photograph by Charles Harris

The ferry rumbled and churned up a salty spray, cooling the faces of the teenage boys on board, several dozen North Carolina farm kids. Their eyes scanned the horizon for bald eagles and dolphins and a glimpse of Bear Island in the distance. They were tickled at the prospect of spending a summer afternoon on the beach and not on the farm, which, in 1960, meant topping tobacco in a sweltering field or swatting flies behind the family mule. For one week, the boys were attending S.B. Simmons Camp in a coastal wilderness called The Hammocks near Swansboro. Sponsored by the New Farmers of America (NFA), an organization in the Southern states for the next generation of black farmers, the camp was an opportunity for rural, black high school students to develop leadership skills and have some fun away from home.

On the boat that day, 15-year-old Willie Randolph, the son of sharecroppers in Wilson County, wasn’t the only one wearing flip-flops for the first time. “A ninth-grade boy, never been more than 10 miles from home,” Randolph, now 74, recalls with a dry chuckle. “Just a country boy who ain’t had enough of nothing.” In a few years, Randolph would graduate from North Carolina A&T and become a high school agriculture teacher himself, but back then, he was like all the other campers — a student handpicked for the summer program by his ag teacher. “I’m gonna make something out of you anyway,” his teacher had joked when he gave Randolph one of the NFA’s coveted black-and-gold jackets.

In the 1960s, visitors took a ferry to Bear Island to spend the day exploring the beach. photograph by North Carolina Division of State Parks

On that June morning, young Randolph tried to calm his nerves as the ferry pulled away from the dock. “Here’s a time to meet other folks,” he remembers thinking. “You can ride on a boat over to an island and have a chance to say to yourself, ‘I am somebody. I am somebody. I can do that.’”

The 30-minute trip to Bear Island took him through one of the state’s most beautiful unspoiled maritime landscapes: From the air, The Hammocks is a paisley maze of waterways, its inlets and islands along the brackish Intracoastal Waterway carved out by centuries of storms and man-made alterations. This backwater sanctuary has long been a place of refuge, giving shelter in peace time and war time to loggerhead turtles, American Indians, whiskey runners, pirates, and soldiers alike. Once privately owned, it’s now state property, home to Hammocks Beach State Park. Bear Island is the park’s sandy coronet, an 892-acre undeveloped barrier island with rolling dunes, a maritime forest, and the occasional coyote (they swim; the rangers have pictures). There, along an exquisite 3.5-mile beach — still called Hammocks Beach — ocean waves tumble like dominoes, and Scotch bonnets wash up whole. From the west end to the east, there’s not a hotel or a power line in sight.

Remote and wild even today, the park has that faraway feeling of a place with stories to tell. Thinking back on what it meant to a young man in 1960, Randolph says wistfully, “I’m not the only one who got a life start down at that camp.”

The bath house had a snack bar and provided the island’s only respite from the summer sun. photograph by State Archives of North Carolina

Gertrude Hurst knew the island and its stories better than almost anyone. Even before there was a camp, or a ferry, she was a central character. The teacher, church deacon, front-porch crocheter, and notable cook wore a proper bonnet and ate fish every day. Everyone knew “Miss Gertrude.” In this corner of Onslow County — just east of Jacksonville — the Hurst family name is still as revered as Hugh Morton’s is on Grandfather Mountain.

Born in 1900 in a settlement on present-day Camp Lejeune, Hurst was part American Indian on her mother’s side; her father — the ferryman at Sneads Ferry — had once been enslaved. She’d been a schoolteacher in one-room schoolhouses — earning about $30 a month — before marrying John Hurst. He knew the coastal wilderness of The Hammocks like she knew the classroom. Tall and slender, she wore her waist-length hair braided and wound in a knot on her head, sometimes with a straight-edge razor hidden in the plaits. Swansboro was once a “sundown town” — black people were threatened with violence if they were seen out after dark. “Gramma was quiet and peaceful,” says her granddaughter, Harriet Hurst Turner. “But she was not one to be fooled with. She could kill a snake with a stick.”

In 1914, John Hurst met Dr. William Sharpe, a wealthy neurosurgeon from New York, whose circle of friends included Franklin D. Roosevelt. Sharpe had come down to hunt and fish at a private club in Onslow County, and Hurst was assigned as his guide. Sharpe developed such a fondness for the area that, in the early 1920s, he bought The Hammocks and Bear Island — some 4,600 acres. (Bear Island’s long, wide, flat beach proved a good spot to land his plane.) Hurst agreed to manage the property. His wife quit teaching to work for Sharpe, too. For 30 years, Hurst and Sharpe walked the woods, fished for channel bass, and pondered the best way to talk to recalcitrant mules. Gertrude Hurst edited sections of Sharpe’s autobiography and prepared meals for the Sharpes and their New York friends at the Sharpes’ house on Bear Island. When Gertrude Hurst’s mother died, Sharpe sat in the family pew at the church.

Toward the end of his life, in the late 1940s, Sharpe and his wife offered the entire property to the Hursts. But knowing that the 4,600-acre estate would be expensive to maintain — and that such a gift in the 1940s would draw unwanted attention — Gertrude Hurst and Sharpe forged a new plan: one that would honor teachers and give black schoolchildren and families in the state access to one of North Carolina’s most beautiful beaches. Because of segregation, African-Americans were banned from public beaches in the state, including parks for which they paid taxes. The Hammocks would be a sanctuary. “He put the question before me,” the then 79-year-old widow told The Coastal Dispatch: “‘How about turning it over to the teachers?’”

In 1950, the Hursts and the Sharpes deeded the property — setting aside a few parcels for their respective families — to the North Carolina Teachers Association (NCTA), a powerful organization of black educators and community leaders. Over the next two decades, the NCTA transformed The Hammocks into one of the most popular vacation spots for African-Americans in the Southeast.

