Seabreeze and Freeman Beaches (D-124)

Est. by African American landowners, here, during segregation. Until 1962 was destination for Black families. Offered dining, lodging, and recreation.

Location: U.S. 421 (7617 Carolina Beach Road), at the intersection of Carolina Beach Road and South Seabreeze Road.
County: New Hanover
Original Date Cast: 2023

Seabreeze and Freeman Beach were two pioneering beach resorts for Blacks established in North Carolina in 1922 and 1951, respectively. Closely related to each other geographically, and consequently considered by some as one and the same, the two resorts provided summertime leisure for thousands of Black visitors from North Carolina and other parts of the country during the Jim Crow era, when beach resorts were racially segregated. The Freemans, a prominent Black family in the New Hanover County coastal area, amassed much of the land on which the resorts were built, and family members played key roles in the development of both.

The Freemans descended from free Blacks, who according to census records resided in New Hanover County from at least 1840 on. Alexander and Charity Freeman and their children were settled in Federal Point Township by 1850. Alexander gradually acquired more and more land in the area, which upon his death in 1855 was inherited by his oldest son, Robert Bruce Freeman, Sr.

In 1876 Robert purchased nearly 2,500 acres which included the lands of two former neighboring plantations, making him one of the largest landowners in the county. Robert donated ten acres on the Cape Fear River from the former Gander Hall estate to St. Stephens African American Episcopal Church in Wilmington to be used as a campground. One source identifies this area as the point where the idea of using the local beaches as a recreational area for Black urbanites began to take shape.

The origins of the two resorts began in 1922, when two of Robert Bruce Freeman, Sr.’s sons, Roland and Nathan, established the North State Realty and Investment Company. The brothers owned sixty-five acres of land along Myrtle Grove Sound. They divided their land into small plots which they sold for residential and business use, including for the establishment of a Black beach resort. The first building, called Seabreeze, was erected in 1922, and was later adopted as the name of the larger resort community. The resort received a major boost in January 1924 when Thomas and Victoria Lofton, a prominent Wilmington African American couple, opened a twenty-five-room hotel. Visitation to the resort quickly picked up, with a crowd of 3,000 attending Labor Day of 1927. By the end of the decade, Seabreeze had become a popular destination place for Blacks seeking summertime leisure.

Expansion continued into the 1930s. In 1934 Dr. Foster F. Burnett, a Wilmington doctor, established a convalescent home and recreation center for Blacks to the immediate south of Seabreeze. In May 1935 the North Carolina Utilities Commission granted a franchise to the Wilmington Bus Company to run buses between Seabreeze and Wilmington. In 1938, thousands of African Americans from the southeastern part of the state traveled to Seabreeze for the annual Declaration of Independence Day celebration, an annual custom among many North Carolina Blacks.

Seabreeze continued to expand, becoming a residential as well as a recreational area. C. C. Spaulding, president of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, publicly announced in July 1938 that he planned to purchase property at Seabreeze and build a summer home there. The value of land then soared, with one tract purchased for $7,600 in 1938 for constructing a pavilion. Cafes, restaurants, and juke joints were built. During World War II, Seabreeze was a popular destination spot for African American servicemen. The Federal Works Agency earmarked $12,800 for the construction of a bath house for their use.

In addition to the hotels, Seabreeze at its height also had as many as ten restaurants, serving a variety of food, but especially seafood and barbecue. Many of the eating establishments were especially known for their popular clam fritters. Seabreeze also included a small amusement park run by an American Indian known as the “Snakeman.” The amusement park included a Ferris wheel and a carousel, as well as games and photo booths. A bingo parlor also entertained visitors, and one of the hotels included a dance hall. Overnight rental cottages as well as the hotels housed visitors. Other visitors took advantage of the opportunity to fish, which the location had long been known for. One of the restaurants owned a fishing pier from visitors fished or crabbed. Others took pleasure rides in a boat operated by Black captain named Rick Wilson. There were bathhouses where guests could change into swimming attire, swim, towel off when they got back, and then change into regular clothes for an evening out. There was even an unofficial jail, designed to house disruptive visitors without bringing in the White police.

Another of Robert Bruce Freeman, Sr.’s children, Lulu Freeman Hill together with her husband Frank established Freeman Beach. The couple had moved to Queens in New York City upon their marriage in 1921, but by 1945 had become disenchanted with life there and planned to return to North Carolina with the intent of creating a beach resort on the Freeman lands that lay on the peninsula across Myrtle Grove Sound from Seabreeze. Frank Hill sought a clear title to the portion of the Freeman lands previously inhabited by Lulu’s family but found that the court system was not sympathetic to their claim. Although the title situation remained murky and they were initially denied a construction permit, the Hills moved back to Lulu’s family home and began construction of a restaurant. On July 4, 1951, at an event called Robert Bruce Freeman Day, the Hills opened their restaurant Monte Carlo by the Sea along with a nearby pavilion for an entertainment venue. The surrounding beachscape was christened Freeman Beach, and it soon became as popular a summer visitation location as Seabreeze across the sound. It was nicknamed Bop City for the many local and national rhythm and blues and jazz acts that performed there on the weekends.

By the late 1950s, the fortunes of both Seabreeze and Freeman Beach were on the decline. Besides the growing opposition to the resorts from area Whites and the increasing encroachments of local development, erosion was shrinking the beaches, arising from not only normal tidal erosion but also engineering projects in the area, especially a business-backed project of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to connect the Atlantic and the Intracoastal Waterway with a new inlet just north of Bop City. The latter venture led to a steady acceleration of land loss. The process was completed when Hurricane Hazel struck in October 1954, literally washing the land on which Bop City stood into the sea and wreaking havoc on Seabreeze as well. A few buildings remained at the latter site and after repairs continued to operate for the next few years, but the resort never fully recovered. By 1975 most of the businesses associated with the resort had closed, although a small community continued to persist there.

During their years of operation, Seabreeze and Freeman Beach were well-known venues in and beyond North Carolina for entertainment, recreation, and leisure for thousands of African Americans at a time when such establishments were limited. They represent an important part of the state’s historical legacy.

Susan Taylor Block, Cape Fear Beaches (2000).
Jennifer Bower, “Our Coast: A Shelter During Segregation,”, September 18, 2015.
Jennifer J. Edwards, “A Color Line in the Sand: African American Seaside Leisure in New Hanover County, North Carolina” (MA thesis, UNC-Wilmington, 2003).
Zach Hanner, “Holding on to Hope for Seabreeze,” Wilmington Star-News, January 23, 2008.
Andrew W. Kahrl, The Land Was Ours: How Black Beach Became White Wealth in the Coastal South (2012).
Ben Steelman, “History of Seabreeze Inspires a Call for Stories,” Wilmington Star-News, November 9, 2014.
Ben Steelman, “UNCW Student Tries to Save History of Black Beach Area,” Wilmington Sunday Star-News, April 26, 1998.

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