Signs Mark Site of Historic Black Beach Community
Among those at the unveiling of Ocean City street signs in North Topsail Beach were Kenneth Chestnut (standing to the right of the sign pole), Mayor Dan Tuman, Aldermen Mike Yawn and Tom Leonard, and Mayor Pro Tem Suzanne Gray, who was behind the man on the ladder and is obscured.
Photo by Stephanie Bowens
By Stephanie Bowens
Published: Tuesday, June 12, 2012 at 5:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, June 12, 2012 at 5:06 p.m.
NORTH TOPSAIL BEACH We usually think of street signs as needed to let you know where you are. But for folks with ties to a close-knit beach community called Ocean
City, it's also hoped that street signs will help tell the story of where they've been. Ocean City is a historic section of the town of North Topsail Beach that was established in
1949. It is believed to be one of the first beachside communities owned by African-Americans. During the time of segregation, was developed to give blacks a chance to have a family oriented beach resort and to own beachfront property. Started with the vision of a white Wilmington attorney Edgar L.. Yow, and developed by Wade H. Chestnut
Sr., who was determined to build the beach community for blacks like him to enjoy, Ocean City is still thriving. On May 26, about 50 North Topsail residents, Ocean City property owners, and municipal officials braved wind and rain to attend a dedication ceremony marking the installation of several commemorative street signs featuring an Ocean City logo for streets within the Ocean City community, showing that though the community was founded more than 60 years ago. Community spirit remains strong and that many descendants of the original Ocean City residents want to assure that the historical significance of the area is not forgotten. “Until recently there has been no official recognition of the Ocean City community,” said North Topsail Beach Mayor Dan Tuman. On Jan. 4, the North Topsail Beach Board of Alderman unanimously approved the purchase an installation of the new street signs and a historical marker for the community. Kenneth Chestnut, Wade's son, says the signs and historical markers will help identify the community and preserve history. He said his father would be proud. “It's been over 60 years, and it's still an active and viable community,” he said. “They'll have a physical designation that here is a community that is not only still existing but thriving. And that means an awful lot because so much of our history is lost that are passed on orally. ..
Generations to come will know and inquire about Ocean City and how it started, where it is and why it's here” When Yow, also a developer, learned that some blacks were interested in being able to retreat to a beachfront resort, he approached Dr. Samuel Gray, a black physician, with his idea for a venture to develop a beach community with black owned property on part of the 6-mile stretch of beach he owned on undeveloped Topsail Island. Gray, unable to dedicate time from his practice to the project, turned to his friend Wade Chestnut and Wade's two brothers and sister. The Chestnuts and Gray purchased tracts of the land and soon, with Yow, formed Ocean City Developers. Wade left the auto-repair business he operated with his brothers in Wilmington to devote his time to developing the mile-long beach town he named Ocean City. “To think that back in 1949, that an attorney Edgar Yow had the foresight and courage to approach a former client of his, Dr. Gray, and tell him about his idea of ownership of beach property in the time of racial segregation. It just overwhelms me to think how monumental that idea and proposal was, 15 years before we had the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” said Commissioner Linda Stipe of the Historical Society of Topsail Island. Some say they hope erecting historical markers and street signs will make Topsail Island residents and visitors aware that a historical step forward in human rights and property rights took place there
The development was one of the first African-American communities to appear on the East Coast oceanfront. "I would say first in the state," said Kenneth Chestnut, president of the event's organizing group, Ocean City Beach Citizens Council.
The group hosted other jazz concerts, the first in 2006. This is the second to benefit the Wade H. Chestnut Memorial Chapel. Formerly St. Mark's, the chapel was rededicated in memory of Chestnut's father in 1961.
"This is just another building block, if you will," Chestnut said, "in an effort to continue to not only support the chapel and the great work that it does, but to support the community and broaden its exposure to others."
The church started in Chestnut's second home when he was a child. His father was one of original developers of the area.
