This process can turn speculation into accepted fact pretty fast, so you gotta be careful.
When I started my Redneck Riviera work, I quickly wrote off the possibility of finding black folks frolicking on the beach. On my many trips to the coast, an African-American was about as rare as a theologian. Just weren’t any. In fact, the whole concept of “Redneck” Riviera was that the coast was white, which is what “rednecks” always were.
Until one day, in a sorta off-handed way, I asked my friend Margaret in Orange Beach if black folks ever came down to her area.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Bus loads would come down from Mobile. They’d go over to Johnson Beach.”
Thus began the search for Johnson Beach.
Which didn’t take long.
Turns out that Johnson Beach is part of Perdido Key, which is now part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore just across the Alabama-Florida line and east of the Flora-Bama.
But it wasn’t always.
Or so I found out.
It seems that Johnson Beach was originally called Gulf Beach. An isolated stretch of the Perdido Key, it apparently was set aside by unofficial mutual consent as a place that African-Americans could and did call their own.
Close to Pensacola, which had a large black community, and a few hours from Mobile, it was a popular gathering place. According to one account, a local Kiwanis Club built some cabins and a concession stand there and ran a summer program for underprivileged children. In 1950, an organization known as the Sunset Riding Club, which was owned by prominent black dentist Dr. Simon W. Boyd, leased the land from Escambia County and began operating it “for the sole use of bathing, beach and recreational facilities for the ‘colored citizens.’”
Word spread of the beach renamed Johnson Beach for Pvt. Rosamond Johnson Jr., the African-American who was the first Escambia County soldier to die in the Korean War. Soon, cars and buses full of black beach-goers were coming in from surrounding communities.
It was at this point that a combination of circumstance, coincidence and dumb luck began to shape my scholarship.
While stumbling around trying to find out more about Johnson Beach, my mama got a letter from a relative in Pensacola. In it was a copy of a column from the local newspaper. The columnist, J. Earle Bowden, had read a Redneck Riviera essay I published in a journal called Southern Cultures, and he liked it.
I knew Bowden’s reputation as a journalist and an authority on Pensacola history, so I wrote him and asked about Johnson Beach. He pointed me toward Mrs. Ora Wills, who has written about African-American life in Pensacola. Mrs. Wills graciously volunteered to help me, and slowly but surely the story of Johnson Beach is coming to light.
Mrs. Wills remembered well her holidays at Gulf Beach, before it was named for Johnson. In a wonderful poem, “Florida, Early Fifties,” she wrote of how “men would rise early, heft out the fishing lines and nets and crab baskets and steal away in the darkness,” off to the Key. The women and children came later, and soon a “black wash pot filled with hot, sizzling grease squatted on short, spiked legs in the white sand.” The adults cooked mullet, crabs and “hush puppies mixed with Spearman’s beer,” while the girls (she was one) “strutted the beach, shaking up the boys.”
Johnson Beach may have taken some pressure off Pensacola Beach, which was “white only.” Gulf Shores, interestingly, did not forbid blacks from using the public beach. Neither did Gulf State Park, according to Monroe McLeod, who was park superintendent in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1990, McLeod told the Mobile Press-Register that “blacks came whenever they wanted to.”
It would be nice to tell of how Johnson Beach merged easily into the National Seashore, how its clientele integrated, and how all those issues that separated the races ceased to matter very much, but it didn’t happen that way.
Instead, Escambia County officials cancelled the Johnson Beach lease in 1956. No one can say for sure why. One account tells of “disturbances” out there. Others say there was concern that the area might become a staging ground for civil rights protests. And there is the strong possibility that canceling the lease was just one more way that the white establishment had to remind black folks who was in charge.
I am still trying to find out.
But this much is certain. Things down on the Redneck Riviera are not always what you expect.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.