Discovering McKenzie Beach

Written By: 
Gladys Manigault Watkins
Photographs by: 
Randall Hill

Prior to Hurricane Hazel’s devastation in 1954, this 28-acre stretch of land near Pawleys Island was a vacation retreat for African-Americans

 

Hurricane season along the South Carolina Atlantic coastline, according to meteorologists, officially begins each year on the first day of June and ends the last day of November. Thanks to rather accurate present day forecasting, those living along the coast can now get prepared when alerts for these high-level storms are issued. However, such super storms often carry several layers of unpredictability and create scores of heartbreaking stories that are told about horrible hurricanes which have wrecked the lives and livelihoods for many.


Among those stories is that of the forgotten place of historic McKenzie Beach in Georgetown County. Today it exists as a pristine, scenic beauty and an example of nature’s masterful skill in reincarnation. But in 1954, Hurricane Hazel was its master destroyer. For many coastal travelers on their journeys along a stretch of U.S. 17 near Pawleys Island, this small exquisite beach now appears as almost a mystical storybook scene with no history of significant reference. Fortunately, there is a worthy history and many are alive today who remember and were a part of the legend.

McKenzie Beach is just two miles north of the Pawleys Island Hammock Shops and eight miles south of Brookgreen Gardens. Drivers who have a keen sense and affinity for spotting the unusual might make a U-turn to come back for a closer look at this unexpected find. It is just that—an unexpected view of beauty from a past era. Likely queries about the site are inevitable. An astute spectator might accurately conclude that it was not an antebellum plantation, although several were in Georgetown County, and that it was not a secluded country club. But, perhaps, it was a beach resort from decades ago.
Indeed, for almost three decades, McKenzie Beach at Pawleys Island in South Carolina was once a popular and well-known vacation resort. But what made it important then was that it was a beach for African-Americans at a time when direct access to the Atlantic oceanfront in the Jim Crow South was extremely limited. The four-acre McKenzie Beach mainland had several privately owned new homes, a restaurant, a bait and tackle shop and a small motel. On the six-acre oceanfront and creek peninsula was a large pavilion restaurant with a performance stage area and several beach cabins. A corner bait and tackle shop was at the beginning of the bridge crossing, and 18 acres of marshland gave special beauty to the site.

Patrons and residents of McKenzie Beach enjoyed the best days of resort life before the horrific Category 4 Hurricane Hazel of October 15, 1954. It was on that day when South Carolina coastline residents, many with no flood insurance, experienced near total disaster. However, with the present day view of McKenzie Beach, between the openings in the now picturesque 1950s vine-covered motel, one can sometimes actually see through to the waves of the ocean and view the now undeveloped six acres of McKenzie Beach on the Atlantic oceanfront.

Up until that unpredictable day in 1954, McKenzie Beach was successfully operated for about two decades almost solely by the McKenzie family: Frank McKenzie; his wife Elizabeth “Lizzie” (“Miss Liz”), who had inherited the property from her grandfather; their daughter, Dottie Jane, and their son, Donald. In addition, a few local workers were hired periodically by Frank and Miss Liz to help maintain their property, but for the most part, all aspects of McKenzie Beach were planned and managed by the McKenzie family.

Famous black entertainers of the era became regular performers at the McKenzie Pavilion and contributed significantly to the commercial success of the beach. Artists such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Little Richard included McKenzie Beach Pavilion on their “colored circuit” tour travels. Their recordings were already a part of the jukebox offerings at the nearby “joints” and bars in the area. The first time hearing some of these legendary artists was experienced for many at McKenzie Beach. Whether as a live performance or heard on oversized lighted jukeboxes, the music of big band jazz and rhythm and blues gave the beach life a distinctive flavor of fun and excitement.

Some histories and news articles trace McKenzie Beach’s origin as an outgrowth of the adjacent Magnolia Beach Club, sometimes also referred to as Birney Beach. Years earlier, Frank McKenzie had partnered with another local resident, Lilly Pyatt (an heir of landowner James Smalls), with the oceanfront Magnolia Beach Club. And since McKenzie Beach was adjacent to Magnolia Beach, the names were often used interchangeably. Now known as the Waccamaw Neck area of beaches, the early map renderings and documentations show McKenzie Beach’s singular history being more clearly tracked in the early 20th century when Elizabeth McKenzie inherited the property. Some years later, however, Magnolia Beach was bought by the Litchfield Company and is now known by that name. It is still adjacent to McKenzie Beach and presently stretches its span of the oceanfront with luxury homes.

Before Hurricane Hazel, Frank McKenzie’s beach was the summer retreat site for a small, regularly returning group of black residents who treasured the well-cared-for resort. Memories of these historical years hold special linkages to the past for those now living in their senior years of life. The Manigault, Teele, Monteith, Woods, Parker, Daniels and Woodson families comprised the core McKenzie Beach dwellers for more than a decade. As neighbors, some residents whose permanent homes were within reasonable travel distance sometimes returned to McKenzie Beach during spring and autumn months.

A few dwellers returned to simply have a quiet, leisurely place to work on special projects or to delve into their tasks of annual April income tax preparations.