African-Americans Dr. Samuel J. Gray, Wade H. Chestnut and siblings, and white attorney and former Wilmington mayor Edgar Yow formed Ocean City Developers Inc. in 1949. The community, now part of the town of North Topsail Beach, is about three miles north of the Surf City bridge. This year's fundraiser honors Gray.
"Daddy wanted to buy the land and lawyer Yow was his attorney," Gray's daughter Tonye said. Her mother, Gwendolyn, still holds many of the original maps and deeds. "The advancement of the black community was always daddy's priority," Tonye said.
Gwendolyn told of the night when an associate to Thurgood Marshall came to their Wilmington home. He was getting paperwork together to sue the board of education in an effort to end area segregation. "Dr. Gray, Dr. Roane, and Dr. Eaton," she said, "I would be up late at night when they were having the meetings about that legal case."
Chestnut, now an Atlanta resident, grew up in Wilmington and graduated from Williston Senior High School. He, like his father, attended St. Mark's Episcopal Church at Sixth and Grace streets, the Ocean City chapel's original namesake.
Funds from the 2010 festival built handicapped accessible ramps into the church and community center. This year's concert funds are earmarked for similar interior improvements as well as repairs to the rectory. Wilmington Jazz Quartet FROG Project and keyboard artist, composer and vocalist Grenaldo Frazier will perform from 4-9 p.m. Sept. 4 at Ocean City Community Center Courtyard in North Topsail Beach.
See the North Topsail Beach website at http://ntbnc.org for more information and tickets.
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Published: Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 12:30 p.m.
William and Lucille Williams entertain guests in their cottage at Ocean City Beach in 1953. Ocean City Beach was a black beach during segregation. Now the community is preparing to celebrate its 60th anniversary.
This weekend, Ocean City celebrates the 60th anniversary of its founding. During the age of segregation, it was created as a beach community for black people.
Today, Ocean City is part of the town of North Topsail Beach. White and black families mingle on the beach, but Wade H. Chestnut Memorial Chapel and the community center behind it still serve a network of black families.
A white developer had the vision that created the close-knit community.
In 1949, Edgar Yow found himself the owner of a 6-mile stretch of beach on undeveloped Topsail Island.
He'd been mayor of Wilmington during World War II. After the war, he used connections he'd made - Wilmington's shipyard was vital to the war effort - to persuade the federal government to release land on Topsail Island it had taken over for gunnery practice and then as a missile test site.
An attorney and self-made man, Yow persuaded the Topsail landowners to give him land in return for his efforts to free up the beach, said his son, Lionel Yow.
Edgar Yow developed Surf City, but he didn't stop there.
He'd gotten to know members of the black community when he was mayor, Lionel Yow said. The elder Yow knew Sea Breeze was a popular resort for black people, but it wasn't beachfront.
"He found out they wanted a place on the beach," Lionel said. "There was a chance for a fresh start for everybody after the war."
Edgar approached a doctor, Samuel Gray, with his idea.
Gray's practice didn't leave him time to do it so Gray pulled in Wade Chestnut, said Kenneth Chestnut, Wade's son. Kenneth lives in Atlanta and vacations as often as possible at Ocean City.
Yow, Gray and four Chestnuts - three brothers and a sister - formed Ocean City Developers in 1949. Wade and his two brothers operated an auto-repair business at Sixth and Campbell streets, Kenneth said. Wade decided to leave that business and devote his time to developing the mile-long beach town.
At its south end was one of the missile spotting towers that still dot Topsail Island. In the 1950s, the tower was incorporated into the Ocean City Pier and a motel was built.
Linda Upperman Smith's father, Dr. Leroy Upperman, built the eighth house in Ocean City, she said.
It went up in the summer of 1954. Hurricane Hazel arrived in October. Her father got a phone call.
"Uppie, we had a little problem at the beach," the caller said. The storm had knocked their house off its foundations and destroyed several others.
"Uppie's Skybox" was built back on pilings after Hazel and moved back 65 feet after Hurricane Fran in 1996, Upperman Smith said.
