Sun, sand and civil rights: Uncovering Black history at the beach and beyond
Sarasota, Florida's white sand beaches and crystal-clear waters draw visitors from far and wide, but they weren't always so welcoming.
"Few of our guests, our international and domestic tourists who come here, understand why these beaches are open to Black and brown people from everywhere in the world," said Vickie Oldham, who chronicled 100 years of local Black history for her hometown. "It's because of the Black activists that pushed for open access to our pristine beaches."
Sarasota is just one of numerous seaside destinations with unspoken civil rights histories that tour operators are eager to serve up alongside the sand and sunshine. A new push may help them spread those stories around the world.
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Wade in the water
"I had no idea that I was going to be sharing African American history on a trolley tour," said Oldham, a Sarasota native who was contracted by the city for a Black history preservation project, Newtown Alive. "Our history was in fragments, you know. One sentence in a book or a photo with a cut line. Nothing comprehensive based on primary and secondary source documents."
Through extensive research and oral history interviews, her team put together a campaign to share their findings online and in-person with historic markers they placed throughout the city. They also set up what was supposed to be a one-time trolley tour to showcase the sites, but the idea took off as word of mouth and press coverage led to more tour requests.
"What started out as an historic preservation project has morphed into cultural heritage tourism," she said. "And since George Floyd's murder, there has been an interest that I had not seen prior to this incident. Suddenly people were really hungry for more of this information, and I couldn't be happier to share it."
One of the things she shares is how Black activists held wade-ins on Sarasota's segregated beaches from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s.
"You've heard of sit-ins," she said. "They modeled these wade-ins after the sit-ins. And after church on Sundays, they'd pile into cars, and they'd travel in caravans to the closest beach, get out of their cars and wade in the water," sometimes in their church clothes.
"They were courageous. They made sacrifices. They did this for years before the beaches are open to Black and brown people." She noted the fight for desegregation continued for years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
On part of the tour, participants are invited to sing spirituals "that helped African Americans survive some of the rough experiences during Jim Crow segregation and the civil rights movement."
"It is amazing when we're traveling across Sarasota Bay, on that bridge, and we're singing 'Wade in the Water,' " Oldham said.
She partnered with Visit Sarasota to help get the wade-ins added to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. The Civil Rights Trail, like the National Park Service's African American Civil Rights Network, helps travelers retrace Black history by visiting the sites where it was made.
'Recreation and relaxation without humiliation'
Amelia Island – more than 200 miles from Sarasota on Florida's Atlantic coast – has a very different place in African American history.
"We were one of the areas where slave ships came in on the Middle Passage and brought in slaves and had auctions on the island. Of course, it was illegal by the time this happened," said Avis Miller, who runs Coast One Tours with her husband, Ronald Miller.
A local marker from the UNESCO Slave Route Project documents how smugglers got around America's 1808 ban on bringing in enslaved people by going through Amelia Island, which was ruled by Spain at the time.
"Some of the slaves were thrown off the boats," Miller said. "I mean, it's gruesome part of our history, but it's true. They were thrown off the boats, and we still have people going out diving in Atlantic Ocean, finding artifacts from those slave ships and shackles."
From the island's darkest days through the golden era for Black travel, the Millers are passionate about sharing Amelia Island's Black history with others.
One of the places they take visitors to is American Beach, which A. L. Lewis, president of Jacksonville-based Afro-American Life Insurance Company, established as one of Florida's early Black beaches in the 1930s.
"We were limited, at that time, on how many beaches we could go to as Black people," Miller said.
According to the American Beach Museum, which is being renamed the A. L. Lewis Museum, Lewis "wanted to create an oceanfront resort where African Americans could enjoy 'recreation and relaxation without humiliation' during the Jim Crow era."
Miller notes that several local lodgings were included in Victor H. Green's "The Negro Travelers' Green Book" through the years as recommended places to stay.
American Beach remained a booming vacation destination until 1964's Hurricane Dora. The Civil Rights Act then allowed Black beachgoers to visit shores closer to home, according to the island's tourism council.
Ronald Miller, who guides the Coast One tours, lived in the American Beach area and shares his personal experiences with visitors. He also introduces them to other locals who can further expand on Amelia Island's living history.
"He gives you real history," his wife said. "Yes, it's beautiful here. We have some sad things that happened here too, but we want that information to stay alive and continue on."
Holding on to history
Just as Amelia Island had American Beach, Charleston, South Carolina, had Mosquito Beach on the marsh side of James Island.
"Mosquito Beach was one of the few areas that Blacks could go to during segregation and party and have a good time," said Al Miller, no relation to Avis and Ronald Miller, of Sites and Insights Tours.
Most other beaches in the area, like Folly Beach on the Atlantic, were white-only.
"Now they can go there to work in the white people's kitchens, but after dark they had to get off the beach," Miller said. "Here you have Blacks who live less than 10 minutes from a beach but cannot go there to enjoy it."
In 2021, Mosquito Beach joined the National Park Service's African American Civil Rights Network. It's also on the National Register for Historic Places, and plans are underway to restore its former Pine Tree Hotel to its former glory.
"That's going to draw people because, see, this is what people are looking for: Where are these places where people lived? How can we learn more about their culture?" Miller said.
He's proud to share his own culture, which is Geechee, with tourists and locals alike.
The Gullah Geechee people are descendants of enslaved central and West Africans who planted rice and other crops on the coasts and sea islands of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. Miller describes their culture as the closest thing to Africa in the U.S.
"Before these islands were exposed, before they built bridges to them, these people were isolated," Miller said. "African traditions, customs, beliefs, folklore, our diet, our family ties, our religious beliefs – it's all of these things that remain intact from one generation to the next."
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Welcoming the world
Stephanie Jones, founder and CEO of Cultural Heritage Economic Alliance and founder of the National Blacks in Travel and Tourism Collaborative, wants to share this rich history with the world.
Her team is curating Black cultural heritage itineraries for cities and regions across the country, starting with the Southeast. They presented their first batch of available tours as the "first Black-receptive tour operator" at the U.S. Travel Association's annual convention for inbound travel, IPW.
"We had an overwhelming response from international tour operators," she said. "Most of them said: 'We're just happy to see that someone is finally doing this. We're excited because people in our country really do have an interest (in) the Black experience and Black culture in the United States.' ...There's over 400 years of African American, Black history in our country, and so much of it has not been told."
International tour operators will sell the tours in their home countries, but individual travelers will be able to book some packages as well with trips scheduled to begin this summer.
Jones and her team are using the time until then to get small Black-owned businesses they've partnered with, like the Millers' in Amelia Island and Charleston and Oldham's in Sarasota, ready to welcome the world.
"We provide tourism readiness and business enhancement trainings, as well as a certification program to make certain that they are vetted and that they are prepared and positioned to deliver a high-quality experience as partners on the itineraries, but also that they are prepared and positioned to have sustainable businesses and to be able to scale and grow their businesses," she said. "Hopefully, this will open up additional doors of opportunity for them in the industry."
Vickie Oldham can't wait to share Sarasota's history with more international tourists.
"Somebody sacrificed to open (beach) access not only to our local Black community but to them too," she said. "I am anxious to tell the story."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Black history by the beach: Seaside destinations shaped by segregation