In the Jim Crow era of the 20th century, landowners would not sell beachfront property on the Gulf coast to black investors or even families. Blacks were restricted from visiting any beach- except one. In 1923, Bishop Robert E. Jones of the Methodist Church established Gulfside Chatauqua and Camp Meeting Ground, later named Gulfside Assembly, on 316 acres on the coast near Waveland, Mississippi. It was a haven for local blacks and vacationing families from all over. Summer camps, church retreats, and seminars were held there for decades. The land was, in a stroke of cosmic karma, from the estate of President Andrew Jackson that came onto the market in 1922.
Luckily for Jones, however, his light skin and his position as a Methodist bishop took the question of race off the table. When he bought the property from John DeBlieux, a wealthy lumber mill owner who had once used the property as his family’s summer home, nobody thought to question whether he was black. Jones also secured the rights to a long-term lease of an adjacent 316-acre property from the state, but he ultimately didn’t develop the property, and it is now the site of the present-day Buccaneer State Park.
Yet the relative ease with which he secured the land for Gulfside didn’t mean that Jones was freed from having to make difficult — and controversial — compromises with the local white community as he began to develop it. “In order for them to remain viable … they had to accommodate white supremacy,” explains Andrew Kahrl, a University of Virginia history professor who wrote The Land Was Ours, a history of black beaches in America. That meant tightly controlling the movements of people visiting Gulfside by forbidding them from leaving the grounds; ensuring that people at the retreat, many of whom came from the North, obeyed the “racial etiquette” of the Deep South; and avoiding any provocation of Waveland’s white population. Alcohol and popular music were forbidden, as was sex, and activities were kept innocuous: Adolescents were taught to swim during the summers, and outdoor Bible study classes for families were held.
Gulfside was a respite and a place to socialize for victims of Jim Crow, and later became a meeting place for civil rights activists. The popularity of Gulfside suffered when blacks were finally able to enjoy beaches alongside whites, so the focus of the resort shifted to community development and elder care. Plans were made to open a retirement community at Gulfside, and a huge hotel was built to cater to the nearby state park and bring in some income. But mere days after the grand opening celebration, hurricane Katrina struck. Then the recession hit. Then there was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Yet there are those who recall Gulfside’s heyday and are committed to saving the resort for future generations. Read the story of Gulfside Assembly's unique history at Buzzfeed.