She showed me photographs of the house damaged by various storms through the decades. But indoors, it still has the original juniper paneling.
She remembers epic Fourth of July softball games on the beach in front of their cottage.
"If you were old enough to hold a bat, you could play," she said.
They knew all the families. Most were from Wilmington, but some were from Fayetteville, Wilson, Gastonia or points more distant. When strangers showed up on the beach, they would always be guests of a friend.
"It was like our own little beach," she said.
Kenneth Chestnut remembers fishing on the beach with Upperman Smith's brother, and crabbing at the north end of the island.
"The type of community it was, we would share the crabs, fixing gumbo or some dish," he said. "Everyone knew everyone."
In 1955, the Episcopal Diocese of East Carolina built Camp Oceanside for black children. The church now called the Wade H. Chestnut Memorial Chapel went up in 1957, according to "Echoes of Topsail," a history of the island by David A. Stallman. Its fellowship hall is used as a community center.
I walked along the beach with Upperman Smith. We saw white families playing in the surf and a black family chatting on a deck.
The pier is gone but the rocket tower remains.
This weekend, punch and lemonade will flow in the chapel's fellowship hall. Good memories will be flowing as well.
Contact Si Cantwell at 343-2364 or Si.Cantwell@StarNewsOnline.com, or follow him on Twitter.com: @SiCantwell.
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Summer Chapel Helps to Reconnect, Deepen Faith
By Pat McCaughan
Article from Episcopal News Service
| [Episcopal News Service]
The Rev. Teddra Bynes says officiating at one summer Sunday morning service at the Wade H. Chestnut Memorial Chapel is every bit as wonderful as spending a week rent-free at the North Carolina shore.
She was able to do both this year at the seasonal Episcopal chapel, which is open summers only and historically has been served by visiting clergy, some from as far away as New Hampshire.
"It's a wonderful, transient community of vacationers from all over the country," located in Ocean View, a barrier island 2,600-miles long just north of Wilmington.
"You're given the parsonage to stay in for a week if you celebrate a Sunday morning service," said Bynes. For the South Carolina native, it reprises youthful memories of crabbing, fish fries, family and relationship.
"My two sisters and I spend time together there every year to reconnect and to deepen our relationship," said Bynes, 50, a chaplain at Voorhees College.
The chapel also has special significance for the local African American community, says Fannie Chestnut Hairston, 60, because it pre-dates the Civil Rights movement and was the first opportunity for Blacks to own beach property in then segregated North Carolina.
"Edgar Yow, a white attorney in Wilmington, bought the land on the beach and asked my father and uncle and others if they wanted to invest in a one-mile stretch of the property," she recalled.
"There were a dorm for girls and one for boys," recalled Hairston, who spent summers there as a teen. "Spending time there was a wonderful experience. There were counselors from different churches, time for the ocean, for arts and crafts, for Bible study. I made some lasting friendships there."
Bynes also recalls summers at Camp Oceanside.
"As a young Black woman growing up in the East Carolina diocese, Camp Ocean View offered a way for Black kids to go to camp. It was an Episcopal camp available for kids during the 1960s and 1970s, and later was dismantled."
In 1985, Camp Oceanside merged with Camp Leech, a nearby camp for white youth, and was christened the Trinity Center. The chapel, built in 1957, continued as a mission of the Diocese of East Carolina and as a summer worship space for vacationers.
"Priests just hear about it and want to come, so we always have more than we need," said Hairston, a vestry member. Visiting clergy agree to officiate at an 11am Sunday service and, in exchange, get to stay in a two-bedroom rectory adjacent to the chapel rent-free for a week.
"It was used by the Navy at the end of World War II to test ground-to-air missiles," he said.
The chapel closes for the season Labor Day. Plans are in the works to spruce up the chapel and convert it to a year-round worship space, possibly even by next year, Fogg said.
The white wooden chapel seats about 60 people comfortably and has historically attracted an eclectic congregation of people from all denominations.
