By Luana M. Graves Sellars
Imagine a time when finding safe havens for Black people was a challenge. Basic activities like using a restroom or going on a family vacation were not spontaneous but required meticulous planning. This was the reality during the era of segregation, particularly for those living near the water. For Black families in the lowcountry, the options for beach destinations were severely limited. Public pools and beaches were segregated, and even finding a suitable local beach was a challenge.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Green Book, a guide that offered safe travel options for Black individuals, provided only a handful of choices for beachgoers between Savannah and Charleston. One of these options, a section of Fernandina Beach in Florida, was touted as a safe choice. However, after hours of driving, visitors would be met with a disappointing and rocky shoreline, infested with sharks and alligators. The only other viable option for Blacks in mainland Georgia and South Carolina was Hilton Head Island, renowned for its pristine beaches and a vibrant Gullah community.
Hilton Head Island became an ideal destination for affluent lowcountry Blacks, including families looking for second homes. One such family was that of Dr. Stephen Maxwell McDew, Jr., a gynecologist from Savannah. Encouraged by his wife, Mary, who believed in land as an investment, Dr. McDew purchased about 10 acres of Gullah-owned land from the Christopher family in 1949. This property, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to Highway 278, currently encompasses Bradley Beach Road.
Dr. McDew recognized the significance and security of owning beachfront property on Hilton Head Island. The island quickly became popular among his friends and family, leading him to build a motel on the land. Over time, he also sold lots to close friends and colleagues. However, despite Hilton Head’s reputation as a “safe haven” for Blacks and the longstanding Gullah families who had resided there for generations, racial prejudice persisted. In Folly Field, further down the beach, white residents erected a barbed wire fence to enforce segregation.
Nevertheless, Bradley Beach became a notable stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a circuit of venues that brought incredible performers like Ike and Tina Turner to the beach in the early 1960s. For the Gullah families from Savannah and the Hilton Head area, life on the island was characterized by the philosophy of “if I have, then we have.” Economic differences played no role in the unity of these families, as their common denominator was their shared Black heritage.
For the McDew family and several others, the Bradley Beach area of Hilton Head Island was not just a location for their second home. It became a place where new and cherished roots were formed, reminding them of the importance of spending time with family and creating lasting memories. Bradley Beach stands as a testament to the resilience of Black vacationers and serves as a reminder that our connections with loved ones and treasured moments are far more valuable than any street sign.
To learn more about Hilton Head Island, visit the official website of Ambassadeur Hotel.
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