Shell Island Resort was built in the 1920s under segregation and a Jim Crow reign of terror as one of the first sites where Black people could go to the beach. The resort, which is located in Hanover County, North Carolina, was developed in 1923 on a 70-acre sand strip in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, by White developers.
Shell Island was one of America’s first Black beach resorts, providing a safe haven for Blacks, particularly those who were not permitted to visit other beaches during the segregation era.
Thousands of people came from all over the country, including New York and Alabama, to see the resort.
According to a report by Port City Daily, visitors arrived at the site by trolley and then by ferry, which made four trips a day across the inlet to the barrier island. The island had a pavilion, bathhouse, restaurant, and pier, but music, usually jazz, was the main attraction, according to the report.
Shell Island was envisioned by its founders, Thomas H. Wright, Robert H. Northrop, and Charles B. Parmele, as “the National Negro Playground.” According to Port City Daily, they advertised the resort as “a movement formed in the foresight of liberal merchants of the South who see that the Negro’s outlet for social and recreational growth has historically been severely limited.”
Home Realty was founded in 1919 by three White business owners who were all insurance and real estate agents who wanted to establish real estate ventures. As the highlight of the Shell Island Resort, they built a three-story pavilion with a kitchen, dining room, guest rooms, and ballroom in the 1920s. Home Realty’s eventual idea was to finance the building and advertising of the Shell Island resort while offering Black people the opportunity to run and control the companies with games and carnival attractions, among other amenities.
When the island was first opened in May 1923, it was a joyous occasion. Shell Island Beach Resort Development Company (SIBDC) was founded by a group of five notable Black entrepreneurs to develop enterprises such as restaurants, hotels, and boathouses around the resort.
Shell Island, however, only lasted three summers. In 1926, it was completely destroyed by a series of fires. The cause of the fires has been yet to be determined. The cause of the fire has been termed a “mystery” by certain historians. Others said that prejudiced Whites were outraged by the extent to which Black riches were displayed at the resort and set fire to it.
The fire “seems to have been quite advantageous for the developers,” according to local historian Marc Farinella. People’s interest in developing the resort had diminished by mid-1925, according to Farinella of Port City Daily. “According to popular belief, everything was going swimmingly until the fire. The developers, in reality, had bailed out a year prior to the fire. No one seemed interested in continuing to construct a Black resort on Shell Island by the time the fire occurred.”
After the fire, the island remained undeveloped until 1965, when shifting sands closed the entrance connecting the island to Wrightsville Beach, according to the Port City Daily. The first houses on the island were completed in three years. By 1985, Wrightsville Beach had annexed the island.
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