This month as we commemorate Black History Month, we turn our attention to an interview narrated by longtime Greenwich resident, Alver W. Napper, who was a member of the Board of Directors of the Lee Haven Beach Club. In operation from 1949 until 1952, the club was located on Shore Island, a small spit of land less than an acre large, off the coast of Byram, Connecticut. The Beach Club, a revolutionary space not without controversy, was established as a recreational club for professional Blacks from the area surrounding Greenwich.
|“I like to think of this island, of this club, as being one of the milestones in the evolution of the recreational aspirations of the Black people of this area.” Alver W. Napper, June 6, 2010-February 7, 2002|
The following, which details the club’s short duration, is from a 1975 Oral History Project interview conducted by volunteer R.W. Howell. Olivia Luntz, a Greenwich High School Senior and Oral History Project guest blogger, prepared this post.
Alver Napper was director of the Crispus Attucks Center and an active member of the NAACP in Greenwich. In the Lee Haven Beach Club interview, he notes that in the 1930s and 1940s Blacks could not belong to the YMCA, YWCA, or other clubs, so they had to create their own space. “Recreation for Blacks was confined principally to the church,” he says. There were clubs and groups that met in private homes, but there were no public spaces available to Blacks to rent.
In order to hold dances, for example, organizers had to look outside Greenwich. And the need for such space in town was lost on many people. Napper tells the story of a meeting held to discuss the topic. As he recalls, one woman present “spoke up in the meeting and said that she didn’t see why Blacks needed recreation; she thought that when they had their Thursday off from work, or their Sunday off, the proper thing for them to do was to go home and rest so that they would be more efficient for work the next day.”
This may leave us stunned today, but in the early days, the town’s Black organizers were undeterred.
Napper points out that 1939 and 1940 were the first years in which the need for recreational space for Black citizens became recognized. “They organized some singing and some open-air theatrical kind of things…entertainment.” Next, the basement of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Lake Avenue was turned into a Black community center. Finally, arrangements were made to acquire the old Boys’ Club building, which was then at 33 Railroad Avenue, after the Boys’ Club moved into a new building. The Boys’ Club had never before rented their facilities for Black functions because “they were always afraid that we would have people whom we could not depend upon to observe the rules and regulations and thereby would…ruin the reputation.”
The most important step toward having a space for Blacks in Greenwich to come together, however, was the creation of the Lee Haven Beach Club.
The Lee Haven Beach Club was founded after a Black real estate broker from New York, Mr. J. Opie Hagans, came across the island and purchased it. The island had previously been used during prohibition as a bootlegger club, called the Pieces of Eight. Hagans was known for buying run-down properties, repairing them, and then reselling them. However, the Lee Haven Beach Club faced problems before it even opened its doors. According to Napper, “as soon as news got out that Blacks had bought the island, then the real old racist Greenwich spirit began to bubble over.”
The club was first challenged by zoning laws that prohibited new clubs being organized unless they were approved by Greenwich zoning. However, since the Pieces of Eight club had existed on the island beforehand, the challenge was moot. Next, once the club got started, there was a challenge of the club’s right to have a rope ferry that would allow people to access the island. The Lee Haven club was once again able to dodge that setback as the Pieces of Eight club had been granted a permit for a rope ferry.
But the club’s connection to the Pieces of Eight club also created problems. “During the time of the Pieces of Eight club there were people getting drunk, creating disturbances on the island, and annoying everybody around the neighborhood….The neighbors claimed that that was their main reason for trying to prevent this new club from starting.” Therefore it was important that during its existence the Lee Haven Beach Club was very quietly operated.
The greatest challenge the club had to face, Napper says, was the fight to obtain a liquor license. “Some of the people who lived around that area, people of means, paid several very prominent attorneys to block our efforts to secure a liquor license. This went on for several years until as Napper comments, they “were able to hire someone who had political clout.” Only then did they obtain the license—and not until the club paid a high price, spent to convince that lawyer to represent them.
And the liquor license was not the only problem the Club faced. Napper adds that, “we had hearings—town hall packed hearings with the people who objected—and they had all of their lawyers there. They objected to the permittee, they objected on the basis that there were nuisances going to be created in the neighborhood, and so forth—all kinds of objections.”
In spite of the controversy, the club prevailed and was successful—for a time.
|Shore Island, Photographer: Didier Ciambra, www.ciambraphotography.com|
The main clubhouse contained the bar and the restaurant, and four additional houses provided fifty to sixty rooms that could be rented out. The island also had “a very beautiful locker room, and we had a beach—a beautiful beach.” Finally, the island also had a dock where members would bring their boats. The club’s daytime activities included enjoying the beach, boating and playing games. Unlike the Pieces of Eight club, the Lee Haven Beach Club was more family-oriented. Napper notes that members from New York would “come down and rent several rooms and bring their families down for a week or two.” During the evenings there were dances and parties on the lawn and private parties in guests’ rooms. There was a jukebox “which we used to use every night,” says Napper.
However, all the effort that went into creating the Lee Haven Beach Club couldn’t prevent its eventual demise. Napper recalls that the club lasted for four summers, those of 1949-1952. Dissension began to grow within the club because of the differing opinions among members about whom the club should be open to. Napper explains that the club was originally created as a space for professional Blacks from New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and other metropolitan areas to gather. “The general aim [was] to try and make the membership predominantly professional Black people.”
When the club first started there were several hundred members, who mostly lived in New York and Washington. It soon became apparent that a club strictly limited to professionals could not earn enough revenue to stay open. Some members wanted the club to admit anybody who could pay their membership dues.
“We had our Annual Meeting,” says Napper, “and the professional group had held an affair in New York City to raise money to make up the deficit for the club. When they came out, they wanted to change the constitution of the club so that you had to be professionals. There was a big floor debate about that, and they were out-voted by the people who wanted to keep it open to everybody. Then that group (the professionals) said that since you’re going to do that, you’re not going to get this money, which they raised in order to save the club. So that was the parting of ways then. Next season was an extremely lean season with most of these professionals staying away, and thereafter the club rapidly went down.”
After that summer there was a hurricane that severely damaged the buildings on the island, and the captain/caretaker who lived on the island during the winter passed away. The island was eventually sold and remained deserted. “It’s “gone back to nature now,” Napper sadly notes.
Despite the demise of the Lee Haven Beach Club, Alver W. Napper’s interview is a compelling reminder of the contributions Greenwich’s Black residents have made to our rich and fascinating history.
“The Lee Haven Beach Club,” 1975, is available through the Greenwich Oral History Project office located on the lower level of the library or on the first floor in the library’s reference section.
A summary of the Greenwich Oral History Project interviews commemorating Black History Month can be found here: http://www.glohistory.org/uploads/2/5/3/1/25311459/2013_02_13.pdf