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What is Seabreeze?

Ben Steelman

Seabreeze — also known as Sea Breeze or Freeman’s Beach — is a small community on the east side of U.S. 421 just north of Snow’s Cut. In 2000, the U.S. Census reported the neighborhood’s population was 1,312

From the 1920s through the 1960s, however, it was a prime vacation resort for African Americans from across eastern and central North Carolina, even drawing visitors from other states. In its heyday, it had three hotels, as many as 10 restaurants, dozens of resort cottages, a boat pier, a bingo parlor and a small amusement park, complete with Ferris wheel. On summer weekends during the segregation era, locals recall that it was just as lively as Carolina Beach to the south.

As early as 1788, Alexander Freeman, a free black, had established himself as a fisherman on Myrtle Grove Sound. In 1876, his descendant, Robert Bruce Freeman Sr. (c. 1830-1902), bought 2,500 acres on the sound end of New Hanover County for $1 an acre. At his death, he parceled this land in tracts, designed to be self-supporting waterfront properties, to a number of relatives. The area became home to a number of African-American families, including the Freemans, Wades, Rossers, Davises, McQuillans and McNeils.

Two of Robert Bruce Freeman’s heirs, Rowland Freeman (sometimes known as “Rowlie” or “Rollie”) and Nathan Freeman, would play the biggest role in the 1920s in developing Seabreeze as a resort.

The first resort in the area, called “Seabreeze.” was built in 1922. Simpson’s Hotel followed in 1925, and a third, called the Monte Carlo, was thriving by the 1930s and 1940s.

Soon, a number of resort-related businesses — including bathhouses and music clubs known as “jump joints” — evolved along the neighborhood, many of them run by members of the expanding Freeman clan. Barred from other beaches by prevailing Jim Crow laws, African Americans from Clinton, Fayetteville and the Raleigh-Durham area flocked to Seabreeze to enjoy surf and sun. Prominent families such as the Spauldings of Durham — who made their fortune in the N.C. Mutual Insurance Co. — bought and developed resort properties here. Restaurants such as Barbecue Sam’s or Mom’s Kitchen catered to their taste; a local specialty was clam fritters.

By the 1940s — when thousands of black GIs flocked to Seabreeze from nearby bases — the area became known as a music mecca. Musicians such as Bobby “Blue” Bland would stay over in Seabreeze since other accommodations nearby were scarce. The jump joints were so jumping for a while that the neighborhood was nicknamed “Bop City.”

White kids from nearby Carolina Beach, such as Malcolm “Chicken” Hicks, would cross over to check out Seabreeze’s night spots and the local dance steps. Local historians such as Jenny Edwards — who wrote a master’s thesis on the history of Seabreeze for the University of North Carolina Wilmington — credit this musical cross-pollination with promoting, if not inspiring, the later crazes of shag dancing and beach music.

Except for occasional crackdowns on illegal liquor, white law enforcement officers generally left Seabreeze alone. Oral histories agree that the residents policed themselves, even maintaining a “jail” to hold rowdies until they cooled off.

Seabreeze suffered major damage from Hurricane Hazel in 1954. More insidious was beach erosion, which increased after the opening of the artificial Carolina Beach Inlet in 1952. By the 1970s — when desegregation had opened up other beaches elsewhere — the resort industry at the beach had largely shriveled and died. Many of the older landmarks were blown down or washed away by hurricanes in the 1990s.

Seabreeze survives, however, as a close-knit residential community. Organizers — including many Freeman descendants — organized annual Heritage Day celebrations through the early 2000s.

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One Response to “ What is Seabreeze?”

  1. On July 11, 2009 at 1:24 am peter hutchison wrote:

    I’m doing some research about Seabreeze in the late 40s and early 50s – I’m wondering if anyone know how I might be able to get in touch with Ms. Jenny Edwards. I’d love to read her UNCW master’s thesis.

    Thanks in advance,
    Peter Hutchison

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