written by Valerie Morales
Tybee Island is a breathtaking place. A barrier island on the coast of Georgia, near the Savannah River, Tybee effortlessly slips into the Atlantic. Stare in the distance and spectacular sunrises or sinuous sunsets frame the eye with poetic beauty. But despite the heavenly grace of appearances, Tybee has never been a fairly tale, nor a perfect place to live. All the luscious scenery and natural grace, and (dangerous high tides) can’t erase the people Tybee Island wounded. The island’s serenity cannot negate Tybee’s racial history and the impact of that history on African Americans.
It wasn’t that long ago that a thriving community of working class African Americans had their own Tybee space. But it has been swallowed up by the greed of developers. In 2019, there are no markers nor an acknowledgement of a black community ever having existed on Tybee Island ground. A part of the island’s history has been systematically erased, its truth scattered in the Tybee wind.
But if karma is present because erasing black history is punishable, then the next generation is making the island remember what it wants to forget. The grandchildren of those the state of Georgia and Tybee Island denied with Jim Crow laws have returned for a beach party that is loud, wild and theatric. 18–24 year old young adults are publicly loving their blackness, their alcohol and poppin’ music, while on Tybee Island for a vacation party.
The Orange Crush party has become a flash point and a gross spectacle for some Tybee residents. The arrogant young who twerk on the beach in thongs and flip flops while chugging rum and cokes shift attention away from how they are behaving on the island to what they are doing to the island. The problem, as the residents see it, is the trash, the noise, the bullets falling where they shouldn’t. And who belongs where.
Race is once again a Tybee Island problem.
A barrier island 18 miles from Savannah Georgia, Tybee Island is just 3.2 square miles long. Its Southern history is revered. The old-timers still say Savannah Beach when they mean Tybee. The real old-timers talk about the bomb that was dropped on accident but didn’t go off. Since the Civil War, the saltwater breezes that ruffle the hair into leaning every which way is rumored to be healing. Medicinal. A tonic. The 3,000 or so Tybee faithful are Savannah privileged, monied, mostly white but not all, Southern, and often unwilling to admit how their privilege was earned.
Kidnapped and frightened Africans were examined by physicians on Tybee Island who prodded and poked and participated in the rental contract of black bodies without voicing a word against it. Then the Africans were sent to Savannah to be sold as slaves. In the early 1800’s when smallpox broke out on Savannah plantations, infected slaves where sent to Tybee under guard.
Tybee’s tourism started after the Civil War when a rail line dropped summer tourists on the beach’s doorstep, this beautiful place of purity and sand, a black and white lighthouse, a salt marsh, even a creek, but no African American vacationers because they were banned from Tybee because of Jim Crow laws throughout the South. Jim Crow was every which way, in every store, on every road, in every schoolhouse library.
On Tybee Island, the racial hypocrisy was pungent. Black laborers could in fact build and work and sweat and die for the rail line that carried the vacation crowd to Tybee but they themselves could not go to the beach, could not put a toe in the water, could not walk the coastline.
In 1938, an editorial in the African American paper The Savannah Tribune left no doubt about how Tybee officials felt about blacks. Sol C. Johnson, the paper’s founder and editor and a Savannah philanthropist, wrote that Tybee “did not want the Negro to encumber the earth on that island. No Negro is permitted to secure an inch of any part of the island except the few owners of long years ago. On the waterfront, our people are not allowed, except as a servant.”
Fourteen years later in 1952, African Americans petitioned the city to use the beach. They were denied. Five years after the first request, beach rights were demanded again. Why should South Carolina be a destination when a beautiful beach was in Savannah’s backyard?
The wade-in’s began as a resistance movement. In August of 1960, 27 black students entered the water. They were arrested for “disrobing in public”. Not surprisingly, Tybee court convicted several, parceling out fines or jail time. But it didn’t stop the wade-in movement. The Honorable Edna Jackson who would later become the first African American female mayor of Savannah was arrested during the wade-ins as a 15 year old.
After Jim Crow was dismantled, seeds of distrust lingered. The MLK holiday presented city workers- the ones who couldn’t stand King- a choice. They had the option of taking a personal day instead of honoring Dr. King. But when Diane Schleicher became City Manager in 2006 she refused to cater to racist impulses. She revised the city’s position and recognized the King federal holiday some 23 years after President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983.
