Environmental justice: Comparing historic coastal segregation to modern beach access

As ocean waves crash along Jupiter Beach, five Gettysburg College students find themselves stuck, unable to safely continue their trek across the sand due to a massive concrete patio that extends from a private club all the way to the shoreline. It’s what brought these student researchers to Florida, to document barriers to public beach access in areas with a history of segregation.

Led by non-resident expert Dr. Howard Ernst, students in the Eisenhower Institute’s yearlong Environmental Leadership program examined a 12-mile stretch of the coastline in Palm Beach County, much of it on foot. They carefully marked every access point and restrictions that make it difficult to walk to or along the beach. In some areas, private residential and commercial development appears to block access, either physically or by suggestion. There are private structures that extend onto the beach, gated communities, and areas where public walkways are hidden within neighborhoods. “Private drive” and “tow away zone” signs nearby make it unclear if people who don’t live there are welcome.

“In some places it’s hard to determine if you can simply walk on the beach without encroaching on private property,” says Eisenhower Institute Executive Director Tracie Potts, who accompanied the team on their spring break trip. “While there are plenty of public access points, gated communities and confusing signs are a deterrent. In a county where 43 percent of residents are Black and Latino—and expensive beachfront property is almost exclusively owned by wealthy white residents—this creates troubling concerns about equitable access for people of color.”

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Program participants have spent several years examining beach access along Florida’s Atlantic coast. In 2020, students conducted demographic surveys and published research that found a correlation between available parking, water quality and racial composition of beachgoers. In areas with more parking and higher water quality, fewer minorities were present. The 2022 field research builds on that report. Each student was responsible for researching, planning and leading a section of this environmental justice project.

Meghan Clark, a junior Environmental Studies and Public Policy major, says the experience helped her grow academically and personally. “Not only did I learn about beach access and the lasting impacts of segregation, but I learned how to be an impactful leader. The best method to getting any job done is simply to have respect and understand where those you are working with come from. Not everyone will have the same beliefs, but we all have something that connects us as humans and we need to do that to make any meaningful change.”

In addition to examining access, the team dug into the history of segregated beaches in Florida. Their journey began on Amelia Island, where American Beach was established in 1935 as a haven for African-American families who could not enjoy nearby public beaches due to restrictive Jim Crow laws. As families purchased property there, a vibrant Black coastal community emerged with its own hotel, restaurants, nightclub, and other businesses. At less than a square mile, it was known as the place “recreation and relaxation without humiliation.”

Regina Finley visited American Beach as a teenager. She told students it “was a place of freedom where we felt ‘This is ours’. We didn’t have to act a certain way or be afraid of what was going to happen. You were actually free. You could frolic on the beach. They had plane rides. They had all kinds of activities for us. We didn’t have to worry about where we were going to go to eat. Whatever was down there, the sandwich shop or the other areas, they were all there for us.” (full interview)

As discriminatory practices subsided, Black people vacationed and bought homes in more popular integrated areas. Marsha Dean Phelts, a former librarian and author of “An American Beach for African Americans,” returned and built a home facing the ocean. She fears historic markers and planned renovations won’t be enough to preserve the American Beach history, urging future generations “Don’t let it go. We have paid too much.”

Students spent a day with Phelts learning the community’s history. They visited a cemetery nearly hidden from public view where slave descendants and pioneers of Black coastal communities are buried. They stood on massive sand dunes that scatter the landscape, overlooking $2 million new construction next to older homes and buildings in disrepair. Phelts welcomes new neighbors, but she’s also concerned about development erasing the culture and legacy that a generation fought to create. “What the county and the money is saying is ‘Baby, you are in my way.’” 

Sophomore Oscar Winch appreciates seeing this history up close. “I think it was really valuable experience. Going there in person was so different than just hearing about it in a history book, and I'll never forget how important some of the places like American Beach were to the people we met.”

Further south students stopped by the former Monson Motor Lodge site in St. Augustine where a hotel owner poured chemicals in a swimming pool to prevent Blacks from swimming there. They visited historic Black coastal communities including a home along Florida’s Freedom Trail in Butler Beach where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders stayed before being arrested amid “wade/ins” to protest segregated beaches.

In Palm Beach County, students pinpointed the locations of three former Black beaches. Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse historian Josh Liller took the team to one site where the county sold land to a developer and shifted the road north to build high-rise condominiums. Where the Black beach once existed, there’s now a guard gate. Liller explained that, like American Beach, Jupiter’s original Black community is shrinking. “They have grown. I think there’s probably several thousand African Americans in the Jupiter area. But the area around them has grown so much faster that they went from a third of the population to like two or three percent of the population. And they’re not even the prominent minority anymore in the area.”

Avernel Matthew’s cousin ran the concession stand at Jupiter’s Black beach. Another relative was a lifeguard there. Matthews remembers the beach crowded with families on holiday weekends when she was 12 years old.

“There used to be barbecue pits there and people would get there at four or five in the morning to get their car there especially on the Fourth of July,” Matthews told students. “The Black beach was a place where families gathered on weekends to get together, to have fun, to mingle…you spent all day playing in the water and there was always a lifeguard there.”

To further document the existence of Black coastal communities, students dug through county archives to learn about the Styx community that disappeared from Palm Beach Island. They visited one of two mass gravesites where hundreds of unidentified African-American hurricane victims were buried. Four are relatives of Spady Cultural Heritage Museum director Charlene Farrington. She recalls her grandmother explaining how they clung to a door to survive. “While they were on the door in the throes of the storm my grandmother saw the body of one of her brothers float by.” (hear the full story)

The injustice of this environmental disaster and how victims were laid to rest has impacted generations. “The black bodies were buried in mass graves and not identified,” Farrington explained. “The white bodies were laid out, identified by relatives, and given burials.”

Hearing these memories and lived experiences had a deep impact on students. Sophomore Casey Deck, an Environmental Studies and Political Science major, “learned that just as the environment shapes society, society shapes the environment. Historically American society has used beaches as a sort of commodity, both for economic gain and for the enforcement of structural racism. That the strips of sand produced by the forces of nature become barriers between demographics, and justification for acts of hate. And I learned that this fact is seldom expressed or rarely understood by people who have not directly experienced it.” He looks forward to the team’s “Hidden History” QR codes, strategically placed at these sites, to tell these stories. First-year Amanda Price notes that “personal histories, or the history people don’t want to remember, are always important missing pieces.”

But sharing these experiences can be painful, opening raw wounds of oppression. Dr. Ernst hopes this project delivers an important lesson on human connections. “This kind of research requires getting out of your comfort zone and talking to people from different backgrounds. Most importantly, I learned that people are happy to discuss their personal histories, even if those histories are painful, if you approach them with an open mind and empathy.”

It's the voices that Meghan Clark won’t forget. “I will remember the voices of the people we spoke to who lived through atrocities we only saw in textbooks, and that their history can only be told for so much longer,” she says. “It’s our responsibility to remember and tell those stories in a meaningful way so that their history never goes unheard.”

By Tracie Potts
Photos courtesy of Tracie Potts
Posted: 03/27/22