Local museum's newest exhibit highlights region's historic Black beaches

Posted at 9:05 AM, Sep 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-15 10:53:27-04

HAMPTON, Va. - A fence in the water, separating Black from White.

That was the setup along Hampton's Chesapeake Bay waterfront in the first half of the 20th century. On one side sat the 'White-only' Buckroe Beach. On the other, Bay Shore Beach; a space on the sand for the city's Black population.

"It was one of the earliest established. It was established in 1897. Most of the other kind of focused African American beaches were established after World War II," said Allen Hoilman, Curator for the Hampton History Museum, set to debut its new exhibit, Historic Black Beaches: Bay Shore and Other Memorable Sands, on Saturday, September 18.

The exhibit will feature artifacts and photos from beaches established by African Americans after segregation laws barred them from public beaches reserved for Whites.

Black beaches

Hoilman says people often pooled their resources, creating spaces that thrived with resort hotels, amusement parks and, in Bay Shore's case, a music hall that welcomed acts like Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong.

"There are so many people locally and in Richmond especially that remember Bay Shore in its heyday. Those folks are still young enough to really have those fond memories and want to share them," said Hoilman of the new exhibit.

The space will be split in half with information related to Hampton and Bay Shore on one side and a traveling exhibit from Elizabeth City's Museum of the Albemarle on the other, featuring Black beaches in Virginia Beach and Northeastern North Carolina.

Once the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, Hoilman says the end of segregation rendered many Black beaches obsolete. By the late-1970s Bay Shore Beach was gone. Today, it's been redeveloped with nothing but a historical marker at the southern end of Buckroe Beach.

It's a time now decades in the past, but considering Hampton's 400-year African American history, Hoilman says it's less time than most would think. The exhibit, a chance for the museum to teach a new generation about segregation and how it affected people.

Bay Shore carousel
Bay Shore Beach carousel

"Hampton is a very complex city," he said. "It has had better luck (and) more success in integration than some other cities have had, but those tensions were still there. We were never isolated from that and this is a kind of clear example."

A virtual event, "The 7th Annual Bay Shore Experience," will mark the opening of the exhibit on Saturday at 6 p.m.

Historic Black Beaches: Bay Shore and Other Memorable Sands will be free to the public through the weekend with admission rates taking effect following. The exhibition is scheduled to be on display into 2022.