By Maddy Vitale
Sisters Loretta Thompson Harris and Alva Thompson, who both grew up in Ocean City, know the importance of tradition. They know that keeping heirlooms, properties and memories that go with them help strengthen bonds and preserve their family’s history.
The sisters joined about 30 guests who perused artifacts, which included old photos and clothing from long ago, during an open house for the Black History Month exhibit Friday night at the Ocean City Historical Museum.
The exhibit titled, “The Seasons of Life: The African American Community in Ocean City,” was created by Brittany Battle, of Ocean City, Josh Baker, of Trenton, and Takiya Wilson, of Egg Harbor Township, from the Ocean City Juneteenth Organization along with museum staff.
“I still own the family house on Haven Avenue,” said Harris, of Upper Township. “We try to keep them in our family.”
Thompson lives on Simpson Avenue in the grandparents’ home.
And the sisters stayed very close.
As they looked at a mantle in the museum filled with pieces of history, they admired some beach patrol photos and reflected on their most memorable times in Ocean City.
“The beach is definitely my favorite part,” Harris said. “Everyone ended up at the beach. No matter what you were doing, you ended up at the beach.”
Harris looked at a picture of her brother in his Ocean City lifeguard uniform. She stared at the photo with her sister and spoke about some of their memories with their brother, who has since passed away.
She recalled a time when she pretended she was drowning. Her brother dove in to save her, only to find out she was pulling a bad prank on him.
“He was not happy with me,” Harris said with a chuckle.
Thompson looked at some of the photos on the walls and recognized a lot of the people and the places, and that brought back many more memories.
Residents, along with city and museum officials, marveled over the pieces of African American history. There is a need to tell the story of the African American community in the resort, that, until now, was not as well recognized for the positive impact on Ocean City, everyone at the exhibit agreed.
The trio who made the exhibit possible, Battle, Baker and Wilson, grew up in Ocean City. While Baker and Wilson don’t live in the resort anymore, they have remained friends. Their ties to the community and their organization compelled them to create the exhibit. Their hope is that it will not only remain in the museum, but expand, they said.
“Think of this as planting seeds to make sure the story is told. Stories are told to us and the best we could do is reach out,” Baker told open house guests. “We are planting seeds for larger things. The elders are not forgotten. We want to make sure their legacy lives on.”
Councilman Antwan McClellan spoke about the work of the Ocean City Juneteeth Organization to create the exhibit.
“This is an amazing opportunity for our young residents to give back to Ocean City,” he said.
McClellan addressed the crowd, saying that the black community has contributed a lot to Ocean City and will continue to do so. He also thanked the museum for its support of the organization to create the display.
Mayor Jay Gillian told the guests that viewing the exhibit was like going down memory lane.
“Seeing this exhibit warms my heart,” Gillian said, adding that there is so much more to learn about the African American community.
Michele Gillian, the mayor’s wife and executive director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce, remarked as she viewed some artifacts that it is a wonderful and interesting display of important pieces of history in the community.
While Battle, Baker and Wilson spent countless hours creating the exhibit, it was Jeff McGranahan, executive director of the Ocean City Historical Museum, who reached out to their organization around December to see if they would be interested in putting it together.
He thanked them for their work and told the crowd that when they first spoke about doing the exhibit, he knew that it was so important to the community that it come to fruition.
President of the Ocean City Historical Museum John Loeper remarked that in addition to the exhibit being a vital part of Ocean City’s history, this is just a portion of memories of the African American community.
“We are super excited to be partnering with the museum to showcase the long and valuable history of the African Americans in Ocean City,” Battle said.
She said in an interview after the event, “It was a great honor to work with the Ocean City Historical Museum on this project. It was amazing to see it pulled together and it made me so proud to be a product of the rich legacy of the black community in Ocean City.”
The free exhibit runs through the end of March, but organizers hope that it may remain there permanently.
For more information about the exhibit, call the Ocean City Historical Museum at (609) 399-1801 or visit www.ocnjmuseum.org. For more information about the Juneteenth Organization, visit www.ocnjjuneteenth.jimdo.com.