Throughout the years, these families were special beach neighbors who had successful professional careers and lived in various Carolina cities. They had discovered this unique resort operated by African-Americans solely for African-Americans. Great seafood, fresh from the creeks and inlets, was prepared by Miss Liz and the atmosphere of quiet summer mornings, afternoons of sunshine and swimming and late lingering evenings of memorable sunsets were the usual routine. Many felt that McKenzie Beach was always the best place for a good night’s sleep.

McKenzie Beach always had its own road, now called Old Beach Road, for ingress and egress. Children walked with friends and family along the beach road where fiddlers scurried into burrows for safety and oyster shells were thickly scattered along the shoulders as a kind of natural resource to keep the roadway firm from erosion. Directly from U.S. 17 to the small crossing bridge at the end of Old Beach Road, visiting patrons were able to park their cars and buses and walk across a tow bridge to the oceanfront. Some rental cabins were available for short-term visitors, but a few neighbors were regulars who stayed all summer. For many years, mainland friends and oceanfront friends formed a unique extended McKenzie family. Birthday celebrations, visiting honeymooners and other occasions of pleasure were commonplace. The July 4th holidays, however, always had the greatest gatherings of many more friends and visitors.

Despite the intense racial barriers and Jim Crow obstacles of the era, the McKenzie Beach community family was stable, congenial and grateful for the privilege it was fortunate enough to experience. And since Frank and Liz McKenzie lived on the premises of McKenzie Beach, they were constantly caretaking the property. While Miss Liz and Dottie Jane managed the front restaurant and beach pavilion as well as the mainland motel and 17 waterfront rental cabins, Frank McKenzie and Donald were overseers and operators of practically every other aspect of running the beach business.

During the early 1950s, Frank McKenzie drove his early version of a golf cart vehicle on the oceanfront and mainland to keep visible and to make repairs of generators and equipment. He was a totally equipped handyman. The McKenzie family accepted that all beach operations were under their watch and care. Miss Liz took particular pride in her front entrance landscape on U.S. 17, where delicate pink and lavender flowers spelled the oversized word McKenzie. Her attention and time devoted to beautifying the mainland landscape was extraordinary, especially since she was the head caterer for the many meals prepared for beach residents.

A couple of miles north of McKenzie Beach is the present site of a memorial at an Episcopal Parish community. This site, too, has a long and distinguished history. Its earliest resident Parish priest and his wife became well-known state and national icons for their love and dedication to teaching (“Miss Ruby’s Kids”). In a one-room schoolhouse at Holy Cross Faith Memorial Church site, Father William Essex Forsythe and Mrs. Ruby Middleton Forsythe mentored the Parkersville and Pawleys Island areas’ underserved African-American children.

The Forsythes, who were African-Americans and friends of the McKenzie family, supported the nearby beach. Their camp program in the summer months, called Camp Baskerville, established an important attachment to McKenzie Beach. Camp Baskerville is still serving youths of the Grand Strand to this day.

The camp was named for E.L. Baskerville, Arch Deacon of the Diocese of South Carolina, under whom Father Forsythe had previously served. Simultaneously, Father Forsythe served as rector of Saint Cyprian’s Protestant Episcopal Church in nearby Georgetown. The children who enrolled in the various one- and two-week Camp Baskerville sessions came from cities and towns across the state, but most especially from Georgetown and the Charleston areas.
During camp sessions, scores of African-American summer campers could be seen frequently walking with their counselors along the shoulders of U.S. 17 from Camp Baskerville to McKenzie Beach. Even the campers whose summer homes were on McKenzie Beach made this daily walk from Camp Baskerville. Grateful and fortunate for nearby McKenzie Beach, the counselors and the African-American church leaders knew that this site was their sole means to easily and safely have access to the Atlantic Ocean with children who wanted to enjoy the ocean water.

Unfortunately, a pivotal time in history changed all of this when in 1954 Hurricane Hazel devoured the sands of the oceanfront and kept it submerged for more than a decade. Much became altered—in land and in spirit.

Perhaps it will take a few more decades before Frank McKenzie’s beach can be fully revitalized to again welcome campers and all vacationers. But these new beginnings are in place. To that end, the land accretion has already happened, and the beachfront has expanded more than in its former prime years. Without doubt, the wonder of nature’s present configuration at the site is miraculous. It is simple, yet scenic. The reincarnation of McKenzie Beach now begs to be noticed, subtly displaying a richness in hidden history with visible potential for the coastal Carolina beach shores.
 

About the author: Gladys Manigault Watkins, professor emerita, is a freelance writer and native South Carolinian now residing in Washington, D.C. She and her sister, Naomi Manigault Holmes, are the daughters of the late Walter Wilbert Manigault, whose family maintained summer residence at McKenzie Beach during the 1950s. In 1963, in an effort to save the property from bankruptcy and to retain this African-American beach during the era of segregation, Walter W. Manigault and Modjeska M. Simkins, both of whom were civil rights advocates, partnered in their purchase of McKenzie Beach.

Along with their brother, Walter William Manigault, the Manigault siblings and their heirs have been earnest stewards of this property for nearly half a century. Future plans for McKenzie Beach are always being considered.