The nonprofit corporation created by the NCTA oversaw the development of a 16-unit motel, an assembly hall (named after Gertrude), and, down the road, in a sandy meadow along Queens Creek — close enough to Camp Lejeune to hear the muffled boom of bombing practice — the S.B. Simmons Camp.

People called The Hammocks a resort, but there were no large hotels on the property or rows of cottages for rent. Folks camped out or, later, rented accommodations at S.B. Simmons Camp and the 4-H camp nearby when they weren’t in session. Vacationers — teachers, doctors, lawyers, nurses — returned year after year. Families met up for meals at the Gertrude Hurst Assembly Hall. “There was always a party — and dancing!” Turner recalls. She grew up holding on to the hem of her grandmother’s skirt, trying to keep up. All summer, a steady stream of cars arrived from across the state. At night, the chirrup of katydids mingled with the thump of the Friday night jukebox at the assembly hall.

As teachers, Willie and Mattie Randolph both took students to S.B. Simmons Camp. Willie, once a camper there himself, became the camp’s supervisor. photograph by Charles Harris

The Hammocks hosted festivals and reunions, conferences and convocations. Cookouts brought everyone together. Even in her later years, Hurst, who lived in a waterfront house near the ferry, brought out her black cast-iron pot to fry fish. “They’d catch them with the nets right there, and she’d cook them — so fresh they’d curl up,” Turner says.

At Simmons Camp each week from June until mid-July, a new group of teens would spring from their chaperones’ vehicles, argue over bunk beds, and elect cabin leaders. By 1969, Randolph was among the teachers: “The first year, I took a busload — 22 students.” When the camp went coed, he and his wife, Mattie, also a teacher, both brought students. The campers held writing contests, cabin-cleaning competitions, and talent shows, and learned public speaking. In the afternoons, they played Ping-Pong, practiced cannonballs in the pool, or took the ferry to Bear Island. For many, it was the first place they got tumbled by a wave or found a perfect sand dollar.

Bear Island holds special memories for Dwayne Patterson, director of the North Carolina Division of State Parks and Recreation. Patterson’s father, Bruce, was an agriculture teacher in Lenoir County, and a mentor to Randolph. Patterson was too young to attend the camp himself, but he got to tag along on the Bear Island field trips when his father was there. “I didn’t realize this was one of the only places we could go,” he says of those trips. “Is that good or is that bad? I just knew this was a beach.”

“He put the question before me: ‘How about turning it over to the teachers?’ ”

And what a beach it was. Sandy kids lined up for peanut butter crackers, moon pies, and bottles of bright red Tahitian Treat at the concession stand, run by the Hurst family. Turner worked there in high school with her brothers and cousins. During her lunch break, she would explore the dunes — not protected back then — looking for fulgurite, sand crystals formed by lightning strikes during powerful summer storms. “You could find all kinds of things back there,” she recalls of the sandy thickets. “When you looked around, all you saw was sand and sky and water. It was wonderful.”

Segregation denied generations in North Carolina access to beach experiences, so The Hammocks held special significance for those who grew up going there. “I didn’t realize the magnitude of it back then,” Turner says. “It touched a lot of people. Every now and then, someone will say to me, ‘I remember that place.’”

Bear Island became a state park for African-Americans in 1961. For years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned segregation in all parks, The Hammocks continued to be a destination primarily for black families. But by the late 1970s, its popularity had grown to include white visitors, too. From her rocking chair on the porch of her green-shuttered house, Hurst could watch the summer families set out by boat for Bear Island. Some years, her grandson John Hurst Jr. was the ferry captain. “We grew up knowing that if you have something, you share, you give back,” Turner says.

There’s a sense that the land is resetting, waiting for a new generation of young people.

Management of The Hammocks eventually became complicated. The camp hung on for a few more decades, but historic agreements regarding the land’s stewardship ended up in the courts. Lawsuits led to countersuits and appeals; differing opinions about safeguarding the land challenged relationships. The last lawsuit was settled in 2015 with the state agreeing to purchase the remaining 290 acres from Turner and her brother, the surviving heirs. “For the state to buy it, I knew it was going to be in good hands,” Turner says. “It was not going to become a development, and I was still doing what my grandmother wanted — education, recreation.”

Patterson, too, is pleased with the result: The land is protected for more generations of visitors. One crisp, clear morning in February, Patterson invited the Randolphs to revisit the landscape of their youth. Willie Randolph, who eventually became the supervisor of S.B. Simmons, brought with him an envelope stuffed with old photos from the camp’s heyday.

The retired teacher’s voice had lost some of its deep timbre, but his memories were sharp and clear. He and his wife stepped gingerly over the scrubby brush to where the cabins and the dining hall once stood. “It was truly God’s country,” 72-year-old Mattie Randolph recalled. “The breeze would come and cool the place. It smelled of the ocean.”

The one cabin that remains is marked with graffiti; inside, a crumbled mattress slumps in a corner surrounded by broken glass. But tufts of new longleaf pines have taken root outside the front door. There’s a sense that the land is resetting, waiting for a new generation of young people.

That’s Patterson’s hope. He wants the meaning and history of this place preserved, its beauty paid forward. There are plans to turn the old campsite into a spiffy riverside campground. “We’re going to make sure every kid goes to a park and has a positive and memorable experience,” he says. “It’s a matter of exposure. We’re going to solve that.” All it takes is one ferry trip to Bear Island.

This story was published on

Robyn Yiğit Smith has worked internationally as a journalist, writer, and documentary film producer. She lives in Chapel Hill with her two boys.

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