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Topsail Island beach becoming part of NC Civil Rights Trail

Ocean City Beach Terrace
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The Ocean City Terrace in 1953.

In the 1950s, Carla Torrey spent her childhood summers watching her father build houses on Topsail Island and other structures like the Wade Chestnut Memorial Chapel, which is still around today.

The memories also include watching the waves hitting the shore, while looking to the right and left, and seeing large crowds of white people during the days of segregation.

“There was seriously an invisible line that separated us,” Torrey said.

During those days, the stretch on the island was known as Ocean City, a place where Black people could enjoy the beach without harassment. It was created as a vacation haven in the late 1940s for Black people and the only place they could purchase oceanfront property.

Community members of Ocean City attend church at St Mark’s Episcopal Chapel, now known as Wade H Chestnut Memorial Chapel in North Topsail Beach.

Today, Torrey is working with other community members to keep the historical legacy alive as the president of the Ocean City Beach Citizens Council.

“They didn’t make it a place where Black people could just go dance and seek entertainment,” Torrey said. “They made it a community.”

In July, Ocean City will be honored with a historical marker from the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and the N.C. African American Heritage Commission. The sign will be a part of the state’s Civil Rights Trail. Torrey submitted the application for the marker recognition. They were assisted by the Town of North Topsail Beach, the Historical Society of Topsail Island and others.

Kenneth Chestnut Sr. said the historical marker is very significant, before mentioning other ways to preserve history.

“I’m a big believer that we need to be aware of our history and know our history, and this will help people become more aware of the Ocean City community,” he said. “It will be a big boost for us and will expand the recognition for the Ocean City community.”

His parents, Wade H Chestnut and Caronell Chestnut, were the first homeowners. The family home was built in 1949 and was rebuilt in 1955 after it was destroyed by Hurricane Hazel. Chestnut’s father, Wade Chestnut, managed the fishing pier and led the development of Ocean City.

“I have fond memories of being at the beach in the summer and during the fall on the weekends,” Chestnut said about getaways from Wilmington. “Some of that was playing in the water and sand and having fun with my friends, and fishing.”

He also worked at the pier, doing chores and selling snow cones. Chestnut said he always felt safe in the beach community where families would share seafood dishes. To make meals, women would go crabbing and their sons would help carry baskets.

“Everyone enjoyed each other’s company, and it was always a family oriented safe community,” he said.

Like Torrey, Chestnut remembers those moments when the beach was split in parts based on skin color.

“That was the way of the world,” he said. “I grew up in the Jim Crow South, and particularly here in Wilmington.”
Although there was racial tension, Chestnut said there were some positive things he saw as a youth. One was everyone fishing together at the pier when the fish were biting. The pier was a business venture led by Black people, but white people participated as stock holders.

Ocean City Beach aerial
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Ocean City in 1950.

“They had a common interest that found them together, without regard to race at that time,” he said. “Certainly, Ocean City was in the midst of white communities on each side, but we enjoyed the beach and enjoyed families.”

Torrey lives in Durham now, but she still visits her family’s beach home when she wants to get away from the big city.

She hopes the marker is an encouragement for future generations.

“I want future generations to understand the resiliency of the African-American community and how they were able to do something that was not acceptable in a lot of places,” she said. “In fact, most of the beaches we weren’t allowed on or they were sundown towns, so we couldn’t be in the area after dark. It was quite a feat.”

She also emphasized the historical significance of Ocean City being founded in 1949, 51 years after the Wilmington massacre of 1898, where many Black people were killed and ran out of town during a coup d’etat carried out by a white supremacist mob, who overthrew a biracial government.

The idea of having a beach community with Black ownership came from Edgar L Yow, a white Wilmington attorney. He owned land on Topsail Island and shared his thoughts with Dr. Samuel Gray, a Black physician. Topsail Island was previously used as a firing range during World War II for soldiers from Camp Davis. It later reopened for development. Gray contacted his friends, the Chestnut family, who bought tracts of lands on the island. Chestnut’s father was one of Gray’s buddies.

After the first homes were built on a one-mile stretch for Ocean City, more homes and businesses followed. A motel and restaurant were built in 1953, in addition to other establishments, such as summer camp dormitories connected to the church, a dining hall and the Ocean City Fishing Pier.

There are small logos on street signs letting visitors know they’re in the historic area, but community members would like to have more.

“In terms of having a sign saying you’re entering Ocean City, it’s not there,” Chestnut said. “That’s one of the projects that we’re working on.”

But in the meantime, the community is looking forward to the historical marker unveiling at the 2022 Ocean City Jazz Festival. Each year, the festival is held at North Topsail Beach to promote and celebrate the community’s history while raising funds for future projects.

In addition to the festival, community members are working on starting a land trust and a capital campaign to have money for needs such as attorneys and other legal matters.

"I call it audacity for folks that look like me to build a community at the beach, and after Hurricane Hazel in the 1950s, they could have quit and said ‘OK, we tried.' But they had the tenacity to build back."
Kenneth Chestnut Sr.

After Hurricane Fran in 1996, a good portion of the community was lost along with the pier, motel and a lot of homes after the lots became unbuildable. There are close to 60 homes in the community that are still owned by Black people. Before Fran, there were more than 100.

Chestnut is glad people from the generation of Ocean City land owners were able to pass on property to continue their legacy.

But it’s still a challenge.

“But because of integration or people having choices, the next generation live in other places, so they may not think the heritage and legacy of Ocean City is that important,” he said. “Very often the property may be sold to a builder or developer who may lease it out or rent it out.”

Another threat is losing a calm, low density family oriented community he knew years ago as more development continues on Topsail Island because of the real estate market, with no connection to the community. Mother Nature, the intensity of hurricanes, sea levels rising, and erosion are also things to worry about.

These are issues the community is keeping an eye on. But a third essential mission is to raise awareness about Ocean City through events such as the jazz festival.

“I call it audacity for folks that look like me to build a community at the beach, and after Hurricane Hazel in the 1950s, they could have quit and said ‘OK, we tried,’” Chestnut said about the destructive storm. “But they had the tenacity to build back. So, I consider people like myself (and others), stewards of what our families committed to doing for us. We’re stewards of what they’ve passed on to us. So we want to make sure we’re the best stewards possible.”

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