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A Trip Back in Time: Mosquito Beach

Dr. Ramon Jackson Dr. Ramon Jackson
African American Heritage Coordinator for the South Carolina Heritage Commission
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A view of the marsh surrounding historic Mosquito Beach.

William “Cubbie” Wilder has never forgotten the date: Easter Sunday 1953. Having arrived back home on James Island after several years in New York, Wilder remembers the buzz in the air that Sunday afternoon. “People were coming from everywhere ... to the pavilion, and it was all the dancing going on,” he remembers, “The mosquitoes came, too, because all the dancing and perspiration.” From that day forward, Easter Sunday marked the beginning of the social season, as Black patrons from Charleston, Holly Hill, Florence, Goose Creek, Columbia and other sections of the country strutted down the pavilion to show off their finest wardrobes. By the end of the summer, the tiny strip of marsh front bordering a tidal creek affectionately dubbed “Mosquito Beach” became a household name for those in search of cool breezes, hot meals, warm smiles and a respite from the racial turmoil of the day. 

Mosquito Beach has always been a place where Black residents and travelers alike could experience freedom and opportunity often denied elsewhere. During Reconstruction, several Black farmers purchased narrow lots that once comprised a large island plantation. Prior to the 1920s, the “strip” served as the southern portion for three lots owned by Black farmers Nelson Left, Edward Green and John Lafayette. Their families were among 100 Black truck farming families on James Island throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of whom retain ownership today. In 1922, Beaufort oyster merchant and Savannah native George Creighton Varn (1862-1931) signed a 10-year lease with the descendants of Nelson Left for two acres at the west end of today’s Mosquito Beach strip, located on a small barrier island between James Island and Folly Island called Sol Lagare. One year later, Varn established the Unity Oyster Company of Charleston which manufactured and sold oysters, crabs and vegetables as well as agricultural products. The oyster factory was the catalyst for social and recreational activity on Mosquito Beach.

Varn mostly hired James Island residents to work at the factory including the father of Sol Legare native William G. “Cubby” Wilder, who remembers his father recalling his experience working on a flat-bottom barge in King Flats Creek to collect the oysters. Wilder’s mother worked at the factory as a shucker.  Varn constructed three cottages along Mosquito Beach Road for the workers to stay in during the oyster season.  Wilder recalled several huts on the Left estate where his aunt and uncle, also factory workers, resided well into the 1940s. The factory remained a steady source of income for these families until it was seized by Charleston County between 1925 and 1928. Upon Varn’s death in 1931, the factory permanently closed, but the property, locally known as “The Factory,” continued to serve as an informal gathering place for the surrounding community.

The Island Breeze Restaurant tried to keep the vibrancy of Mosquito Beach going but is now closed.

Although occupying a small portion of Mosquito Beach, “The Factory” continued to have a significant impact on community life on Sol Legare Island.  Local “creek fisherman” and farmer Joe Chavis and his son, Joe Chavis, Jr., established a small store on Mosquito Beach Road. The savvy businessman turned the sparse marsh front landscape into a casual, after-work hangout as locals enjoyed soul food, fresh seafood, moonshine and other adult beverages while sharing the news and gossip of the day. 

During the 1940s, development continued to expand along Mosquito Beach Road with the construction of a store and restaurant at the eastern edge. Jack Walker’s Club, also known as P&J’s and today the Suga Shack. Chavis, Jr., known on Sol Legare Island as “King Pin,” “Lil Bubba” and later “Ol’ Joe,” opened the Seaside Grill in a newly constructed two-story frame house. The structure had a ground story store with a jukebox, pool table and menu of fresh steamed clams and crabs. Chavis operated the store until 1984, when it was destroyed by fire. Today, four buildings including the Pine Tree Hotel, a two-story frame building built by Andrew “Apple” Wilder in 1964, stand as reminders of the beach’s glory days.