When you grow up on an island what matters is how you stand to the sea. (Roddy Doyle)
During the 1980’s, black college students began coming to Tybee Island for a spring break party called Orange Crush. The students didn’t know about Tybee’s history of wade-ins and Jim Crow, and for that matter, they didn’t care. Equality’s sweet fruit is a defiance about the past. It is the luxury to pretend that how things are is how they always were, ignoring because of convenience the history of African American trauma.
For black college students, Tybee is refuge, a personal haven. On the island they are carefree, self-absorbed, happy. Their casualness speaks to their generation’s privilege. They are allowed to be aimless. Venturing to this part of Georgia because it is popular to do so, and because, well they can, isn’t much of a mystery. For a brief minute they can escape the stress, discipline and routine of student life, immersed in beach vacation culture.
Although temporary, the social chaos inflicted up the island has some island residents annoyed. The I’m black and I’m proud ecstasy, as well as the music, language, up all night, sexing in public, and general enthusiasm causes residents to complain and overact, as if it is a real catastrophe when it is just an annoyance, or to be exact, a loud, drunken and trashy weekend. Frankly, that describes many weekends with this one exception. White locals are suddenly that thing they used to restrict. They are the minority.
Both sides have gripes. Residents complain about the beach mess even though students from Savannah State traditionally return to the beach for cleanup. The students complain about the parking, the businesses who shutter their doors, and the revolving door of arrests.
White politicians say their objections are not race based but have to do with age and drinking too much. Young students raising hell and being disorderly is the point.
The city’s response to the influx of black students was to ban alcohol and loud music which only illustrated everything they didn’t know about Generation X (those born after 1996). They are not coming to Tybee to drink on a beach, nor are they activated by the island to realize fantasies that would get them punished at home. No, the reason black students are coming to Tybee Island is because this generation has been raised to please themselves, if they have the resources. Which they do. And just for the record, who turns down a beach vacation?
Tybee has tried to rein in the event they wished would just vanish by plotting strategy. The restrictions put in place by island officials was characterized by more than one resident as the Jim Crow Ordinance. Softening tensions wasn’t exactly the outcome of police checkpoints, just the opposite. Tybee was complicit in moral relativism, and on a grand scale, absent self-awareness. Race has always been a gatekeeper on the island. One group is tolerated while the other is punished.
African American college students have the right to hang out on the beach, on public land mind you, without their blackness being weaponized. They are adults and can come and go as they please, within the law. This particular group has plenty of financial and social capital. Good for them. The island has to respond appropriately without a reflexive nod to its racialized past of criminalization. Restricting the spring breakers or infantilizing them triggers more chaos, not less.
But Orange Crush, and all the sermonizing about it, reveals something much more significant and sobering than rich black kids being loud for three days. All these years of fragile racial progress and what has actually been accomplished? America still has not washed away its original documented sin. Black mobility in white spaces meet at the arc of white discomfort. White happiness comes at the price of black agony.
So in that way Tybee is the norm, insular and anxious because the black students on the island force the residents to face “those people” flocking into their neighborhood. Tybee residents never had to consider such a thing during the rigidity of Jim Crow but the boundaries have widened. African American students who are not haunted by segregation but energized by their own independence are marking every land as their land.
Seventy years ago, injustice was the fertile ground from which Jim Crow grew and devastated a culture. It’s cruelty and terrorism was not without academic reflection. The Nature of Prejudice was published in the 1950’s by Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport. A definitive work on discrimination, Allport explained how groups in conflict can diminish the long story of prejudice through interpersonal communication.
Allport’s contact hypothesis has successfully been used as a way to ease hostility between groups- those groups that fall back on tropes and false characterizations. Logic says talk to one another and find a middle ground but the emotionality of race and privilege, of those who benefited from Jim Crow and those who suffered from it, is often difficult to set aside for something else. The heart is broken. Permanently, it often feels like.
So it was a notable and meaningful moment on Tybee Island, considering the history of wade-ins and erased black history, when residents, the city, and the U.S. Justice Department entered into a series of discussions. A tour, of sorts. Listening to understand. Inhaling and taking a breath. Seeing the other point of view. Trying to settle what was previously unsettled. The Jim Crow Ordinance represented one more Southern thing that reiterated black oppression and white privilege. But it was retired, no longer a Tybee Island punishment. A victory to be sure, and a lesson. Small progress is progress just the same.