How can someone grow up in Savannah and never see its beach? Wanda Smalls Lloyd explores a turning point in her life—and a sea change in local history.
Tybee Island is one of my favorite places in the world. But it wasn’t always so. For my African-American peers and me, Tybee was taboo.
When I grew up in Savannah in the 1950s and 1960s, Savannah Beach, as it was known to us then, was off-limits. My parents and the parents of my friends used to warn us away from the island as if was 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 Sixties, 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.
I left home for college and pursued my journalism career elsewhere, so the first time I saw Tybee Island in daylight was in March 1997, the day after we buried my mother in Laurel Grove South cemetery, the traditional black resting place. Her demise had come soon after the doctor told us she would not survive the cancer. 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 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 was angry, depressed, 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 away from.
And maybe I was feeling just a little guilty. True, I’d never actually seen Tybee, but I didn’t exactly obey my parents, either.A Ride into Darkness
On my prom night for Beach High School in 1967, the first and last thing my family said to me before walking out the door was, “Don’t go to the beach.” Later that night, my date told me his parents said the exact same thing. And the same came from the parents of the couple we were double dating with that night.
All four sets of parents warned us. So what did we do? We drove to Tybee after the prom, just to see what the mystery was all about.
We didn’t count on the fact that the island was pitch dark at night. We could hear the ocean but we could not see a thing, and we were scared as heck when we got out there. Our fears were buttressed by the race stories we were hearing from across the South—stories of lynchings, beatings and arbitrary jailings had us so afraid that all we did on Tybee that night was change drivers and head back home.
Since my date had driven us out to the island while the other couple “made out” in the back seat, we traded places—and activities—for the return trip. To put it delicately, my eyes were closed, so I missed the warning lights from the police when they pulled us over. White officers made our driver get out of the car and walk the white line on Highway 80. None of us had been drinking as far as I knew, but I was surprised to learn that our friend didn’t have a license to drive. He was arrested, so my date drove us home.
I never told my parents about our detour down U.S. 80.A Place for Us
For African Americans in Savannah, beach paradise was elsewhere.
My social centers as a child were the segregated Girl Scout troop hosted at St. Matthews Episcopal Church, the West Broad Street YMCA where we learned social graces in “charm school,” and Second Baptist Church, the historic congregation founded by slaves and free blacks in 1802. Before I was born, my grandfather was a deacon and Sunday school superintendent at Second Baptist; my aunt played the piano and my grandmother was an active deaconess. Even today, the Oper Walker Guild, founded in honor of my grandmother, is still a service organization in that church.
When our church went to the beach, we made the four-hour commute to and from American Beach, on the southern end of Amelia Island in Florida. Settled and built by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, CEO of the Afro-American Insurance Company, as a retreat for his company’s employees, American allowed us to enjoy the water free of racial intimidation. It was a long bus ride—a sacrifice of time considering the Atlantic Ocean was also just 15 miles from our church’s front door on Savannah’s Houston Street.
Hilton Head Island was another oasis for black families, especially the few elite families from Savannah who built houses along one or two streets at the entrance to the island many years before the big resort corporations “discovered” it. On Hilton Head, we had Collier Beach and Singleton Beach, “black beaches” where we had our own pavilions and shorelines for running into the surf, listening to the Sixties sounds of Motown and holding Saturday night dances.
My best friend Virginia’s family had a house on Hilton Head and her family invited me to join her there many weekends during our high school years. We would pack up the car on a Friday afternoon, drive over with ample food supplies and return Sunday night. It was a joyous weekend of freedom from Savannah’s oppressively hot, humid summer days. I remember sleeping with the windows open at night and enjoying the breeze from the surf down the street.In Daylight
So, on that day in 1997, when I went to Tybee Island to reflect on the loss of my mother and think about how I would move forward without her, my husband drove slowly. Together, we took in the island’s quaintness and serenity. We made our way down Butler Avenue, admiring the eclectic and colorful beach architecture, the tropical landscapes and the laid-back lifestyle. We parked on the south end of the island and walked along Tybrisa Street past the shops and restaurants. We strolled the length of the big pier to look at the water—which, even in early March, gave us a feeling of warmth and peace. Here we were, just a few miles from where I grew up on Savannah’s west side, and yet we were a world away.
My husband, Willie, quickly learned the locals-only fishing spots. We soon gravitated to vacation rentals along Chatham Avenue and the Bull River, where most of the houses have their own docks, and the views and fishing are unbeatable. I came to love solitary walks along the shoreline of the South Beach, or sitting at dawn in one of the beach-side swings, watching the sun come up with a cup of coffee in hand.
Tybee became a place of celebration for us. We chose the island as the site of our anniversary getaways each May. During the next 12 years, we first rented small condos and, later, beach houses, inviting friends to joins us.
Willie and I relocated to Savannah permanently in 2013. And just the other day, our daughter asked us where we would spend our vacation.
“Vacation?!” I exclaimed. “We don’t need to go anywhere!”
Times change. Tides change. And, thankfully, so do people.