Slideshow: The best historically black beaches in America

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Now that Memorial Day has come and gone, the American public has been given a green light for summer travel, vacations and leisure activity. Naturally, African-Americans will be among those seeking a respite from their daily work routines. Target Market News, a leading source on African-American spending habits, reports that African-Americans spent $6.4 billion in travel, transportation and lodging in 2008, and another $2.8 billion in entertainment and leisure activities. Such travel and spending likely will increase this year as the economy rebounds.

African-Americans’ thirst for warm-weather travel, particularly along coastal areas, has been prevalent since the 19th century. At the turn of the 20th century, African Americans owned “vast swaths of property along America’s shores,” says Andrew Karhl, an assistant professor of history at Marquette University. Karhl’s forthcoming book, “They’re Coming for the Land: African American Coastal Property in the Jim Crow and Sunbelt South,” examines how blacks acquired beachfront property that was shunned by whites who saw the land as unsuitable and associated with death and disease. By contrast, black farmers and watermen viewed such properties as opportunities for self-sufficiency and economic independence.

“By the 1920, many of these family properties were converted into beachfront resorts that catered to and sought to capitalize on an increasingly mobile black American public,” Karhl said in a recent interview. “Such resorts later served as places for working-class families to relax and reclaim their bodies, and for middle-class and elite blacks to retain their sense of status and respectability.”

In her book, Finding Martha’s Vineyard: African-Americans At Home on an Island, journalist Jill Nelson says her annual childhood visits to Oaks Bluff, Mass. insulated her family from negative racial assumptions and expectations.

“There was no need to be the exemplary Negro here, or to show white people that we were as good as or better than they were, to conduct ourselves as ambassadors for integration and racial harmony,” she writes.

Today, unlike Oaks Bluff, many black resorts no longer exist or carry the significance they once did, the result of desegregation of many public spaces in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, several coastal resorts do remain sprinkled throughout the United States and continue to reflect the legacy of their African-American founders. Following is a list compiled by Karhl and

1. Highland Beach, Maryland

Founded by Charles Douglass in 1893; summer home of elite blacks from Washington, D.C. including Blanche K. Bruce, John Mercer Langston, Robert and Mary Church Terrell, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and later, E. Franklin Frazier and Robert Clifton Weaver (first sec. of HUD). Remains active today.

2. Gulfside Assembly, Waveland, Mississippi

Founded in 1923 by Bishop Robert E. Jones of ME Church of New Orleans. Summer campground and resort for generations of African Americans living in the Gulf states and Deep South. Hosted meetings of SNCC and other civil rights organizations during 1960s. In decades following desegregation, it struggled to survive and was forced to sell hundreds of acres to meet high property taxes. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, it was eyed by coastal real estate developers, who worked with local officials to acquire and redevelop the property. Following Katrina, Gulfside has struggled to rebuild and its future remains uncertain.

3. American Beach, Florida

Founded in the 1930s by a black-owned insurance company. Flourished from the 1940s to the 1960s, as numerous black professionals purchased lots and built summer cottages there. In recent decades, it has experienced a steady erosion of its property base, as landowners have been pressured or forced to sell to developers. Today, it’s a shell of its former self, surrounded on both sides by large-scale hotels and resorts. It was the subject of an excellent film, “Sunshine State” and the book, “American Beach.”

4. Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

Black settlement in Oak Bluffs can be traced to the 1890s, but the site took off in the 1930s and 1940s, and remains the summer home of elite black professionals across the U.S., including Spike Lee, Henry Louis “Skip” Gates and Vernon Jordan.

5. Idlewild, Michigan

The areas was founded by a pair of white developers from Chicago in the 1910s who sought to capitalize on the growing demand by middle-and upper-class African Americans in Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis for summer vacation resort of their own. Today efforts are underway to revitalize the quiet, aging community of mostly year-round residents.

6. Freeman Beach, Wilmington, North Carolina

Family-owned farms here were converted into a commercial resort in the 1940s. The beach thrived as a summer destination for working blacks denied access to segregated beaches in coastal towns. The area experienced a decline after massive hurricanes in the 1950s, along with efforts by local politicians and developers to drive them out of business. Currently, it is the subject of a lawsuit that aims to force the displacement of the Freeman family and the liquidation of its assets as a result of its status as heirs property.

7. Sag Harbor, New York

The area began attracting black vacationers from Brooklyn, N.Y. in the 1940s, particularly the historic Eastville community. In the late 1940s, black professionals and intellectuals began to purchase land and build summer home there. Today the area attracts well known political, sports and entertainment figures, and is the subject and title of a 2009 book by Colson Whitehead.

8. Bruce’s Beach, near Los Angeles, California

Beach was one of the few beaches in Southern California in the early 1900s that was open to African Americans. Charles and Willa Bruce built a black beach resort there, the only resort in Southern California that allowed Blacks. The City of Manhattan Beach condemned Bruce’s Beach and forced out the black community in the 1920s and 1930s. The City Project organization worked with Bernard Bruce, the grandson of the beach’s founder, to change the name of the ocean front park back to Bruce’s Beach in 2007.

9. Buckroe Beach, Bay Shore and Mark Haven, Virginia

Buckroe Beach, near Hampton, Va., is a historically Black Beach and an important venue for various festivals that attract African Americans. Other Virginia legacy beaches founded or frequented by African Americans include Bay Shore and Mark Haven.

10. Gullah Sea Islands, Coast of Georgia and South Carolina

The region consisting of broad islands and flat coastal plains extending miles inland called “Lowcountry” was originally inhabited by Native Americans and became home to African slaves and their descendants. The terms “Gullah Islanders” or “Gullah People” describe descendants of African slaves born on these islands.