My Black History: ‘Don’t go to the beach,’ they told us

Today and throughout February, I am posting brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.”

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The Tybee Island Pier

In my adult years, Tybee Island became one of my favorite places to visit. But it wasn’t always so. For my African-American childhood peers and me, Tybee was taboo.

Tybee is a barrier island and small city about 15 miles from downtown Savannah. The Island is known for its wide, sandy beaches, including South Beach, with a pier and pavilion. On the island’s north side, Fort Screven has 19th-century concrete gun batteries and the Tybee Island Light Station and Museum. The museum focuses on local history. Many historians believe the name “Tybee” derives from the Native American Euchee Indian word for “salt” which was one of many natural resources found on the island. It is said that, for many decades, pirates visited the island in search of a safe haven and hiding place for treasure.

When I grew up in Savannah in the 1950s and 1960s, Savannah Beach, as Tybee Island was called then, was off-limits to us. My parents and those of my friends would warn us away from the island as if it were a forbidden fruit.

“Just don’t go there,” they would say, and implicit in the order were Jim Crow laws that segregated the races.

To this day, decades later and after the “wade-ins” of the 1960s, I still don’t know if there was some law on the books that said “Negroes” could not ride onto the island, or if our elders just knew that going there might mean peril to our physical being.

The first time I saw Tybee Island in daylight was in March 1997, a day after we buried my mother in Laurel Grove South, one of Savannah’s historic segregated cemetaries. Her demise had come soon after the doctor told us she would not survive lung cancer, caused, we suspected by her many years of smoking. Her funeral was even quicker — my mother’s wishes. She planned the brief, elegant services herself.

The day after the funeral I told my husband, Willie,  that I wanted to go see the ocean. I wasn’t sure why; I just had a feeling that walking along the sea would put me just a few miles closer to God, and I had so many questions about why I was left motherless before my 50th birthday. I felt angry, depressed, lonely, sad, yet somewhat relieved that her physical misery was over. I was also curious about the place my family had once tried so hard to keep me from visiting.

And maybe I was feeling just a little guilty. True, I’d never actually seen Tybee Island, but I didn’t exactly obey my parents, either.

On my high school prom night in 1967, the first and last thing Aunt Catherine said to me before I walked out the door with my date was, “Don’t go to the beach.” Later that night, my date told me his parents said the same thing. And the same came from parents of the couple we were double-dating with that night.

All four sets of parents had warned us. So what did we do? Like any group of obstinate teenagers, we set out on the lonely, dark US Highway 80 to drive the 15 miles to Tybee Island after the prom, just to see what the mystery of the island was all about.

The night didn’t end well.

Next:  A Spelman student in the Movement

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Author of the memoir "Coming Full Circle: From Jim Crow to Journalism." Available for book talks and signings, speaking. (Signed copies available on this site)

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