By Barney Blakeney
If not for the annual Memorial Day Weekend Black Bikefest, many members of Generation X and millennials would not know much about the Town of Atlantic Beach on the South Carolina Grand Strand. When the motorcycle rally began some 38 years ago, Atlantic Beach had seen its better days. Born during the Jim Crow era, Atlantic Beach was the premier beach resort for Blacks until integration in the 1960s. Atlantic Beach today is a ghost of its former self. And like other formerly vibrant Black communities, it may be lost forever.
Nicknamed “The Black Pearl”, the rich culture of Atlantic Beach was formed mostly by Gullah/Geechee people. In the early 1930’s, black men and women opened hotels, restaurants, night clubs, and novelty shops in Atlantic Beach. Integration, however, brought about enormous changes. It gave Blacks the freedom/right to enjoy all the beaches along the Grand Strand. While this was a positive change, Atlantic Beach would suffer the loss of Black families and their dollars to more competitive arenas.
Nestled between Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach, Atlantic Beach remains the only Black owned beach in the nation. Abandoned by her own, Atlantic Beach struggles to exist. She rolled out the red carpet for Blacks when they were forbidden to enter other beaches. As perhaps a last ditch effort, she rolled out the red carpet again with Bikefest, an attempt to recapture some of that economic vitality.
When town officials inaugurated Black Bikefest in 1980, they didn’t envision it eventually would attract some 300,000 visitors. The town saw modest financial benefits, some $60,000. The lion’s share of the financial revenues went to surrounding communities with far greater commercial infrastructure– hotels, restaurants and retail stores – to accommodate the attendees the bikefest brings to the Grand Strand. But with those revenues also came repercussions.
Over time in the city of Myrtle Beach, the bikefest became marred by violence and other illegal behavior. A street party on Bikefest weekend in 2014 resulted in a shooting that killed three people. In 2016, law enforcement in Myrtle Beach made 784 arrests, filed 1,138 charges and answered 3,509 calls for service over the weekend. Myrtle Beach fought back. Business owners closed up during the weekend and law enforcement enacted several initiatives designed to control the crowd and traffic that included increased police presence and a 23-mile one-way traffic loop.
Those actions took their toll on Atlantic Beach. According to one estimate, only about 25,000 attendees showed up for the event this year. Revenues to the town have been estimated at about $25,000.
Realtor and former Atlantic Beach Mayor Irene Armstrong admits the community’s on life support, but its approximately 200 residents are resilient. They are multi-generational landowners, she said. She’s optimistic. “Atlantic Beach isn’t going anywhere,” she says obstinately.
But despite Armstrong’s optimism, the wave of redevelopment of beachfront properties has become a tsunami. Charleston realtor Ruth Jordan said beachfront property at Edisto Island is among the real estate market’s best kept secrets. Charleston County Councilwoman Anna Johnson agrees. The county’s focus on traditional settlements, areas where Black folks have lived for generations, may offer some protections against the adverse impact of growth and development. But, “You can’t stop growth and you can’t bury your head in the sand,” she said.
Armstrong thinks Atlantic Beach can be preserved. Exploring revenue sources beyond Bikefest will be vital. And like Jordan, she believes residents must employ strict zoning and covenants.