One of six “Black beaches” in the Charleston area during Jim Crow, Mosquito Beach attracted African Americans in search of “seaside leisure” denied to them elsewhere due to segregation. Many visited Mosquito Beach because it was more convenient and less frightening than taking a bus excursion to Atlantic Beach, a segregated oceanfront beach located nearly two hours away near Myrtle Beach. “We used to take bus excursions to Atlantic Beach and it would take us almost two hours or three hours to get there … across that bridge, the old [Cooper River] bridge on that bus,” Wilder laughed, “That was the scariest thing that I witnessed in my lifetime.” Rather than endure the long bus ride to Atlantic Beach, Black residents and visitors frequented Mosquito Beach which offered beach pavilions, music venues, restaurants and lodging. Mosquito Beach patrons enjoyed cool breezes while savoring Laura Apple’s famous fried chicken. “On Fridays we would clean about a couple of cases of chicken, and on Sunday she would fry those chickens up,” remembers her daughter Cassandra Roper, “It seemed to have a different flavor.” Children enjoyed Mosquito Beach too. Roper often danced for guests at the pavilions while her cousins collected tips later used to purchase sodas and snacks or pay for rides in the bumper cars. Sundays were particularly special at Mosquito Beach remembers Russell Roper, who operated the amusement rides. “Because everybody come on Sunday, they show off their clothes, enjoy themselves, yeah, that’s what made it so special. You come out here, you know, drink your beer, soda, whatever, and you get on the beach. It’s free. It’s free for Sunday. It was nice.” 

One of the structures built on historic Mosquito Beach.

Other visitors came to Mosquito Beach in search of a different kind of thrill, as the pavilion became a popular dating scene for young men and women. “The males followed the women, and there was a lot of women coming down here from everywhere,” Wilder remembers, “the dancing was the catch … so, people used to come to watch other people dance, and then they come to watch the girls and the girls come to watch the guys. So, you know, it was just the birds and the bees.” Labor Day dance contests offered the best opportunity for suitors to show off their dance skills, particularly when competitions were broadcast on WPAL, Charleston’s first radio station directed toward Black listeners.

Eager to see what all the fuss was about, whites also partied alongside Black patrons. “They thought they were going to be ran away. They fell right on into place,” Wilder remembered, “They were a little apprehensive as to how they going to get treated, but if you’re out to have a good time, you can have a good time no matter what color you are. There was no animosity.” 

As the Civil Rights Movement shifted into high gear, however, Black Charlestonians soon grew discontented with the racial status quo. During the summer of 1963, eight young Black men “waded-in” in front of the Folly Plaza on Folly Beach, just a few miles from Mosquito Beach. Beachgoing whites in the area left the water immediately and a gathering crowd followed the young men down the street, while police kept the groups well separated. The Folly Beach wade-in was part of a larger movement of protests by the Black community in Charleston which included silent marches throughout the downtown area, sit-ins in the city’s commercial districts and other wade-ins at municipal swimming facilities. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Russell Roper and nine of his friends tested federal desegregation law, visiting once all-white Folly Beach before being met with violence. The “Folly Beach Ten” were chased from the beach by white beachgoers, one armed with a knife, before being rescued by lifeguards. Following the incident, the NAACP bussed in larger numbers of Black beachgoers to protest segregation at Folly Beach, which opened to Black visitors in the early 1970s. After desegregation, Mosquito Beach gradually lost visitors to its neighbor and became a shadow of its former self. 

Mosquito Beach survived major hurricanes, bureaucratic obstruction and a declining reputation due to a string of violent acts on the property during the 1990s. In 1993, locals formed the Mosquito Beach Business Association in an attempt to recapture and revitalize the area’s heritage, to portray Mosquito Beach positively as a “rich cultural experience for everyone.” Alarmed by threats of development, local families coordinated with area historical preservationists to document the storied history of Mosquito Beach and begin the process of restoring the site for future generations. In 2019, Historic Charleston Foundation and representatives of the various families researched and drafted an application to list the site on the National Register of Historic Places. On September 23, 2019, the area was listed as the Mosquito Beach Historic District. Two years later, the National Park Service granted roughly $500,000 to restore and transform one of the hotels on Mosquito Beach into an educational and entrepreneurial site. 

Dr. Ramon Jackson
Dr. Ramon Jackson
More from "Dr. Ramon Jackson"
African American Heritage Coordinator for the South Carolina Heritage Commission