by Kara Pound // photo courtesy Eartha M.M. White Collection, University of North Florida, Thomas G. Carpenter Library, Special Collections and Archives
When Brittany Cohill started working at Beaches Museum & History Park, the story of Manhattan Beach garnered little more than a short paragraph on an exhibit panel inside the museum, which described the property as having been “set aside by Henry Flagler for his African-American workers.”
“I couldn’t help but think, ‘There has got to be more to this story. There has got to be more out there to uncover. And if there is, we certainly need to be telling a more comprehensive story,’” says Cohill, who has served as the museum’s operations manager since last winter. “The story of Manhattan Beach is very much deserving of a place in the Jacksonville and Beaches area timeline.”
In June of 1907, Manhattan Beach, which was situated just north of Atlantic Beach, became an official stop along the Florida East Coast (FEC) Railway. The railway’s founder, Henry Morrison Flagler, was an American industrialist and oil tycoon who brought a taste of the Gilded Age to Florida by building opulent structures like the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine and Royal Palm Hotel in Miami.
Flagler also built the Continental Hotel in Atlantic Beach and standardized existing rail systems while building extensions from Pablo Beach (now known as Jacksonville Beach) northward to Mayport.
“Flagler employed a sizeable labor force to construct his railroad and hotel. Many, if not most, were African-American,” Cohill explains. “African Americans also made up a large portion of the hotel’s seasonal staff. The Continental, including its beachfront, was a whites-only resort. Flagler permitted his black employees to make use of the shoreline north of the Continental and his surrounding real estate holdings. This marked the beginning of Manhattan Beach.”
Before Flagler added Manhattan Beach as a stop along the FEC Railway, there wasn’t a convenient or affordable way for most people living in Downtown Jacksonville to get to the beach. Some had never even visited the shore.
“It was a site of a vibrant African-American culture and social life,” Dr. Charles E. Closmann, associate professor of history at the University of Florida, says of the locale. “African Americans visited the beach and its pavilions, businesses, restaurants and small cottages. Jacksonville had a vibrant African-American business and cultural scene, and this is where many African Americans went for recreation.”
Cohill, who has dedicated much of the past year to researching Manhattan Beach, emphasizes the importance of the area by the work of Eartha White, founder of the Clara White Mission. White, who established her “Colored Old Folks Home” in 1901, expanded her philanthropy to include a hospital, orphanage and halfway house for inmates transitioning back into society.
“She often brought the elderly, orphaned and undernourished to Manhattan Beach where she hosted what she called ‘Fresh Air Camp,’” says Cohill. “During which, children suspected of having tuberculosis spent four weeks in a tent city constructed along the shoreline being tended to by nurses and doctors from town.”
While Manhattan Beach served the black community in many different ways, it was predominantly a place for people to relax and socialize. A man named Mack Wilson owned and operated a pavilion and bathhouse that provided accommodations, dining and entertainment. William Middleton also operated a pavilion, which included a boardwalk offering beachgoers a relief from the sun.
Although it enjoyed immense popularity for a time, Manhattan Beach ultimately gave way to progress and changing times.
“First, it suffered diminished access as the FEC Railway stopped service to the beach in 1932,” explains Cohill. “Some African Americans from in town still made the trip by car to Manhattan Beach, but it was no longer the relatively easy 60-cent round trip that most relied on.”
Another substantial hurdle to the destination’s sustained longevity included the fact that African Americans were never able to own a contiguous stretch of the beach and were at the mercy of vested landowners. The beach also suffered a loss in popularity as American Beach on Amelia Island came into the picture and, in 1942, the Army Corps of Engineers leased acreage from the RCBS Corporation in Manhattan Beach and developed it for a military outpost, a common sight along the Florida coast during the war.
While Manhattan Beach and its story has remained relatively unknown in the area, Cohill and others like Dr. Closmann hope to change that.
“What I’ve been able to piece together to date is certainly not an exhaustive history, and I’m confident that our understanding of Manhattan Beach will continue to evolve,” says Cohill. “But I am ecstatic that it is becoming part of the conversation, that it is entering the area’s historical consciousness.”