On the evening of August 6, 1923, thousands of spectators crammed the decks of Wrightsville Beach’s grand dance hall to watch an estimated 1,000 hooded Klansman welcome 30 new initiates, as two enormous flaming wooden crosses towered overhead.
The Klan as it existed then was a reconstituted descendent of the white supremacist fraternity active during Reconstruction. The ceremony was the Klan’s first event in Wrightsville.
Mayor Thomas H. Wright must have wondered if the re-emergence of the Klan was going to be a problem. Wright, 46, was a member of the prominent family for whom the beach town had been named and a well-known real estate developer.
It was most likely not in his elected capacity but his business endeavors that Wright would have had concerns. Just north across the inlet, on an unincorporated sliver of scrub and sand then known as Shell Island but today part of Wrightsville Beach, the mayor was building a first-class seaside resort and summer cottage community for African-Americans.
And while the Klan rally wasn’t a direct response to the resort, it was certainly a sign of the times. The Klan was digging in, but others in the white business class were growing increasingly concerned about what the Great Migration meant for them. Black workers were heading north to take advantage of newly-available jobs in factories, steel mills, railroads, and mines that offered higher wages, better conditions, and an escape from the Jim Crow South. Wright was looking to turn a profit, but his venture would also help stop the outflow of cheap Black labor by improving race relations and social conditions.
The Shell Island Beach Resort, advertised as the “National Negro Playground,” had the potential to change Wrightsville. But when I moved to southeastern North Carolina several years ago, I was struck by how little was known about it. As one of the nation’s earliest Black seaside resorts, it was a culturally important site, yet that history had largely been forgotten. I felt its story was worth uncovering and preserving, so I spent months diving into an inhospitable database of land transfer records and pre-digital local newspaper archives to find out what really happened.
Throughout the first decades of the 20th century, Black North Carolinians had been unsuccessfully pushing for access to Wrightsville’s pristine beaches.
A prominent group of Black citizens, along with white business leaders, petitioned the island’s dominant developer, Tidewater Power Company, in 1917:”Inasmuch as there is no resort nearby where the colored people can enjoy the benefits of refreshing breezes in the open, so necessary to recreation, health and happiness, and because of which, among other things,so many are leaving for other cities where such provisions are made, we, the undersigned, do herein petition your honorable company to set aside for use of the colored race the southern extremity of Wrightsville Beach.”
In the Jim Crow South, swimming at the same beach as whites was obviously out of the question. But even setting aside a section of shoreline for Black residents was unacceptable to many locals.
But Wright had endorsed the 1917 petition, and many other civic and business leaders supported the idea of providing some form of beach access, with the specification that there be separate trolley cars designated for the trip from Wilmington to Wrightsville.
Self-interest motivated others in the white business community, as The Wilmington Dispatch noted: “[C]ompliance with their request would probably tend to lessen the migration of negroes North, which has assumed alarming proportions at times.”
The flight of Blacks from New Hanover County had been even more acute and commenced earlier than the exodus now known as the Great Migration. In 1898, white vigilante Democrats in Wilmington, with the support of local militias and enthusiastic encouragement of the leadership of the state Democratic Party and the state’s largest newspaper, staged their campaign of intimidation and murderous rampage to topple the local biracial government, restore white supremacy, and, in their perverted view, avert “Negro Domination.”
It was the only successful coup d’etat in the history of the United States. Black officials elected on a “Fusion” coalition ticket were driven from office along with their allied white Republican mayor and other white Republican officeholders. Dozens—maybe considerably more—of Black citizens were killed in the carnage.
Not surprisingly, the Wilmington massacre incited an exodus. The 1900 decennial census revealed a decline in Wilmington’s Black population and a shift in the city’s total population from majority black to majority white.
Before the insurrection, Wilmington Democrats had been resentful of Black residents taking jobs that could otherwise go to white residents. But it didn’t take long for white businessmen to realize they had a problem. As the coup’s chief demagogue and newly installed mayor Alfred Moore Waddell noted just weeks later, “there is a certain class of black labor we cannot well get along without … Wages are very low in the south, and I doubt if we could get white men to come down here and work for anything like the negroes receive.”
Wright’s thoughts about the 1898 massacre are not recorded, but at the time he was a member of the Wilmington Light Infantry, a component of the official state militia locally under the command of the coup leaders. He had been present for and possibly involved in at least one episode of intimidation and violence led by the militia’s local commanders.
What is clear is that Wright saw an opportunity in establishing a high-class Black beach resort on an uninhabited island north of Wrightsville Beach.
Shell Island’s two miles of beachfront would fulfill a long-standing social and recreational need for New Hanover County’s Black community, while allowing Wilmington’s white business community to demonstrate a commitment to improving race relations and living conditions for the Black laborers they so desperately needed.