That's what makes it so wonderful, Bynes said.
"The people there really seem to be about developing their faith. They make a way even on vacation to worship on Sundays. And this is not a community that gets together during the week-there are different folks every Sunday, which sometimes makes it a challenge to come up with a sermon that inspires them. But the hospitality is wonderful," she added.
So is the ambiance.
The chapel's baptismal font consists of a giant salmon-colored Conch seashell discovered in a backyard, attached to a metal stand, Bynes said. Its cross was constructed from the anchor of a naval ship.
"It's a beautiful, quaint chapel. I go there sometimes even when I don't have to preach, just to be still and listen to the ocean and listen to God."The Rev. Patricia McCaughan is senior correspondent for the Episcopal News Service and associate rector of St. Mary's Church in Laguna Beach, California.
Published in: Sounds Magazine
Spring, 1994, Volume V, Number 1
By David A Stallman
Mrs. Caronell Chestnut welcomed me this evening at her beach cottage and put me at ease with her warm, easy way. She loved to talk about Ocean City, and belied her 73 years with an infectious enthusiasm.
She and her husband, Wade, were primary founders of Ocean City and she continues to be involved in its development long after Mr. Chestnut’s death. Wade Chestnut died in 1961 but got to see what he had envisioned 12 years before come to life.
For years, African-Americans had no place at the beach in North Carolina except for a small place called Seabreeze, which was about 15 miles form Wilmington. They would go to the Carolina Beach sound, then motorboat to the ocean beach where they were allowed. Caronell said, "A favorite tasted delight was a clam fritter for five cents, and we would save our pennies to buy them"
Edgar Yow owned the one-mile stretch of property three miles north of Surf City, which was to become Ocean City, form beach to sound. It was Edgar’s intention to provide the opportunity for black people to own beach property. This was not a popular position at that time because of racial segregation, but he had the confidence and drive to see it through.
He shared his idea with Dr. Samuel J Gray, a Black physician in Wilmington, who then involved the Chestnut brothers, Bertram, Wade, and Robert, who were in the automobile repair business. Dr Gray, the Chestnut brothers, and their sister, Louise, bought the first tracts of land.
An interracial corporation named Ocean City Developers was formed and headed by Robert Chestnut, Sr., to sell property to black buyers. Wade conceived the idea of naming this section of the island Ocean City and served as secretary of the corporation.
Wade became the most passionate about creating a beach for Negro ownership. He took over the development, sold his share in the auto repair business, and sank all he had in the development. He brought and remodeled the tower. There was nothing here but beach, sky, and the firing range. It wasn’t long until he built a house and moved his wife and two young sons to the beach.
Three houses were built concurrently in 1949-1950. The first to be moved into was Mr. and Mrs. Wade H Chestnut’s house, followed buy Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Rodgers of Fayetteville, and Mr. and Mrs. Henry Mallette Sr., of Wilmington. Wade and a partner, William Eaton of Fayetteville, built what was then a 10-room motel in 1952.
The intent was to build up the area to further encourage development for a carefully planned town with residential and separate commercial areas – a family-type of beach. Restrictions were such that loud frivolity and rowdiness were forbidden at the beach in order to provide a quiet, restful vacation. No trailers were allowed and there was a requirement that homes be built from the ground up.
Caronell said, "Many Blacks were skeptical of this opportunity to buy property, and it was slow to develop. They wondered if this was a gimmick. People were invited to come to Topsail, stayin private homes and I would cook for them before the motel was built.
"At first there was no electricity and no good road to the north of Surf City. Jones-Onslow Electric Membership Corporation brought in electric. Some years later, streetlights were financed and installed by beach residents."
The crabbing at the New River Inlet was excellent and as the tide went out, everyone would head there, recalled Caronell. One year they caught so many crabs that their containers would not hold them all. "They took trousers off the boys, tied cuffs, (which some weren’t happy about) and filled them with crabs. Crab Gumbo was a favorite soup that everyone tasted happily.
