Sandwiched between Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach, a small part of Black history—and American history in general—is looking to reclaim its reputation as a town for entertainment and recreation and, best of all, as a place to call home.
Along a 60-mile stretch of the Atlantic Ocean starting at the border of North Carolina and South Carolina and extending southward to the town of Georgetown, S.C., is a coastline many in the area know as the Grand Strand. There are many cities and municipalities along this strand of South Carolina.
The town of Atlantic Beach, nicknamed “The Black Pearl,” has an historic blend of Gullah/Geechee heritage and Black ownership. A byproduct of segregation, the town remains one of only two Black-owned and Black-governed towns on the East Coast today.
Atlantic Beach was a place where Black families went on vacation and also invested in the town by buying up property and opening businesses. Many of its best years took place from the 1930s until desegregation.
Williams Booker, the town manager and a retired DuPont employee of 40 years, used to take his family on vacation in the Myrtle Beach area (including Atlantic Beach) over the years and thought it would be nice to eventually purchase property there because they frequented the area. With a business background, a love of Atlantic Beach and a desire for its revival, Booker took the town manager position.
According to Booker, Atlantic Beach decided to seek its own charter to become its own city as opposed to joining the county outright because they would’ve ended up with one vote on a five- or six-member council. Considering that the town was created as a place for Blacks to stay during segregation, town leaders thought that if they joined the council, it would dilute the town’s power and they would lose any control. The charter was granted in 1966. Booker also believes that the town’s charter was granted for another reason.
“No one said this, but I doubt that the other municipalities would’ve wanted [the all-Black town] of Atlantic Beach to join anyway,” Booker told the AmNews.
Prior to 1966, Atlantic Beach was a thriving area. Some Black people lived there and others came to the area temporarily to work for some of the white families in neighboring towns as gardeners, cooks, house sitters and hotel workers. Due to segregation, Black people had to have some place to go and stay when they weren’t working, so Atlantic Beach had a built-in clientele. It had a built-in economy.
“All of the entertainers came and entertained at the white establishments but couldn’t stay there,” said Booker. “So they would come [to Atlantic Beach] and stay at our hotels and provide entertainment at after-hours spots for the Black folks.” Some of those entertainers included Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Little Richard and Fats Domino.
Jannie Isom has lived at Atlantic Beach since 1963 and remembers its heyday as well.
“It was thriving, that’s for sure,” said Isom. “It was very busy. The highways weren’t paved like they are now. And we used to walk on the dirt roads. And you hardly had room to walk; there was so many people.”
Isom raised six kids while living in Atlantic Beach, but only one lives remotely close (20 miles) to their hometown now. Some now call Atlanta home, and one is stationed in Iraq with the Air Force.
Famous entertainers, a thriving social life and beach fun: While those memories are forever etched in stone into the minds of those who experienced them, integration brought about a different scenario.
As better resources became available at mainstream establishments and other towns, Booker said, “Our people found they had somewhere else to go and spend their money. The children of the people who lived here were able to go to college and there aren’t many real job opportunities along the Grand Strand.” With no industry, no big employers and the younger generation seeing no economic benefit to staying there, the descent began.
“Most jobs are in the tourist trade,” said Booker. “Those jobs don’t pay a lot of money.”
The buildings got older, the tax money needed to maintain property became scarce, and just like many urban areas in the 1970s and 1980s, drugs and prostitution took over and made redevelopment virtually impossible.
“The town has been able to work its way through all of that negative stuff, and we’ve been putting forth effort to demolish buildings that haven’t been destroyed by hurricanes or fires,” said Booker. “The town now is almost a blank canvas, a lot of vacant land that sits on the Atlantic Ocean.”
The town leaders have a vision for how all of that vacant space can be used. On the website for Atlantic Beach, a “Final Master Plan” can be downloaded and read by anyone. It provides a general assessment of the “current economic conditions of the local and regional marketplace” and helps to identify opportunities and targets for redevelopment efforts, including single family housing and second homes, condominiums and timeshares; the creation of an entertainment district with beachfront character; retail opportunities for commercial avenues; Highway 17 opportunities for office development; and the development of community cultural amenities.
There has been one particular festival that has been looking to revive some of the Atlantic Beach love that disappeared decades ago. Four decades ago, a local motorcycle organization called the Carolina Knight Riders came to the beach on Memorial Day weekend, had a cookout and rode their bikes around town. They had such a great time doing it that they told other bike groups about it, and they came as well. It’s now known as the Atlantic Beach Bike Festival.
“It’s probably the largest sports bike rally in the country,” said Booker. “And it is a party-type atmosphere with lots of vendors and music and various levels of entertainment. It has gone through some changes over time when it had evolved to bikers and their families getting together to other people coming and turning it into a ‘Freaknik’ type of event, and we’re trying to transition it back into a biker-family event.”
This year marks the 34th annual Atlantic Beach Bike, Film and Music Festival. Alvin Rogers, of the consulting firm ARLO Entertainment and a tenured professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, is working the community outreach post for this year’s festival, which now attracts more than 300,000 attendees for the three-day weekend. He told the AmNews about the importance of bringing Blacks back to a vacation spot that is “Black-owned” and where “Black-history still lives.”
But Isom, while a fan of the festival, hopes that more than three days of bikes, music and entertainment come to Atlantic Beach in the near future.
“There are so many places to go to now and not as many people come to the beach,” said Isom. “We would like to have something else.”
It’s something that the town, overall, wants as well—something to make them proud of other than their history. Something to remind America, Black America in particular, that they are still here.
“Atlantic Beach still struggles to exist and awaits the return of the African-American family, the family she rolled out the red carpet for, when Blacks were forbidden to enter other beaches,” reads a statement on the area’s website. “Abandoned by her own, Atlantic Beach shall rise again in spite of all that has happened through the years.”
It’s seen better days, but there are several people invested in making sure the past glory of Atlantic Beach returns to the present.