Reviving a forgotten beach called Bay Shore
There was a time when going swimming as a Black person in the south was a near impossibility. From the 1870s through the 1960s, Virginia was among southern states that enacted a number of Jim Crow laws, mandating that restaurants, public transportation and other public gathering places be separated by race. The restrictions applied to recreation areas, as well, which meant that public parks, pools and beaches were segregated. And in many cases, facilities and services that Black tax dollars helped to support were closed to those same taxpayers.
In 1898, a bookkeeper at Hampton Institute, now known as Hampton University, got an idea to create a beachfront escape for Black people in the region, and that place became the popular resort known as Bay Shore Beach. Bay Shore was adjacent to Buckroe Beach and operated as a holiday destination for thousands of Black beachgoers for many decades. Reggie Robinson remembers Bay Shore with great fondness, and he has become the de facto keeper of the memories and memorabilia of Bay Shore. Robinson shared his recollections and his collection of Bay Shore treasures with Angie Miles.
TRANSCRIPT OF VIDEO
REGINALD ROBINSON: Bay Shore is a beach that used to be located down in Hampton, Virginia. Bay Shore was a place that entertained thousands of people every summer, that drew the greatest entertainers from around the country. Bay Shore was a beach that had the clearest water. You could actually see to the bottom. Bay Shore had lifeguards, even though the story at the time was that Black people could not swim, we had lifeguards. So if we couldn't swim, we still had someone to save our lives.
Bay Shore had everything that Virginia Beach has now, it was just not as large. Bay Shore was equipped for every accommodation you could possibly want from a hotel at its beach that had a magnificent hotel. To me, it was humongous. It was like going into the Taj Mahal to me. It was a great big hotel. You went in, you checked in, there was no elevator. You walked upstairs to get to your room. The room had double beds. I slept on a cart, 25 cents for a cart. Had a little black and white television with the knobs on top, on the little wire stand. They had a bar, had a nightclub and they had a place for you to eat. They served the best food, deviled crabs and scrambled eggs with country ham... Yes. (chuckles)
So, Bay Shore started out as a place for Hampton Normal Agricultural students before it became Hampton Institute for students. Football players and their basketball players, more or less their sports related students to train and convalesce after different events that they were going to do. And it was also actually set up to house visiting dignitaries to the institute at the time. So Mr. Franks D. Banks was the bookkeeper at Hampton Institute and he was on his trip to the Chesapeake Bay one Sunday afternoon. And he noticed that, as usual back then, they didn't have nowhere for Black people to actually go to the beach. So he figured it's about time, we need to have a place of our own. We pay taxes. We are human beings. We should have somewhere to enjoy, have a place in the sun.
So, he got together with a couple of other guys at Hampton and they put together their money. I think it came to like $15,000. What they did was they broke it up into $10 shares. And they purchased some land from a white gentleman who didn't particularly care about Black people, but the guy was welcoming because he was having a rough time with his neighbors and he wanted to get back at them. And he knew the best way to get back at them was to sell a portion of his property to some Black people that would really get under their skin. So, he did. He sold them an acre. They took that acre, they turned it into a four-room cottage with a concession stand. 'Cause at the time you couldn't go to any of the pools here in Richmond. They didn't have any public pools for Black people, even though Black people were paying their taxes like everybody else. And you could go to the James River, but you took a chance going to the James River because you might get lynched or anything could happen to you at the James River. So, them opening up Bay Shore and turning it into a just kind of small resort was a godsend for many Black people, not only in Richmond, but in Petersburg and Colonial Heights and Norfolk. And as time grown by the 1930s, they had a 70-room hotel. They had a shooting gallery. They had a merry-go-round, which they purchased in 1914. They had a rollercoaster and they had numerous concession stands. Even though business picked up, they had to contend with one thing, mother nature.
In August of 1933, they had a storm called the Great King Storm. And this storm destroyed almost 75% of the hotel. In fact, the Bay Shore Hotel stretched from the shoreline all the way to the very tip of the Chesapeake Bay. You could come out of your room and actually dip your foot in the water. So it destroyed all of that. And they had to rebuild. Now the problem is, we're talking about 1930s America. Now, Buckroe Beach, their neighbor, they got a substantial amount of money from the federal government to rebuild. Whereas Bay Shore, they only got $15,000 back. Now what can you do with $15,000 when you've got a 70 room hotel to repair, you've got a merry-go-round, and you've got a destroyed wooden rollercoaster? You can't do much. They went and took that money and rebuilt their pavilion, which housed all their dances and cotillions.
And in fact, I think Bay Shore's pavilion and hotel structure were on the Chitlin circuit. So many of the artists that you and I might have grown up watching, actually visited there. And the best part was not only did they visit there and play there, they could stay there and they could go through the front door. So they didn't have to worry about none of that, "Well, you know, you can play here, but you can't stay here." They could stay there and they can enjoy the food there. Well, there was Ella Fitzgerald, I think she grew up I Newport News. There was Pearl Bailey, who also grew up in Newport News. There was Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and my favorite James Brown. In fact, I went to see James Brown in 1966 at the City Stadium. Tickets were 99 cents. Me and my mother went, and it was sponsored by our radio station that doesn't exist anymore, WANT your favorite radio. Oh yes, we had a ball and I was the only kid there dressed up with a suit and tie on and a felt hat with a feather sticking out of it. But I enjoyed myself, yes. Who else came to Bay Shore? Martha The Vandellas, Sam Cook, Otis Redding. It's just too numerous to mention how many stars.
ANGIE MILES: So was Buckroe Beach already in existence?
REGINALD ROBINSON: Buckroe Beach, I believe, opened in 1855 and Bay Shore didn't open until 1898. And in fact, there's a story that I found hard to believe. 'Cause when I started doing our event down in Hampton nine years ago, I was going around to different people in Hampton asking them questions. And it was something they said that I never noticed the whole time we went down there, there actually used to be a fence in the water to separate the races. They had a fence that ran from the shoreline all the way into the deepest end of the Chesapeake Bay so that Black people stayed on their side and white people stayed on their side. It's amazing to me that you would have a fence in the water, when Bay Shore is notorious for jellyfish stinging you. Now the jellyfish don't care what color you are, whether you are white or Black. So, if there's a fence in the water, it might keep the races separated, but it's not going to stop the jellyfish from stinging somebody white over there and coming right over there and stinging a Black person.
But there were other Black beaches as well, right?
REGINALD ROBINSON: Oh yes, there was Seaview Beach in Norfolk. There was Sunset Lake Park in Chesapeake. Now, there was Chow Wind Beach, Bire Shores and Hargraves Beach in North Carolina. And there were a couple of other beaches. Oh, there was Log Cabin Beach in Williamsburg and there were quite a few other beaches. In fact, we've honored quite a few of those with Bay Shore Beach Hall of Fame plaques. And we plan on inducting every Black beach that was in the United States that we can actually find into the Bay Shore Beach Hall of Fame. Because even I didn't know half of these beaches existed until I got further into the Bay Shore Beach story. I didn't know half of these beaches existed.