"Hurricane Hazel took our cottage along with about a dozen more into the sound. This meant that Ocean City had to start over. We rebuilt in 1955 and in 1960 Hurricane Donna took out the basement, but the cottage was built on pilings so it stayed intact. At the same time, the pier, which had been built in 1959, was damaged."
Camp Oceanside was established in 1955 and was the first Episcopalian camp for Blacks in the Diocese of East Carolina. They would close 10 rooms of the motels for campers during 1955-1957. A dormitory and dining hall were then built.
The Wade H Chestnut Memorial Chapel was built in June of 1957. The dream of this chapel began in 1952 when the Rev. Edwin E. Kirton, who was then Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Wilmington, held cottage services on Sunday morning in the home of the Chestnuts during his vacations.
"People would carry chairs down the beach to our cottage for services," Caronell recalled. These services were so well attended by the beach residents that the Rt. Rev. Thomas H. Wright, Bishop of the Diocese of East Carolina, welcomed the opportunity to erect a chapel to serve the spiritual needs of the residents and campers.
One week after the land was given, the frame was up and services were held in the framework. Every beach resident was considered a member of the chapel, regardless of their ‘home" denomination.
After 25 years later, after integration, a Diocese ad-hoc committee was formed to decide the fate of Camp Leach, a White camp and Camp Oceanside, a Black Camp. It was merged in 1985 to become Trinity Center at Emerald Isle and Camp Oceanside and Camp Leach were dissolved.
At Trinity Center, a building was dedicated to Wade H Chestnut and Rev. Edwin E Kirton in recognition of the continuation of what was started in Ocean City, and was call the Chestnut-Kirton Centrum.
In 1976, Ocean City Developers, Inc. was dissolved because it had served its purpose, and the Ocean City Beach Council was formed to manage town affairs. A second organization, the Ocean City Fishing Pier Inc., still exist and Mrs. Chestnut served as president.
Residents Proud of NCs Black Beach
Published in: Robesonian, August 1, 1986
OCEAN CITY BEACH (AP) - Residents of Ocean City Beach do things all beachgoers do- fish, eat, relax and have fun - but for 37 years this beach has been different, serving as the state's only black beach.
Starting a black beach wasn’t easy during the days of segregation in the South but Wade and Caronell Chestnut were determined blacks would have their own place on the ocean
“I was born on the ocean in Wilmington,” Mrs. Chesnut said “But, because of being black, we had no access to the ocean at all. This was a chance for us to be able to buy land and live on the ocean.
“We’re proud of it,” said Idell Randall one of the residents in the community north of Topsail Beach
The Chestnuts bought a 1 mile-long tract of land between Surf City and West Onslow Beach in 1949 and formed Ocean City Developers Inc.
At that time, the only beachfront property blacks could buy was in Atlantic Beach, S.C “ It (Atlantic Beach) was so commercialized - noisy said Clyde Brown of Fayetteville, president of the Ocean City Beach Citizens Council. “They’d come in on holidays by the truckload. There was a lot of drinkin’ and so forth. And there was no fishing pier there.”
Ocean City Pier became the only black-owned fishing pier in the state and a focal point of the black beach community. “ You can’t lift your rod and reel without your line getting tangled with someone else’s,” Randall said.
Lots that sold for $1000 back in 1961, are now selling for $15,000 to $20,000.
Chestnut who died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1961, has become a legend in the close-knit black community. The small chapel in the town is named after him.
“ Everybody was somebody to him,” said Bessie Ramseur Jeffries of Greensboro, who owns a place at Ocean City Beach.
At the community’s anniversary celebration in 1979, Ms. Jeffries gave a speech about Chestnut. She told the crowd that Chestnut was a V.I.P.
“One ‘V’ was his vision for Negroes to have a beachfront - and we have the best beachfront in the United States,” she told the crowd. “And ‘I’ for introduction, because he introduced everybody to everybody.”
