry’s Beach’s historical marker, Somerset United Methodist Church in the background