Friday, July 19, 2024

More than just music: Ocean City Jazz Festival tells the history of a Black community

Ocean City Beach on Ocean Drive circa 1951. (Courtesy Ocean City Beach Citizens Council)

NORTH TOPSAIL BEACH – Like the fourth and fifth chords of a jazz standard, the Ocean City Beach community has slowly seen itself diminished over the last few decades.

Just like all great tunes, however, it has stood the test of time. The historic area of North Topsail Beach will celebrate its heritage starting Friday with its yearly Ocean City Jazz Festival.

The festival has taken place for 14 years in a community that has weathered the economic impact of storms, segregation and gentrification.

“Jazz was chosen because it was a true American form of music for African-Americans and a very expressive part of our history,” Carla Torrey, president of the Ocean City Community Citizens Council, said. “And they thought that was appropriate for our celebration.”

The festival serves a two-fold purpose: to promote an interest in jazz music and to help preserve the heritage of Ocean City, the first planned beachfront community created exclusively for African-American families in North Carolina.

“Right now, we’re trying to revive it,” Torrey said. “We’re trying to promote its history and promote an understanding of why we’re here.”

On July 1 of last year, the beach became a part of the N.C. Civil Rights Trail — one of 50 markers honoring the efforts of people and communities fighting for equality and equity of Black people. The marker is located on Highway 210, on the 2600 block of Island Drive, at the entrance of the Ocean City community.

Founder Wade Chestnut in Ocean City circa the mid-19th century. (Courtesy Ocean City Beach Citizens Council)

A family-friendly community for African-Americans

In the first decades after the 1898 Wilmington Coup, there were few opportunities for African-Americans to own property, especially beachfront. 

Adverse reactions toward people of color reached well into the 1940s. Nearby Surf City was a “sundown” town for decades, a locality in which African-Americans weren’t allowed to live or be around after hours.

However, 4 miles away in what is now North Topsail, a new idea was formed to welcome the population. 

Topsail Island — which makes up North Topsail, Surf City and Topsail Beach — was once a firing range during World War II for servicemen stationed at Camp Davis. When Camp Davis closed after the war, a white attorney from Wilmington named Edgar Yow — a former Wilmington mayor — purchased 6 miles of the former military property, only accessible at the time by a floating pontoon bridge at what is now State Highways 50 and 210.

Yow told a client, a Black physician named Samuel Gray, about a potential project he envisioned: a community of homes and businesses where Black people could thrive. However, Yow could not devote time from his busy practice in Wilmington to fully commit to it, so he approached his friends, the Chestnut family, for help.

Gray and the Chestnuts each purchased coastal land across the Pender County line into Onslow County. 

They chose the name “Ocean City,” coined by Wade Chestnut II, and in 1949, Ocean City Developers, an interracial corporation, was formed.

The corporation divided the land from the beach to the sound into business and residential areas, with a Fayetteville contractor, William Eaton, assigned to build the first homes.

Chestnut II spent a great deal of time traveling to bring people into the new community.

“Mr. Chestnut visited professional conferences and did a lot of soliciting with medical associations, dental associations and teachers,” Torrey said. “They were the first ones that set roots in the community.”

Fifteen homes were built between 1949 and 1951. Thirteen of those homes were destroyed by Hurricane Hazel in 1954. However, families quickly rebuilt, which Kenneth Chestnut — son of Will Chestnut II — said was a testament to the will of those early families in Ocean City.

“They could have quit and said ‘we tried,’ but they didn’t,” Chestnut said. “After Hurricane Hazel, they built back smarter and learned from that.”

Chestnut said the first families of Ocean City Beach were well aware of developers looking to get their hands on beachfront property in Onslow County however they could. 

And history was on their side. 

Farther south, white developers created Shell Island Resort in 1923, a 70-acre resort north of Wrightsville Beach; the popular attraction drew in African-Americans for three summers. Beachgoers enjoyed a pavilion, bathhouse, restaurant and pier at what was known as the “Negro Atlantic City,” before it was destroyed in a suspicious set of fires in 1926.

READ MORE: White sand, Shell Island: The 20th century ‘Negro Atlantic City’ that never was

Near Carolina Beach was Seabreeze — then known as “Monte Carlo by the Sea.” It was an African-American resort community founded in the early 1920s, when a Black family, the Freemans, developed 65 acres of land into hotels and restaurants for Black vacationers.

By the mid-1920s, Seabreeze was booming with juke joints, restaurants, beach cottages, as well as an amusement park. During World War II, thousands of Black servicemen flocked to the resort from nearby bases in the state, often visiting Freeman Beach across from the community.

However, Hurricane Hazel destroyed many of the businesses and restaurants in Seabreeze. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made the resort irrelevant, and by the 1970s most of the stores closed for good.

Unlike Seabreeze or Shell Island, Ocean City was never meant to be a resort, but a Black community along a 1-mile stretch of property, according to Chestnut.

“Whether it was their permanent home, or their seasonal home, the idea was to own property, where [African-Americans] were not able to do before on the beach,” Chestnut said. “First row, oceanside, wherever that was.”

At the height of its popularity, Ocean City Beach had more than 100 homes, housing at least 400 residents. In addition to the fishing pier, the community had a restaurant and motel for visitors.

