Shell Island: The Black Beach Resort That Was Set On Fire
Photo Credit: mapodile

Photo Credit: mapodile

Shell Island: The Black Beach Resort That Was Set On Fire

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Parker Diakite
Parker Diakite Jul 6, 2021

In the 1920s – during the height of the Jim Crow era – a Black beach resort advertised as a “Negro Atlantic City” was created.

Located in Hanover County, North Carolina, Shell Island Resort was created by white developers in 1923 on a 70-acre strip of sand near Wrightsville Beach. It was one of the first places Black people could go to enjoy the beach and water during summer at a time when they were told they didn’t belong.

It was created nearly four years after the Chicago race riots— a violent racial conflict started on the city’s South Side by white Americans against Black Americans. 38 people died during the battle, which started after a group of white people stoned Black teenager Eugene Williams to death for accidentally drifting across the “color line” on the shores of Lake Michigan.  

Shell Island was a resort for Black beachgoers who were not allowed to travel to certain beaches and resorts or beaten to death swimming in the wrong part of the water. Wrightsville Beach Museum of History revealed that Shell Island was the first resort for Black people in America.

Thousands would visit Shell Island daily as it attracted people from all over the country, including New York and Alabama.

Visitors could only access the island from one of four trips made each day by the ferry or trolley. The island had a pavilion, bathhouse, restaurant, and pier, and out of all the amenities at the time, music was reportedly the biggest attraction.

The resort’s founders, Thomas H. Wright, Robert H. Northrop, and Charles B. Parmele, said the resort was “a movement founded in the forethought of liberal businessmen of the South who realize that the Negro’s outlet for social and recreational development has heretofore been severely limited,” as reported in Port City Daily.

Unfortunately, Shell Island only lasted three summers. It was ultimately destroyed in 1926 by a series of fires.  The cause of the fire was never determined but many historians hint that white people at the time were offended by the optics of Black wealth at Shell Island, ultimately setting the resort on fire.