And Wright thought it would be lucrative. While he planned to let local Black investors, managers, and entrepreneurs reap the financial benefits of the resort’s concessions, amusements, restaurants, and hotels, the windfalls of selling real estate and financing home construction on the island’s 280 lots would come to Wright and his two business partners.
But the idea wouldn’t work without the ability to move people from downtown Wilmington to Shell Island. There was only one person who could make that happen: Hugh MacRae, president of Tidewater Power, which owned and operated the electric trolley line between Wilmington and Wrightsville.
MacRae was the principal developer of Wrightsville Beach as well as other major properties along the trolley line. His legacy is controversial. He contributed greatly to the region’s development, but he had also been a leader of the “Secret Nine,” the group of white supremacist business leaders that planned and helped execute the 1898 coup and had personally led a mob of vigilante white gunman.
But MacRae was amenable to letting Black riders travel to Shell Island on the electric trolley line servicing Wrightsville Beach—although in entirely separate trolley cars on an entirely separate schedule. And just before crossing over Banks Channel to Wrightsville Beach, MacRae laid a new rail spur that diverted Shell Island-bound passengers to a fenced-in terminal where a ferry service would convey them the rest of the way.
When the Shell Island resort project was publicly announced on Feb. 16, 1923, The Wilmington News reported that the Tidewater Power Company was able to assure riders that “there would not be the slightest contact between the races.”
With the transportation issue resolved, Wright got to work consolidating Shell Island land ownership. Within a few months, his Home Realty Company had acquired all but the northern tip of the island, where wealthy bottler George Hutaff owned an estimated five acres. Hutaff’s love for his remote fishing retreat was well-known, but Wright’s acquisition of the rest of the land pushed him to concede. (Hutaff later bought his own uninhabited barrier island to pursue his favorite pastime.)
Construction of the resort complex started at a breakneck pace. At the southern end of the island, teams of contractors erected a three-story, finely-appointed pavilion to serve as the resort’s recreation and entertainment center. Boardwalks, the new trolley spur, and ferry piers were soon sprouted from the shores.
Doors opened on May 30, Decoration Day, and within a month, the white-owned Wilmington Dispatch proclaimed the resort to be “immensely popular.” Black and white newspapers alike lauded the project.
Shell Island “promises to be not only a convention and excursion center, but to be the summer home for some of the best citizens of the race,” wrote the Norfolk’s Black-owned New Journal & Guide. The Charlotte Observer, a white-owned paper, declared that “[p]erhaps no city in the South has done quite so big a thing for its negro population as Wilmington has done in the creation of Shell Island.”
Indeed, by all accounts the resort was wildly popular, drawing local residents, rail excursionists, vacationers, and conventioneers from across the eastern United States—for all of three years.
On June 2, 1926, a fire destroyed the pavilion and other structures at the resort. Some speculated that white residents displeased with the influx of Black tourists or the display of Black wealth set it. “[T]here were suspicions that it was no accident,” noted an African-American woman who grew up near the island in a 1999 interview with celebrated local historian Susan Block Taylor, for her book Cape Fear Beaches.
Shell Island “may have been too successful or otherwise angered whites,” wrote Ray McAllister, an award-winning chronicler of North Carolina’s coast, in his book Wrightsville Beach, The Luminous Island. However, evidence that the fire was the result of arson is scant. In any case, most accounts suggest it was the fire that ended the resort.
A deeper dive suggests a different reason for the project’s demise: The Shell Island resort had become a business failure for Wright and his partners well before the inferno. Buried in the Wrightsville city council minutes and unreported in any other surviving materials, I learned that, on Oct. 7, 1924, Wright abruptly resigned in the middle of his mayoral term, stating that he “was forced to do this on account of pressure of other business.”
But it was my time spent combing through long-forgotten documents filed at the New Hanover County Register of Deeds Office that revealed the heart of the story: Nine months after Wright’s resignation as mayor, Wright and his two partners dissolved the Home Realty Company and divided the assets between them. But Shell Island was not among the distributed assets. Home Realty instead sold the island for $50 (equivalent to about $700 today) to 26-year-old named Charles Washington Bannerman, who was a loyal junior executive in an insurance company in which Wright’s two partners were also officers.
As subsequent events suggest, Bannerman did not buy the island to continue the development project but to help Wright bring the project to a close. The fire may have been a timely convenience.
My review of the mortgages and deed transfers recorded at the Register of Deeds office suggests that by mid-1925, Home Realty had sold only two of the 280 lots: one to a Martha Gilmore on June 9, 1923 and the other to a Lucy Smith on October 2, 1923. News reports—that I discovered only by going through the un-indexed articles accessible only on microfilm at the public library—indicate that not more than a handful of cottages were ever built.
Perhaps the most likely explanation for the paucity of sales was suggested to me by the nation’s leading authority on Black beach resorts, University of Virginia Professor Andrew Kahrl. “Black families with the means to buy a lot would want to avoid coming in contact with the black working poor” who thronged to the Shell Island beach each summer weekend, explained Kahrl.
