I have a particular interest in Hammocks Beach for a number of reasons. First of all, I am an oceanographer and seawater runs in my veins. Secondly, a few years ago I published a book with many of NC’s scientists and naturalists, and Bear Island at Hammocks Beach was highlighted as a great place to explore. A fantastic chapter written by Sam Bland. The third reason for my excitement over visiting Hammocks Beach is that this incredible coastal state park is one of the partners on the NC Science Trail and I can’t wait to be there in person to soak up North Carolina’s coastal beauty.
When I write about amazing NC locations, I most often turn to the ecology or geology of a site. I believe that natural history helps us find our place in the world, but I also recognize that without cultural history, sometimes there are pieces missing, and Hammocks Beach fits that bill to the tee. So, I suggest we start there with Hammocks Beach and see where it takes us.
In 1914, Bear Island was purchased by a New York doctor, John Sharp, with the intention of giving it to his friends, an African American couple named Hurst from North Carolina. That’s quite a gift from anyone at any point in time, but what makes this gift so incredibly special is that, in 1950, the Hursts requested that Dr. Sharp, instead, donate the land to the North Carolina Teachers’ Association (NCTA).
The NCTA was an all-black educators association, founded in 1881 with the belief that education was the best path toward racial progress in this country. Why would an African American teaching association need a beach? At that time, people of color were excluded from mainland beaches, so the Hursts wanted to help create a beach that could be used by their friends, neighbors, and associates without persecution.
Civil and human rights activist C. Payne Lewis and Freddie Hill Lewis picknicking at Hammocks Beach]. Photograph. ca. 1950s. From the North Carolina State Parks Collection, NC Digital Collections. https://digital.ncdcr.gov/Documents/Detail/visitors-on-sailboat/360195 (accessed December 31, 2015). See reference below.
The NCTA raised the money to establish facilities on the adjacent mainland, but found that the costs to establish a bridge over to the island were so high, they would never be able to build or maintain the needed infrastructure. After years of struggling with logistics, they approached the state about making the land into a state park. The state park opened in May 1961 for African American families. It was integrated in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
The history of Hammocks Beach State Park brings mixed emotions. Knowing that most people of color prior to the Civil Rights Act had little to no access to the beauty and natural history that NC beaches offer is infuriating. Knowing that Hammocks Beach provided a safe space when there were no others is somewhat of a relief.
All of North Carolina’s residents and visitors should have the pleasure of seeing the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean. All children should experience seabirds nesting on secluded shores, turtles laying 100 eggs in one giant sand hole, and miles of sand dunes formed by wind and water. These are not the rights of the privileged. These are things all humans should understand to be treasures on Earth.
Photo Credit: Sam Bland
If you are looking to explore the natural side of Hammocks Beach these days, know that only a small amount of the state park is on the mainland. There are two islands, Bear Island and Huggins Island.
Bear Island has a classic barrier island structure, meaning there is a sandy beach running down to the Atlantic ocean on one side of the island, backed by a sand dune field. The other side of the dune field has maritime shrub thicket, which is exactly what it sounds like – thick shrubs that are tolerant of salt water and wind. This habitat runs into a mature maritime forest, perhaps one of my favorite coastal locales with beautiful droopy shrub oaks. The maritime forest leads to tidal salt marsh full of Spartina alterniflora cordgrass and more pluff mud than you can shake a stick at. It’s heavenly.
Photo Credit: Sam Bland
On the backside, of course, is the estuary. A body of water where the salty ocean mixes with freshwater from NC’s river mouths. Scientists refer to estuaries as nursery grounds. They harbor fish and shellfish until they’ve had time to grow with less chance of being eaten by predators. Estuaries also provide a tremendous economic benefit to North Carolina, bringing jobs, recreation, and food to our coastal shores. Want to know more about NC’s shellfish, like our famous oysters? Check out the NC Oyster Trail for more information.
Bear island is home to special migratory birds, long-traveled sea turtles, and the exceedingly rare crystal skipper butterfly, known only to Bear Island and the adjacent Bogue Banks.
The adjacent Huggins Island is a maritime swamp forest, which is listed as a Globally Rare and Significant Area. Something to be seen, cared for, and proud of. A maritime swamp forest is a forest near the coast that is flooded seasonally, and has saturated sediments nearly all the time. This makes it a wetland, and this is important because as long as wetland sediments remain wet, they not only hold water, they hold carbon – a lot of it!
Imagine a beautiful forest flat butting up next to tall stands of green and gold marsh grasses with tons of soft, wet pluff mud. During some parts of the year standing water would surround the trunks of the trees resembling more of a typical southeastern swamp. These coastal forests can also develop between large swaths of sand dunes, and at the bottom of streams where the water enters the estuary.
If you’re a history buff, Huggins Island also has historic Native American hunting and fishing grounds, and history from both the Civil War and WWII.
Join me at Hammocks Beach State Park this weekend for a very special Trail Days Event. I’ll be waiting for you!
Agan, K. (2015) Hammocks Beach State Park, North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation. NC Government and Heritage Library. https://www.ncpedia.org/hammocks-beach-state-park
Dunn, A. (2016) “North Carolina Teachers Association,” NorthCarolinahistory.org: An Online Encyclopedia, North Carolina History Project, https://northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/north-carolina-teachers-association/ (accessed September 11, 2023)
Justeson, B.R. (2006). “North Carolina Teachers Association,” in Encyclopedia of North Carolina, edited by Powell, W.S. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.
Smith, A. C., & Carrier, S. J. (2020). Thirty Great North Carolina science adventures: From Underground Wonderlands to Islands in the Sky and Everything in Between. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.