Out of Sight, Out of Mind

What happens when an entire community forgets its history? What happens when only a few people have access to that forgotten knowledge? In the case of the beaches in Duval County, a bit of revisionism is taking place–because real history is hard and unyielding, and it’s easier to soften the edges.

“There’s a perception [that I’ve heard] that at the beach, ‘we didn’t have those kinds of [racial] problems,’” said Brittany Cohill, operations manager of Beaches Museum & History Park. Cohill is among those who have access to that forgotten knowledge, and she’s widening/course-correcting the conversation by elevating the memory of Manhattan Beach.

The community of Manhattan Beach, which was once located near the northernmost tip of what is now Atlantic Beach, was a resort for African Americans in segregated Northeast Florida. A self-contained and self-sustaining community, it had cottages, pavilions, boardwalks, concessions, dance halls and the Hotel Manhattan. All this is remarkable, not just because it predates American Beach in Fernandina by decades, but because there is so little information or discourse about it in the Jacksonville area community.

That’s probably because there is scant physical evidence. And, of course, a good portion of this “forgetting” can be chalked up to the scheming and dirty tricks of developers like Edward Ball, the segregationist who sought to acquire the land by hook or crook 100 years ago.

Manhattan Beach started to take shape around 1900, explained Cohill, whose own interest in the topic was sparked when she was a graduate student in history.

“I had never heard of Manhattan Beach until about two years ago,” she said. It was then, in conjunction with a “public history course,” that she started researching. That research worked really well in conjunction with the work she does at the Beaches Museum & History Park, because the mission of that institution is to “preserve and share the distinct culture of the beaches area.”

Manhattan Beach was built on land that had been set aside by Henry Flagler for African-American employees who worked at his (never-profitable) whites-only Continental Hotel, currently the site of the Cloisters condos. Initially it was a “very rural and undeveloped area,” said Cohill. She also noted that Flagler’s action was not an enlightened form of altruism.

“It’s an out-of-sight, out-of-mind kind of thing,” she explained. “African Americans during the Jim Crow era would never be able to share recreational spaces with white people. They were really prohibited from sharing spaces with whites on any kind of equal footing. Segregation during that time wasn’t just about creating separate spaces, it was about creating a subordinate class. […] I think he set it aside because that was what society dictated, and he was a part of that society.”

Flagler’s hotel development went hand-in-hand with the expansion of his rail empire. By 1907, Manhattan Beach became a stop on the Florida East Coast Railway. However, by then Flagler was less interested in his Northern Florida properties, and began selling the land to his former employees and area residents. That was when the area really began to come into its own and flourish.

Manhattan Beach was a singular and ultimately tragic place. This was beachfront land that African Americans were allowed to own. Prior to 1930 (when the beach was erased), the seeds of generational wealth were being sown. But, even as early as 1915, barriers to black ownership were erected. The aforementioned Ball got things rolling when he purchased land in Manhattan Beach and began lobbying the R-C-B-S Corporation (which was controlled by Atlantic Beach’s first mayor/developer, Harcourt Bull) “to remove African Americans from the beachfront entirely, north of the southern limits of Atlantic beach to the jetties.”

“There was definitely scheming,” acknowledged Cohill, “lots of outside pressure.” (One can’t help but think, again, of the parallel to American Beach.)

Looking through the images of the people and place that form the exhibition Recovering Manhattan Beach, the viewer gets a sense of the timeless beauty and allure of the coast … and the casual aesthetic that often accompanies it. One image, of Mack Wilson’s pavilion shows the kind of quirky beach shack/dancehall/multiuse space that wouldn’t seem out of place today (except that it’s not corporately owned and branded). It is easy to imagine that, at the end of a tiring work week, a sixty-cent round-trip train fare from Jacksonville was a guarantee of floating free, of being sun-kissed and salty in a welcoming, safe community. Further, the ocean was believed by philanthropist (and Clara White Mission founder) Eartha White to have healing properties. Each year, she’d take tubercular and underprivileged kids to the shore for a month-long stay at “Fresh Air Camp,” in addition to regular day trips she organized.

One of Cohill’s favorite images in the exhibition is one that depicts four of the laborers on the Continental Hotel project. They’re kneeling in the sand, working intently on something, but one man has paused for a moment and is looking directly at the camera.

“You can see his face,” she mused. “You can get a sense of who he was as a person.”

The place existed at the crossroads of labor, travel and tourism.

“You can situate Manhattan Beach into a couple of contexts,” the historian explained. “You can situate into African-American tourism during Jim Crow; [and], into the context of what the railroads meant to African Americans in the post-Civil War era.”

To further elucidate the depth of the beach’s importance to black Americans, Cohill includes excerpts from Green Books, the guides that helped traveling black Americans navigate a country that often was hostile, violent and deadly: “I wanted to fit it into the larger tourism picture.”

Wilson, he of the eponymous pavilion, was one of Manhattan Beach’s last hold-outs. But eventually he, too, sold. According to Cohill, beach erosion and the closure of the rail line to the beach also played into the decision by many people to sell their land to the R-C-B-S Corporation. After the last folks left, buildings were burned and bulldozed. Today, the closest approximation of where Manhattan Beach stood is Parking Lot 8 within Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park.