NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– It was advertised as “a Negro Atlantic City.”
Built by white developers in 1923 on a 70-acre strip of sand north of Wrightsville Beach, the Shell Island Resort was one of the first places where Blacks could go to enjoy the beach in the oppressive Jim Crow America.
Thousands of visitors from as far away as New York and Alabama traveled by trolley and then by ferry, which made four trips a day across the inlet to the barrier island. Once on the island, beachgoers enjoyed a pavilion, bathhouse, restaurant and pier. Music was the biggest attraction at the pavilion, primarily featuring jazz, according to “Color Line in the Sand,” a master’s thesis written by UNCW student Jennifer J. Edwards in 2003.
The founders, Thomas H. Wright, Robert H. Northrop and Charles B. Parmele, marketed the resort as “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.”
Shell Island lasted three summers until the resort was destroyed by a series of fires in 1926. The cause of the fires is usually described as “mysterious” or of “undetermined origin,” but there is a hint whites offended by demonstration of Black wealth set the resort ablaze ending the dream of these forward-thinking developers.
“The resort’s instant popularity and high returns testified to the potential profits white investors saw in black leisure,” wrote Andrew W. Kahrl in his book “The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South.” “While its sudden, and unceremonious, end underscored the perceived threat black leisure space posed to the regional economy.”
Local historian Marc Farinella – who moved to Wilmington three years ago – heard about the resort, but when he started to look for more information, he said he found very little detail. So, he started doing his own research.
“I think it is a culturally important site,” Farinella said. “It was one of the earliest Black resorts. It was a destination for Blacks who lived throughout the eastern United States.”
Farinella spent the last 10 months digging into real estate records and media accounts. What he found wasn’t racist whites retaliating against a Black resort, but instead a story all too familiar in Wilmington: developers looking to dump a bad investment.
“The commonly told story is it was going gangbusters until the fire,” Farinella said. “What really happened was that the developers bailed out a year before the fire. By the time the fire occurred, no one seemed to have any interest in continuing to develop a Black resort on Shell Island. The fire seems to have been very convenient for the developers.”
‘National Negro Playground‘`
Shell Island was created in the wake of the Black community’s campaign to gain beach access, according to Farinella. The petition was killed by local landowners until 1923 when Wright, Northrop and Parmele started to develop Shell Island, which at the time wasn’t connected to Wrightsville Beach. According to advertising and media reports, they envisioned it being “the National Negro Playground.”
The group launched Home Realty in 1919 to develop real estate projects. All three white business owners were insurance and real estate brokers.
Wright was the former mayor of Wrightsville Beach, and a member of the family for which Wrightsville takes its name.
Northrop married Wright’s sister and was the Wrightsville Beach city treasurer when his brother-in-law was mayor.
Parmele was a World War I veteran and the son of Edgar Parmele, Wilmington’s police chief installed after the 1898 coup.
A three-story pavilion with a ballroom, kitchen, dining room, and guest rooms was the centerpiece of the resort. Around it was a bathhouse, carnival attractions and games, and a separate hotel and guest cottages.
Home Realty’s plan was to finance construction and promotion of the resort, but allow Blacks to manage and own the businesses. Home Realty figured the money was in the sale of 270 summer cottage lots to middle-class Blacks.
“The draw was the resort, but the developers were going to make their money by selling lots,” Farinella said.
In addition to Home Realty, a group of five prominent Black entrepreneurs created the Shell Island Beach Resort Development Company (SIBDC) in October 1923. The “all negro corporation” included Dr. Frank W. Avant, president of the New Hanover County Negro Medical Society, Shiloh Baptist Church Pastor W. H. Moore, John E. Taylor, who served as the deputy collector of customs for the Port of Wilmington, funeral parlor owner Robert McLaughlin and attorney Robert McCants Andrews.
The company was formed to build businesses like hotels, restaurants and boathouses around the resort, according to Farinella. SIBDC and Home Realty worked together to develop the island, which opened on May 30, 1923 to much fanfare and media coverage.
“Shell Island Beach is the only exclusive, high-class seaside resort for colored people,” according to an October 1923 story in the Chicago Defender.
White leaders — including members of the Secret Nine who took part in the 1898 Wilmington Coup — championed the project to help stem the great migration of Black workers from the South.
“In 1898, the white elite did not set out to eradicate Blacks from Wilmington,” Farinella said. “To the contrary, they needed them. The objective of the white elite was to reverse ‘Negro domination’ and restore white rule.”
In a June 1923 story, the white-owned Charlotte Observer summed up Shell Island this way:
“[T]he negroes appear deeply appreciative of the good-will of the white people, as established in providing this pleasure place for their own use, and undoubtedly it is going to operate in maintenance of the best of relations between the races in the locality.”
But the black-owned Pittsburgh Courier put it a different way in September 1923:
“The whole state is in sympathy with the new idea, and the best whites and blacks have agreed that migration can be stopped by the South itself, if the two races but agree that the migration is the cause of improper treatment toward the migrants. The races at Wilmington have agreed that common justice, a square deal, and a living opportunity shall be given the Negro who loves law, order, and progress.”
Historian Lettie Shumate, host of Sincerely, Lettie podcast, said places like Shell Island and Seabreeze — another Black resort once located on the southside of the county on Pleasure Island at what’s now Freeman Park — were safe havens for Blacks living under Jim Crow.
“It was a place to vacation,” she said. “It was a place to relax, where Blacks could take back ownership of space, time and leisure. Things Black people weren’t allowed to take part in.”
But Shumate cautioned Shell Island wasn’t the same as the Black-owned Seabreeze. The resort was on the rise in the 1920s, survived hurricanes and grew into a destination for Blacks well into the 1960s.
“Seabreeze represents survival, tenacity and resilience in a white world,” Shumate said. “[Shell Island] appears to help Black people, but it is not that at all. It is laced with lies and capitalistic gain.”
For all the fanfare, after three summers, Home Realty abandoned the Shell Island project. Poor sales likely led to the move, according to Farinella. He searched New Hanover County records and only found records of two sales: the first to Martha Gilmore in June 1923.
“The land transactions recorded by the county indicate that very few lots were sold,” he said.
The company’s assets from other more lucrative projects were split between the three partners. SIBDC dissolved in 1925 when it lost its articles of incorporation after it failed to file tax reports.
But Shell Island wasn’t split. Instead, it was sold in whole – including the two purchased lots – to Charles W. Bannerman, treasurer of the Northrop Insurance Agency and an officer in SIBDC, for $50 ($682 in 2020), according to Farinella.
Things didn’t improve either when Bannerman took ownership.
“There is no indication that Bannerman, as the new owner of Shell Island, sold any additional lots,” Farinella said in a memo detailing his findings.
Nine months later, Bannerman sold Shell Island back to Parmele and Wright for $100, double the price he’d paid.
“The dissolution of Home Realty; the sale of the island to Bannerman; the purchase by Bannerman of one of the two lots owned by Blacks; the sale of the island back to Parmele and Wright; the involuntary dissolution of SIBDC and perhaps even the emergence of Bannerman as an officer of SIBDC all seem to suggest that by mid-1925, there was little intention by anyone to continue developing an African-American resort or summer community on Shell Island,” Farinella said.
Shell Island held on for another year until a series of fires in 1926 burned the resort to the ground. The island stayed undeveloped until 1965 when shifting sands closed the inlet linking the island to Wrightsville Beach. The first houses sprung up three years later and development picked up in 1985 when Wrightsville Beach extended roads and utilities and annexed the island.
But this time, the houses were built for white people.
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