by Assata Shakur
Excerpted from: Assata: An Autobiography, Lawrence Hill Books, 1987
Born JoAnne Deborah Byron, Assata Shakur is the granddaughter of Frank and Lulu Freeman Hill. She was born in Jamaica, NY and when she was 3 the family moved back to Wilmington, North Carolina. In a number of places she uses alternate spelling and capitalization as quoted here.
My grandmother’s family lived in Seabreeze, outside of Wilmington, close to Carolina Beach. Their last name was Freeman, and they were famous for being high-strung, quick-tempered, and emotional. They seldom worked for anybody, choosing instead to live on the land their father had left them. They worked as farmers and fishermen, and they owned small stores. I have also heard that they were in the bootleg business.
My grandmother’s father was a Cherokee Indian. He died when my grandmother was very young. Nobody knows too much about him, except that, somehow, he acquired a great deal of land and left it to his children. The land was very valuable because much of it bordered either on the river or on the ocean. Everybody had a different theory about what my great-grandfather had done to acquire it. But it was because of this land that my grandparents had moved down South.
In 1950, the year we moved to Wilmington, the South was completely segregated. Black people were forbidden to go many places, and that included the beach. Sometimes they would travel all the way from South Carolina just to see the ocean. My grandparents decided to open a business on their land. It consisted of a restaurant, lockers where people could change their clothes and an area for dancing and hanging out.
The popular name for the beach was Bop City, although my grandparents insisted on calling it Freeman’s Beach…
For me, the beach was a wonderful place, and to this day there is no place on this earth that i love more. I have never seen a beach more beautiful than it was then, before they decided to build a canal right through the property of my grandparents. It is now just a pale shadow of what used to be, most of it destroyed by erosion. But back then there were majestic sand dunes covered with tall sea grass where my cousins and i would build forts, houses, and, sometimes, cities. When time permitted, we spent hours hiding and making sneak attacks on one another. The sand was fine and clean and, in the beginning of summer, we could find just about every imaginable kind of sea shell. When the sun got too hot we would sit in the old blue jeep my grandfather drove and play with frilly things like paper dolls and teacups. After i learned to read, i would sit in the sun, under the huge hats my grandmother always made me wear, and read one book after another.
Every day there chores to do and there was no playing until they were completed. I did things like putting the potato chips on the racks, putting sodas in the cooler, wiping the tables clean, etc. When customers were there i would sell small stuff like potato chips, nabs, pickles, and pickled pigs’ feet. I would also set the tables and bring customers things they needed. But my main job was collecting fifty cents for parking. Because there was no road to our beach (the paved road ended with the white section), my grandparents had to pay for a dirt road and parking lot to be laid over the sand. Truckloads of dirt were brought in and a steamroller mashed it down so that it was hard enough to drive on. This was an expensive process so my grandfather decided to charge fifty cents for parking. I could count and make change at a very early age, so it was my job to collect the fifty-cents. During the week it wasn’t too time-consuming, but on the weekends, if the weather was nice, it was an all-day job.
Cars and buses of people came from all over North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. There were church groups, school groups, social clubs, women’s clubs, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. All kinds of people would come to the beach, some with a little money and some you could tell were really poor. In all the years i spent on that beach, only one or two people hassled me. Most of them treated me very kindly, just like i was their kid.
The people who came to the beach fascinated me. I loved to see them come and go. After a while, i would recognize the regulars and it didn’t take me too long to learn their names. Some of them gave me tips, which i usually spent on the picolo (jukebox). There were lots of lovers and i spent some of my time spying on them in the parking lot, but they weren’t too interesting. All they did was squirm a lot. Checking license plates (i could recognize almost all of the states’ license plates on sight) and collecting bugs (i had a huge collection) were much more interesting. But watching families was better, on their picnics with their fried chicken, potato salads, and watermelons. Some of them looked so happy you could tell they didn’t get a chance to go to many picnics. And i was always on the watch for kids to play with when I wasn’t busy.
Then there were the goodtimers. Their cars smelled like whiskey. They would dance a lot, eat a lot, spend a lot on the piccolo, and many times i would wonder if they had made it home all right.
A lot of poor people came to the beach. Sometimes the floors of their raggedy old cars or trucks were half rotted out. Usually a lot of little children were with them and they wouldn’t have bathing suits. They went swimming in whatever clothes they had worn to the beach, and half the time the little kids wore nothing. Then there were those who came to put on airs, usually in the evening, all dressed up to eat dinner.
Many would say, “I can’t stand the sun,” “I’m too Black already, I ain’t goin’ out in no sun.” It was amazing the number of people who said they were too Black already. We looked at them like they were crazy because we loved the sun. But the umbrellas for rent went like hotcakes. Some people draped clothes and blankets around the umbrellas so that no light penetrated whatsoever. One lady always put a paper bag on her head and poked holes in it for her eyes. Some of the women refused to go near the water because they were afraid their hair would ‘go bad.’
One of the moving things for me was when someone saw the ocean for the first time. It was amazing to watch. They would stand there, in awe, overpowered and overwhelmed, as if they had come face to face with God or with the vastness of the universe. I remember one time a preacher brought an old lady to the beach. She was the oldest-looking person i had ever seen. She said that she just wanted to see the ocean before she died. She stood there in one spot for so long she looked like she was in a trance. Then, with the help of the preacher, she hobbled around, picked up the mundane shells and put them into her handkerchief as if they were the most precious things in the world.
I loved to eat (still do) and the beach was right up my alley. Right now, when i think of the fried chicken and fish dinners, my mouth starts to water. But what really sends me off is remembering those seafood platters with fish, shrimps, oysters, deviled crab, clam fritters, and French fries with lettuce and tomatoes on the side. If my memory is any good, i think they sold for $1.50.
Next to food, music was my love. Fats Domino, Nat King Cole, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Platters, Brook Benton, Bobby “Blue” Bland, James Brown, Dinah Washington, Maxine Brown, Big Maybelle were some of the people i listened to during those beach years. I loved to dance. They would play the music and i would dance my natural heart out. That was another way i collected tips. People would egg me on, ‘Go on, gal, go. Boy, looket that little girl dance.’ But i loved to see people dance, too. Many a time my grandmother or grandfather had to call me out of the trance I was in watching somebody dance instead of doing my chores.
At night, my cousins, who sometimes came over to work on the beach, told ghost stories. They loved to tell them to me because i would get scared out of my wits. They would tell me about people who came back from the dead, about snakes that could crawl a hundred miles an hour and beat you to death with their tails, and about red phantoms and haints and all kinds of other horrible things. My imagination was vivid and before the night was over the sea grass turned to monsters and the wind made ghost howls.
 Editor’s note: She seems to have conflated the cutting of Snow’s Cut and the Carolina Beach Inlet but the result remains the same in the end.