The Gulfside Assembly is located in Waveland, on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. Founded in 1923 by Bishop Robert E. Jones of the Southwestern District of the Methodist Episcopal Church, it was the first permanent African American Chautauqua-style coastal resort in the nation. Elected to the episcopacy in 1920, Jones was the church’s first African American bishop. A tireless advocate of racial uplift and interracial cooperation, Jones had previously served as the editor of the Southwestern Christian Advocate, the organ of black Methodism in New Orleans. As bishop, Jones devoted his energies to making the church more responsive to the social and educational needs of its congregants, especially those residing in the rural South.
Gulfside grew out of Jones’s desire to provide religious recreational facilities that would inculcate middle-class values among a populace inundated by what he consented unhealthy commercial amusements. In the summer of 1923 Jones purchased more than three hundred acres of mostly undeveloped coastal property from several landowners. These purchases included Jackson House, a seaside mansion that had been owned by Andrew Jackson’s son, and rumors held that Jones had passed as a white man to buy the property. Gulfside’s survival in the Jim Crow South resulted in large part from the slightly more racially tolerant attitudes of Gulf Coast whites and from the seemingly nonthreatening nature of a religious resort. Soon after securing title to the land, Jones and his cofounders began clearing the land and refitting Jackson House as a dormitory.
Jones envisioned the resort as the first phase in a larger program of progressive racial reform. Assembly members formed Gulfside Clubs in black communities across the South. As part of the “Gulfside movement,” these clubs solicited donations for a school for underprivileged boys, encouraged social and fraternal organizations to hold annual meetings at Gulfside, and served as “enthusiastic and intelligent field agent[s] for” what one pamphlet called the “biggest venture ever started for and by colored people.” Gulfside’s charter stated that “the purpose of the Assembly is to establish, own, operate and maintain a school under the auspices of the Methodist Church for assemblies, conventions, conferences, orphan homes, camp meetings and religious resorts with both temporary and permanent dwellings on the Gulf of Mexico, for health, rest and recreation, for children, the aged, disabled and others.” More than thirty additional buildings were constructed on the grounds, including cabins, classrooms, and a one-thousand-seat auditorium.
Gulfside hosted a variety of groups, including training institutes for ministers and teachers, camps for Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls, recuperative summer retreats for “tired mothers,” and an industrial training school for impoverished young black men. Many of those educated at Gulfside’s boys’ school went on to become leaders in the church. Gulfside’s mission and programs were comparable to an earlier generation of Progressive-era reform organizations such as Jane Addams’s Hull House. Gulfside camps offered strictly regimented daily activities and preached the productive and uplifting use of leisure time. Alongside camps and institutes, middle- and upper-class black families from New Orleans and the surrounding area vacationed at the resort throughout the summer.
In his interactions with white neighbors and benefactors, Jones stressed the resort’s racially conservative mission, a strategy that enabled him to secure financial support from the Julius Rosenwald Fund for Gulfside’s construction and operation and from the states of Mississippi and Louisiana for Gulfside’s educational training institutes. Beginning in 1931 Gulfside hosted an annual performance of spirituals sung by black college choirs before a segregated audience. The resort also hosted interracial and interdenominational conferences aimed at improving race relations in the region.
In the mid-1930s Gulfside struggled to remain financially solvent. After a fire of suspicious origins burned Jackson House to the ground in 1935, Gulfside nearly folded; it rebuilt, only to suffer further damage from a tidal wave in 1947 and Hurricane Camille in 1969. After each disaster, the members’ resolve strengthened, and Gulfside remained the sole African American resort on the Gulf Coast. In the autumn of 1964 the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee met at Gulfside, which, attendee Mary King recalled, was the only place where a “racially integrated group [could] stay together and not trigger violence in Mississippi.” At this meeting, King and Casey Hayden introduced a petition for gender equality in the organization.
Desegregation proved as much of a challenge to Gulfside’s continued existence as did fires and natural disasters. By the late 1960s, as African Americans gained access to other coastal beaches and resorts, the institution struggled to attract guests and refashion its identity in the desegregated South. Leaders stressed its nondenominational character, and into the twenty-first century it remained a popular site for African American and interracial groups from the Gulf Coast and for black Methodists from across the country.
Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in September 2005 and destroyed every structure on the Gulfside grounds, including the Norris Center, a three-million-dollar lodging and meeting building that had been dedicated just sixteen days earlier. By 2015 a new open-air chapel had been built and an outdoor prayer pavilion was under construction, while the United Methodist Church continued to consider other plans for rebuilding the site.
- Kathy L. Gilbert, “Gulfside Assembly Re-Imagining Future of Historic Site” (28 August 2015), www.umc.org/news-and-media/gulfside-assembly-reimagining-future-of-historic-site
- Gulfside Assembly Vertical Files, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- Robert E. Jones Papers, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University
- Henry N. Oakes, “The Struggle for Racial Equality in the Methodist Episcopal Church: The Career of Robert E. Jones, 1904–1944” (PhD dissertation, University of Iowa, 1973)