She said the ‘P’ was for political. “We’re between two white beaches; so if they got water and sewage we got it - they had to bring it through.” Ms. Jeffries says only a few of the 100 lots on the beach are left. “If he (Chestnut) came alive, that wouldn’t shock him,” she said. “ Unlike Martin Luther King, it wasn’t no mountaintop and no Promised Land. He just saw the beachfront for us.”
Honoring the Past, Embracing the Future
Times have changed the Ocean City Beach community, but fellowship, camaraderie and heritage remain the same.
This weekend, first-, second- and third-generation residents have embraced recent and more diverse residents of the predominantly black oceanfront community for a weekend-long celebration of its 60th anniversary.
“The community has become more diverse over the years, but the theme, as we look into the future, has not changed — to maintain its vitality and growth, while seeing it remains a place for families to come and enjoy the beach and sun and have a safe place that is non-commercialized,” said Kenneth Chestnut, whose father, Wade Chestnut, named the community and “accepted the challenge to develop the area for blacks.”
The community of Ocean City Beach, created in 1949, is one of the oldest black beachfront communities in the area.
Now located in North Topsail Beach, Ocean City Beach was established by Edgar Yow, a prominent white Wilmington attorney who purchased a large tract of land on Topsail Island. Yow believed black people had as much right as white people to have the opportunity own a home on the island.
Sixty years later, many of the homes have been passed to the next generation, who continue to promote the legacy and recreate their joyful experiences while growing up for their own families.
Its active Ocean City Beach Citizens’ Council plans annual festivities each fall and summer to unite residents and celebrate.
Evester Baily, the 60th anniversary steering committee coordinator said the theme established for the 60th celebration, “Honoring the Past, Embracing the Future,” reflects the community’s mission, goals and objectives.
“We now celebrate the rejuvenated energy of a community that has recovered from major storms, a depressed economy and a redefined culture within the community. We now represent a diverse community who acknowledges it’s rich and unique past and embraces a twenty-first century approach to creating a beach atmosphere for all cultures to enjoy,” was Baily’s greeting in the souvenir booklet provided to all participants, which he said summed up the anniversary celebration.
More than 160 people registered for the weekend events, said Ruby Greene, a property owner for 47 years. This weekend, her two daughters, their spouses and three grandchildren joined her in the celebration. Her only wish was that they could come and visit more often, since they reside out of state, just like the old days.
Old black and white photos and photo albums were on display in the Wade H. Chestnut Fellowship Hall, and there were plenty of residents on hand to share memories and experiences. The familiar smells associated with a barbecue permeated the air as people gathered to make preparations for Saturday evening’s huge family picnic and fish fry.
As it has done each decade since its 30th year in existence, the Ocean City Beach Citizens’ Council recognized people for their many contributions to the community. This year there were four honorees.
Linda Upperman Smith received the Sustaining Service Award, the Williams family received a Benevolence Award, North Topsail Beach Mayor Pro-tem Larry Hardison received the Public Policy Award and Willie “Bill” Pitt received a Superior Service Award.
Hardison said he felt honored to have been selected.
“My family has had property here since the late 50s and I’ve made it my home for the past eight, nine years now, simply because it’s important to have roots where you’ve enjoyed things as a kid,” he said.
“This is a place where children would come down and play on the beach after Sunday services with the family. For me, it’s like coming home and 90 percent of the people here today have similar feelings. They were here with their parents and now they pass it onto their children. It’s a unique community. There are several places like this along the coast that have been bought and sold out or have just been taken over but … today is a reminder of our history and sense of the past and the importance of holding on to what you have.”
Sunday's festivities include a special worship service at 11 a.m. at the Wade H. Chestnut Memorial Chapel with members of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Hampstead. A special tribute will be given to the late Caronell Chestnut, the wife of Wade Chestnut, for picking up where he left off after his death.
A reception will follow from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at the Wade H. Chestnut Fellowship Hall. The second annual Jazz Concert featuring Ray and Regie Cogington begins at 3 p.m. at the Chestnut Chapel Courtyard.