By Luana M. Graves Sellars
Gullah Beach Day by Sonja Griffin Evans
At a time when segregation was at its height, finding safe havens for Blacks were limited. Simple things that are common place now, like finding a bathroom or a place to spend a family vacation, regardless of social or economic status, could not be spontaneous; they had to be well planned.
During that time, in the lowcountry, even if you lived near the water, Blacks were limited as to where they could go to the beach. A simple beach vacation or a day at the beach usually called for the Green Book, a guide that offered safe travel options for Blacks in the 1950’s and 60’s; although it provided only a limited number of good options from Savannah to Charleston.
Public pools and the beach, were segregated. When looking for a suitable local beach, one such “available” location, was a section of Fernandina Beach, Florida. Considered a safe option, the beach, which, after driving for several hours, was a disappointing rock filled area that was shark and alligator infested. The only other option, for mainland Georgia and South Carolina Blacks, was Hilton Head’s pristine beaches and a community that contained a large Gullah population.
For lowcountry Blacks, especially those who were more affluent and looking for second homes, found Hilton Head to be ideal. One such doctor, Savannah gynecologist, Dr. Stephen Maxwell McDew, Jr. found Hilton Head Island to be the perfect place for his family to safely spend their vacations, especially after the insistence of his wife, Mary, who was a strong believer in using land as an investment.
In 1949, the McDew’s purchased roughly 10 acres of Gullah owned land, from the Christopher family. Named after Mary’s brother, John Bradley, who died in his 40’s, the property stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to Highway 278 in the area that is currently Bradley Beach Road.
Dr. McDew understood the significance and particularly the security that of owning beach front property on Hilton Head afforded his family. The island getaway became so popular with his friends and family that he built a motel on the land and eventually, he sold some lots to his friends and colleagues.
Even though, Hilton Head was generally considered a “safe haven” for Blacks and the Gullah families that lived on the island for generations, racial prejudice still existed. Further down the beach at Folly Field, the white residents erected a barbed wire fence to ensure that the beaches remained segregated.
Regardless of the racial issues, Bradley Beach was a stop on the Chitterling Circuit, bringing incredible performances from Ike and Tina Turner and others to the beach in the early 1960’s.
Life on the island for the Gullah was one that was based on the philosophy of “if I have, then we have” and the blending of different economic levels played no part in how the families, from Savannah and the Hilton Head Gullah came together. “The common denominator was that they were all Black.”
For the McDew’s and several other families, the Bradley Beach area of the island, wasn’t just the location of their second home. For them, and like most of us, being on the island became the source of new and cherished roots, that remind us all that time with family and memories are more than just the name on a street sign.
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