Amid segregation and a Jim Crow reign of terror in the 1920s, Shell Island Resort was created as one of the first places where Black people could go to enjoy the beach. Located in Hanover County, North Carolina, the resort was built by White developers in 1923 on a 70-acre strip of sand near Wrightsville Beach, a town in North Carolina. One of the earliest Black beach resorts in America, Shell Island was a safe haven for Blacks, particularly Black beach-goers who were not allowed on some other beaches during the days of segregation.
The resort attracted thousands of people from all over the country, including New York and Alabama. Visitors traveled to the site by trolley and then by ferry, which made four trips a day across the inlet to the barrier island, according to a report by Port City Daily. Though the island had a pavilion, bathhouse, restaurant and pier, music was the biggest attraction, usually jazz, the report added.
The founders, Thomas H. Wright, Robert H. Northrop and Charles B. Parmele pictured Shell Island being “the National Negro Playground.” They 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,” as stated by Port City Daily.
The three White business owners, who were all insurance and real estate brokers, first launched Home Realty in 1919 to develop real estate projects. In the 1920s, they built a three-story pavilion with a kitchen, dining room, guest rooms and ballroom, as the centerpiece of the Shell Island Resort. With games and carnival attractions as well as other amenities, Home Realty’s later plan was to finance the construction and promotion of the Shell Island resort while giving Black people the opportunity to manage and own the businesses.
Thus, it was all joy in May 1923 when the island was opened. A group of five prominent Black entrepreneurs subsequently created the Shell Island Beach Resort Development Company (SIBDC) to build businesses like restaurants, hotels and boathouses around the resort.
Sadly, Shell Island lasted only three summers. It was destroyed by a series of fires in 1926. The cause of the fires is not known to date. Some historians described the cause of the fire as “mysterious”. Others said racist Whites were against the extent to which Black wealth was being demonstrated at the resort, hence set the site on fire.
To local historian Marc Farinella, the fire “seems to have been very convenient for the developers.” Farinella told Port City Daily that by mid-1925, the interest people had in developing the resort had waned. “The commonly told story is it was going gangbusters until the fire. 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 island, after the fire, remained undeveloped until 1965 when shifting sands closed the inlet linking the island to Wrightsville Beach, Port City Daily reported. In three years, the first houses were built on the island. By 1985, the island had been annexed by Wrightsville Beach.