Indeed, sociologists and historians have written extensively about the responsibility of “racial uplift” many middle-class Blacks of the era felt to elevate lower classes—or, more accurately, elevate white perceptions—by epitomizing respectability and civility and by highlighting education, professional achievement, moral self-restraint, self-improvement, and service to others.
A special “Negro Supplement” to the white-owned Wilmington Morning Star, published in June 1924 and featuring articles by and about local Black leaders, teemed with appeals to these values. Among those quoted was Frank Avant, president of a new Colored Chamber of Commerce and a chief proponent of the Shell Island project: “It is encumbent (sic) upon us to perform unselfish and worthy deeds of charity and service, as an example of what we would have our people emulate.”
But strategies differed. Some Black elites assumed responsibility for instructing working-class Blacks on proper values and behavior. But others sought to maintain distance, fearing that any association with them would undermine the cultured image they sought to present to whites.
It seems likely that many Black elites strongly supported the idea of a resort and summer community on Shell Island, but were not themselves willing to buy. In short, it was a marketing failure—one Wright and his partners were certainly not well-versed enough to understand.
Nine months after Home Realty sold Shell Island and two months before the fire, Wright and Home Realty partner Charles Parmele purchased the property back from Bannerman.
But that wasn’t Bannerman’s only involvement in the episode. From the very beginning, the Shell Island venture received enthusiastic encouragement from Wilmington’s robust Black middle-class and professional community. Wright and his partners helped launch the Shell Island Beach Development Corporation (SIBDC) in late 1923 as, in the words of the Wilmington Morning Star, “an all negro corporation” founded by five prominent Black community leaders. According to the company’s certificate of incorporation, SIBDC intended to construct and operate hotels, restaurants, amusements, and other businesses on the island.
But I found the white Bannerman listed in the North Carolina Commissioner of Revenue’s 1925 Annual Report as an “officer” of this supposedly all-Black corporation. And early that same year, according to an order signed by the commissioner, unearthed at the State Archives, the Department of Revenue revoked SIBDC’s articles of incorporation for failing to report its franchise tax liability.
Curiously, by May 1926, Bannerman had sold Shell Island in its entirety back to Parmele and Wright for “$100 and other valuable considerations.”
The reason for this rapid reversal is not entirely clear. Wright and Parmele were savvy and experienced businessmen. It is unlikely that they simply changed their minds.
The most plausible theory, at least to me, is that Bannerman was helping Parmele and Wright bring an unsuccessful project to an end and clear out the vestiges of any Black presence to pave the way for future white development.
Despite the ownership changes, the beach resort opened for the summer season in May 1926, only to burn to the ground on June 2. Black managers and concessioners assured the public it would open again, but it never did. And the blaze, regardless of how or why it occurred or who might have been responsible, likely advanced Wright and Parmele’s interests.
Parmele died in 1948 and Wright in 1956. Their ownership interests in Shell Island, still undeveloped and uninhabited, were passed to their heirs.
In 1960, the heirs announced plans to fill in Moore’s Inlet and connect Shell Island to Wrightsville Beach, approximately doubling the size of the town and making highly desirable beachfront development possible. The heirs created the Shell Island Corporation in 1966 to re-initiate development on Shell Island, this time focusing on a more affluent white clientele.
Contrary to claims of some overly-exuberant promoters, Shell Island was not the first Black seaside resort in the United States, nor was it the only one in existence at the time. But there were precious few, and they were especially rare in the former Confederacy.
None were quite like Wright’s bold project, constructed within eyeshot of an exclusive white resort and summer community and openly financed and promoted by white developers.
Despite their sudden and conspicuous arrival on Wrightsville Beach, there’s no indication that the Klan ever sought to interfere, though the organization remained highly visible throughout the Wilmington region. Instead, Wright’s vision fell victim to the complicated and unsustainable norms of the Jim Crow era in a more roundabout, subtle way than the pressures of hooded mobs.
Indeed, Wright’s project seemed to have everything going for it: strong financial backing, broad support, and a compelling social mission, not to mention enthusiastic visitor reviews.
The interests of the Black and white communities were largely aligned on the subject of Shell Island—but that still wasn’t enough to overcome the convoluted class and racial politics of the day.
The Shell Island story is, in a sense, a warning about modern-day exploiters of identity politics, on both the left and the right. Of course, inequities and injustices must be forcefully addressed. But when class and racial identities are maliciously exacerbated and reinforced—when they become our most salient identities—they’ll find a way to sabotage even common interests.
Had the vision for Shell Island come to fruition, it would have changed the demographic, social, economic, and even geographic character of the region. But it wasn’t to be.
Wilmington resident Marc Farinella is the senior adviser to the Center for Effective Government and the executive director of the Center on Survey Methodology at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. An aspiring local historian, Marc explores the roots of class- and race-based politics in North Carolina.