Ocean City fishing pier was destroyed by Hurricane Fran in 1996. (Courtesy Ocean City Beach Citizens Council)

It was a tight-knit place where residents came together over oyster roasts in the fall and in summer hosted church camps for Black children, who weren’t allowed to participate in camps with white children. A chapel, built in 1957, was renamed for Wade Chestnut II after his death in 1961 and still stands today.

The beach was mainly self-governing in the early days of its existence, running its own power supply and policing through a neighborhood association. Because it was designed as an all-Black coastal community, there was some pushback from white residents living in neighboring communities.

“The climate back then wasn’t one that was favorable to African-Americans on the outside,” Chestnut said. “But Edgar Yow probably got the most flak because he was the one who came up with the idea.”

Hurricane Fran in 1996 destroyed half of the homes that existed during its heyday, as well as its famous fishing pier. The storm rendered the land uninhabitable for future building projects.

Today, about 150 Ocean City Beach residents live in the area, now governed by North Topsail Beach. 

Ocean City Developers, Inc. dissolved in 1983 and the Ocean City Beach Citizens Council was established to manage community affairs. The nonprofit organization is funded by the community.

In recent decades, more residents have moved around the area, building multi-million dollar homes and rental properties near existing cottages.

“The original vision of Ocean City Beach was a ‘family-friendly’ community,” Chestnut said. “One of the threats we see today are the large rental properties that can house 14 or 15 people. That’s not supporting a ‘family-friendly community.’”

The African-American residents, many of whom are older, worry they might not have willing family members to leave their properties to when they die, leading to gentrification, Torrey indicated.

“A big problem is trying to educate families about having a will,” she said. 

The Ocean City Jazz Festival is celebrating 13 years in 2023. (Courtesy Ocean City Beach Jazz Festival)

A place in history on the Civil Rights Trail

At the same time the new residents of Ocean City Beach were settling into their homes, a young graduate of Morehouse College was looking to make his way in the world.

In 1951, Harvey Beech, along with two other students, was successfully able to enroll at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law. After overcoming racism from classmates and professors, Beech, J. Kenneth Lee and James Robert Walker became the first African-American graduates of the school in 1952.

“I just felt like we ought to open up all the windows and doors and air it all out,” Beech once said, according to an article the UNC General Alumni Association published after his death in 2005. “If I hadn’t, some other child would have had to. Something had to be done — it wasn’t pleasant. We won a war for something that had been denied to other Black boys.”

Beech would later settle in Ocean City Beach and begin practicing law. Known as “Lawyer Beech” to many in the community, he became a role model to Wade Chestnut III, who lost his father at 16.

In addition to being a founding member of Ocean City, Wade Chestnut II ran the community fishing pier, which was a 700-foot lighted structure built in 1958, and was the only one on the South Atlantic Coast dedicated exclusively for African-American patronage. He died in 1961.

Beech convinced the younger Chestnut to go to college, first to North Carolina Central University, then to integrate the undergraduate business program at UNC-Chapel Hill. In 1966, Chestnut III became the first African-American to earn an undergraduate degree from the program.

“That’s just an example of the types of people who were here to begin with,” Torrey said. “That goes with the mindset of being forward-thinking and accomplishing some forward movement of the community and African-Americans.”

Ocean City Beach received a marker on the N.C. Civil Rights Trail in 2022 during the annual jazz festival. (Courtesy Ocean City Citizens Council)

For those achievements, Ocean City was honored with a marker on North Carolina’s Civil Rights Trail last year during the jazz festival.

This year the festival is celebrating 14 years in the community.

It started in 2009, as a way for Ocean City to commemorate the community’s 60th anniversary. The council invited jazz saxophonist Ray Codrington to perform on the steps of the community center. 

Since its founding, dozens of artists have flocked to Ocean City every July Fourth weekend to perform. The festival has grown to bring in an estimated 500 to 600 visitors per day from across the states, according to Torrey, and welcomes local and world-renowned jazz artists.

Scheduled performances for 2023’s event include saxophonist Kim Waters, pianist Cyrus Chestnut, violinist Karen Briggs and the John Brown Quintet.

Briggs toured with Yanni for more than a decade and has made appearances with artists like Diana Ross. 

The festival’s motto is “jazz with a higher purpose,” Chestnut said.

“Back in the old days, the common thing that brought everyone together was fishing. People were out on the pier catching a lot of fish,” Chestnut said. “Today, it’s a transformation to music. It’s a wide range of people of all walks of life coming together.”

In jazz standards, fourths and fifth chords aren’t only diminished, they can also be augmented. The people of Ocean City Beach hope time, awareness and a little good music do their parts to do the same.

The community has started a GoFundMe page to raise money to retain a real estate attorney, secure improved signage, create draining systems for flooding, and upgrade recreational areas for events, including the jazz festival.

“The whole purpose of the jazz festival is to highlight the history and make people aware of this community,” Chestnut said. “Certainly, it’s not going to be what it was in 1949, but people need to be aware of its history, know about it and honor its legacy.”

Tickets are on sale now for the festival, which takes place June 30 through July 2.

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