Jazz with a Higher Purpose: The Ocean City Jazz Festival Preserves North Carolina's Historic African American Coastal Community

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Jazz with a Higher Purpose

The Ocean City Jazz Festival Preserves North Carolina's Historic African American Coastal Community

By Vergil Demery

When many families are just getting done with Independence Day barbeques and letting their kids bask in the excitement from the fireworks the night before, a small close-knit North Topsail Beach community will hold a music festival to preserve an almost forgotten piece of North Carolina history. On July 5 to 7, the Ocean City Jazz Festival will celebrate the story of Ocean City. Established in 1949, Ocean City was the first coastal community to allow African Americans to purchase property in North Carolina. In the late 1950s, it became the first community to have a black-owned fishing pier in the state. Now in its 10th year, the Ocean City Jazz Festival celebrates the 70th anniversary of the community by presenting a solid lineup of jazz and gospel musicians in the place where it all began. 

The story of the Ocean City community starts long before 1949. During WWII, the area now known as Ocean City was a part of 45,000 acres of land known as Camp Davis, that was once a training ground for Anti-Aircraft troops and at its peak was manned by over 20,000 men. After WWII it became the site of Operation Bumblebee, a U.S. project to develop rocket technology for surface to air missiles who’s findings would later be used by NASA to send humans to outer space. 

In 1948 the base was declared surplus by the U.S. military and dismantled. With the troops gone the beach abandoned the area was desolate and riddled with the scars of explosive testing. However, Edgar Yow, a white attorney from Wilmington, N.C. saw an opportunity and pitched an idea to Dr. Samuel J. Gray, a black client of his: a non-segregated beach that would allow African Americans to own property.

Interested but realistic about the demands of the venture, Gray felt that he alone could not undertake such a feat, so he approached his friends Wade, Bertram, Robert and Louise Chestnutt for help. Each bought a tract of land, Wade coined the area Ocean City, and development started. In 1949 Yow and his brother Circeo bought controlling shares in the remaining land, and Ocean City Developers Incorporated was formed, marking what had to be one of the earliest interracial business partnerships at the time. The corporation swiftly divided the beach into business and residential areas, and the first homes were completed in late 1949. As time went on they added a camp, motel, chapel, camp dormitory, and restaurants. By 1953 a mere 5 years after the military left, Ocean City had gone from a deserted military testing site to bustling African American coastal community. 

In the late 50’s Ocean City became the only community in North Carolina to have a black-owned fishing pier. While the pier may have been black-owned it was open to everybody and allowed Ocean City to draw in a strong tourist crowd. One North Carolina resident George Hall Lewis called it his “Secret fishing hole” and stated that the pier “had the best fishing bottom on the entire island.” Ocean City continued to grow and shine as one of the few tourist destinations that all North Carolina residents could enjoy. 

As time has marched on, Father Time and Mother Nature made preserving the legacy of Ocean City a tough feat. Hurricanes are expected when you live on the coast but sometimes the damage is something not even the most vigilant of residents can’t prepare for. The fishing pier had to be torn down in the ’90s after Hurricanes Fran and Bertha and many more buildings needed extensive repairs after subsequent hurricanes. And yet, a tight-knit group of Ocean City descendants has remained committed.

The Ocean City Beach Citizens Council who built the chapel in 1949 is the same organizing body that puts together the jazz festival. Mother Nature stops for no one and hurricanes will continue to come, so a major goal of the Ocean City Jazz Festival is to raise funds to ensure that repairs on community buildings are affordable and to ensure that new residents are people who want to maintain the areas rich culture and passion for inclusion. While the community was founded on the hard work and sweat of a core group of community leaders, beachfront property is still beachfront property and the Ocean City community occupies desired real estate. Upkeep on beachfront homes can be astronomically expensive and many of the descendants of the original residents may not necessarily see the point in keeping a home they no longer visit. Ocean City Jazz Festival aims to ensure that the original residents hard work doesn’t go to waste, or as the festivals Co-Chair Craig Torrey puts it, “We want to make sure that landowners don’t lose their property and if so we want to be in a position through the jazz festival to have enough funds to purchase any distressed properties.”

When asked why the Ocean City Jazz Festival was so important to the residents, Torrey responded, “What it means to us is carrying on and preserving the legacy of those folks who sacrificed so much to give us the opportunity that we have now to have a beachfront property and be treated like anyone else.”

Ocean City is a resilient community and the jazz festival is a mechanism for supporting hat vitality. This year’s festival will feature many North Carolina natives including the John Brown Band, Marcus Anderson, and Richard Dawkins.

For a full schedule and a link to buy tickets visit www.oceancityjazzfest.com 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vergil Demery, a senior at North Carolina Central University, is studying English. He has been in the Triangle area since the age of three. Vergil, who loves to write, is crafting stories for the Come Hear North Carolina campaign, and he plans to go into journalism after graduating.