With everything taking place in the world from the coronavirus pandemic, global recession, and America’s racial reckoning, even a brief escape from these problems can be an elixir for the body, mind, spirit, and soul. Against this backdrop, Tonya and I took a camping trip to Chincoteague Island on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Having never been to Chincoteague, we set out to explore the wild ponies, dolphins, and the beach that draw thousands to the region annually.

After getting our tent situated at the Chincoteague Island KOA campground, we headed off for an evening boat ride with Captain Mike of Saltwater Pony Tours, which we needed to unwind from a busy day and a busy week for the two of us. With some small minis of Pino Grigio tucked away in Tonya’s purse, we departed the marina and headed out into the sound in search of wild ponies. Within fifteen minutes, we came across a pride of ponies enjoying life, liberty, and freedom as we admired them from the boat for a while.

Having caught up with the ponies, we spent the next two hours exploring the sound and marshes as the sun set, and even made an attempt to find some dolphins, which we had to abort after being confronted with strong waves that made it inadvisable to seek them. Our time with Captain Mike proved to be a highlight of our trip as we shared stories, talked travel, learned history, exchanged tips on long-distance running, and appreciated the experience of a personal, one-on-one, human connection. As we have come to know throughout our travels, it’s the people we meet along the way that shape our memories as much as what we see and experience.

“Personally, I would not patronize any business owned by anyone who expressed racist opinions, but I would consider patronizing a business whose owner apologized…”

Dan Rodricks
Baltimore Sun columnist

Over the next several days at the KOA campground, we connected with people from all over the mid-Atlantic area. These people came from all walks of life and reflected the social, political, and economic diversity of America. We saw and met Black, White, Latino, and Asian people who felt comfortable camping there with their families and friends. There were even some trailer campsites that displayed political signs for Trump, but these were few and far between. This is America, where people have a First Amendment right to free speech. But with rights come responsibilities that are seldom considered. Just because one has the right to do something doesn’t mean one should. This brings us to the other campground on Chincoteague Island—Tom’s Cove Campground.

Tom’s Cove Campground is a historic campground popular with visitors and residents who call it home while on the island. Many who have stayed here have had positive experiences and fond memories. One of the attractive features of this campground is its waterfront campsites. In fact, I was initially drawn to Tom’s Cove Campground because we love being near the water and that would have been a unique camping experience for us.

Like so many travelers—particularly travelers of color, conscience, and culture—I did some research about this particular campground and read some disturbing posts in Tripadvisor about Confederate flags and micro-aggressive political signs at the campground:

During our trip to Chincoteague Island, we visited Tom’s Cove Campground. This photo taken during our brief visit to the campground confirms the existence of the Confederate flag atop a tall flagpole. It’s so tall, it’s impossible to miss it from the entrance road to the campground:

Photo taken by Tonya Fitzpatrick

Regardless of one’s political persuasion, there is a selfish arrogance on the part of the people who fly racist symbols under the guise of the First Amendment and the campground’s management that seemingly does not care about flying a flag that represents the historic oppression, subjugation, violation, and murder of African-American people in the United States and the forces that were committed to the overthrow of the Union in a bloody Civil War.

For a going concern to be in the business of travel, hospitality and public accommodations to offer a safe harbor to racists and bigots is shameful and pathetic in this day and age. It should be offensive to any person of conscience who cares about America and what is happening in this country to people of color—and around the world for that matter—who feel excluded and unsafe traveling to places that openly support racists and bigots. These racists and bigots are way too comfortable in exercising their points of view because they feel entitled to do so, are blissfully ignorant of history, and have yet to face any real consequences for doing so.

It is insufficient for Confederate apologists to claim heritage and not own the hate intrinsic to these symbols as well. Nor should enterprises be able to profit from being hostile to people of color through subtle and not-so-subtle discriminatory policies and practices promulgated by those in leadership and management positions. This is why Tom’s Cove Campground lost our business. Perhaps they don’t care because they really don’t want people of color, conscience, and culture at their campground and their business. But perhaps they should. Sadly, as the social media meme gaining traction that “Being Black is having to research how racist a place is before visiting” proved to be true for us and a cautionary tale for our choice of campgrounds in Chincoteague.

Going forward, travelers are going to have to weigh much more than where they want to stay when they take a trip. The degree to which a destination or travel supplier promotes an anti-racist environment should be part of the calculus for all travelers as they decide where, how, and with whom to spend their time and money. It is going to take a coalition of business and industry leaders in the travel industry—from travel promotion organizations, chambers of commerce, destination managers, travel journalists, and travel suppliers aligning as part of an anti-racist coalition to inform and support travelers of color, conscience, and culture in identifying and creating safe places that benefit all travelers. To do otherwise is to let those who are destined to be on the wrong side of history win at the expense of good people everywhere.

The words of Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks in a recent Facebook post offer guidance as to how travelers of conscience might wish to act regarding where they choose to stay and how they spend their money:

“Personally, I would not patronize any business owned by anyone who expressed racist opinions, but I would consider patronizing a business whose owner apologized, agreed to mediation, and made sincere and convincing promises to protestors about doing better. Those who don’t chance the consequences.”

Are you paying attention, Tom’s Cove Campground?

Cover image taken by Tonya Fitzpatrick