|by Rich Barnett|
So I was at the Royal Farms store in Rehoboth on a recent Sunday morning looking for a bandana to keep the sweat out of my eyes while doing some house paintingthe project that just won't end. Gazing at the various colors and trying to recall the old homo hanky code, I couldn't help but eavesdrop on two fab boys ordering sandwiches and planning their day on the beach.
"No way are we going to Poodle Beach with all those old queens," I heard one declare, accentuated by a loud finger snap. No sir, these waifish, pale, twenty-somethings attired in matching silver bathing suits and oversized sunglasses were gonna take their cold cut hoagies and Monster energy drinks right out into the middle of the crowd off Rehoboth Avenue. So they said. Snap!
As I drove home sporting a new white bandana emblazoned with fifty and hundred dollar billsnot sure what it signifiesI couldn't help but wonder why those two were going to venture into the midst of all the straight families on the beach. Was it the proximity to pizza and French fries or some sort of extreme thrill seeking?
Personally, I'd rather sit among the poodles and enjoy the manscape. Of course, it's my choice to spend an afternoon on the gay beach. I'm not restricted to where I can and can't put down my beach chair.
Once upon a time, society did indeed dictate which spot of sand you could frequent. Delaware, like many states up through the early 60s, had a host of Jim Crow laws on its books and black folk wanting to go to the beach in Rehoboth were relegated to what was called the Crow's Nest.
It's not well-documented and it's completely ignored by the local history books, but some sleuthing turned up an interesting article on segregated beaches in Delaware by Wilmington News Journal writer Victor Greto, whose work I admire.
The Crow's Nest, as Greto tells it, was a small patch of beach just north of the Boardwalk and the Henlopen Hotel. It was busiest on Thursdays, the traditional maid's day off, and it even had its own lifeguards. Blacks weren't welcomed on the beach beyond the Crow's Nest and they seldom ventured onto the Boardwalk during the Jim Crow era.
There were other black-only beaches in the area. I've heard there was one in Lewes. Greto's article talks about blacks congregating at Slaughter Beach and at Rosedale Beach over in Oak Orchard on Rehoboth Bay. In its pre-60s heyday, Rosedale Beach had a little boardwalk, a hotel, and a dance hall where performers like Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown performed. It was a stop on what was called the "Chitlin Circuit," a network of clubs, bars, and parks along the East Coast and throughout the South where black entertainers could perform. White Sussex Countians often anchored their boats offshore to listen to the music.
I'm too young to remember official Jim Crow segregation in the South where I grew up, but I do recall vestiges of it on the Carolina coast. The beach road connecting the little towns of Windy Hill, Crescent Beach, and Ocean Drive ended abruptly at a chain-link fence at Atlantic Beach. The road veered westward out to Highway 17 and then back east againjust to avoid going through the four blocks that constituted this historically black beach town.
For several years, my family vacationed at Windy Hill and on a few occasions I'd sneak some beer and go up to the fence at night to hear the music coming out of the Chocolate Disco in Atlantic Beachthe soulful sounds of the Tams, the Clovers, the Four Tops, and the funkier grooves of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield. It spoke to me, unlike the Kiss and Aerosmith bands my brothers and friends all listened to.
The Crow's Nest was never fenced off like Atlantic Beach. And even though all segregation of restaurants and public facilities officially ended in Delaware in 1963, a de facto Crow's Nest is said to have continued into the 1970s.
The only segregation on Rehoboth Beach today is the segregation we gays practice ourselves. I know Poodle Beach is completely different from the Crow's Nest and I'm not even trying to compare the situations. However, I do find it interesting now how the notion of the gay beach just south of the Boardwalk, separate but equal, doesn't bother us. Far from it, we celebrate it. Poodle Beach shows up each year on lists of America's best and most popular gay beaches, attracting more and more visitors each summer.
And why not? Despite the fact that my stomach isn't as flat as in years past and I'm noticing some grey hairs on my chest, I feel comfortable on Poodle Beach. I can ogle the well-built guy in the red square cut swimsuit and enjoy the fellas skipping through the surf wearing flowered bathing caps. Dates are made and hearts are broken. Gay dads build sandcastles with their kids. Couples hold hands. All without a worry. It's that kind of placea haunt, a hangout, something unique.And I think we could use more of that in today's increasing cookie cutter world. Snap! Greenbarn@aol.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 18, No. 07 June 13, 2008