By Maddy Vitale
A map displaying the migration of African Americans to Ocean City from the south is just one piece that highlights the significance of the black community in Ocean City.
The display is part of an exhibit at the Ocean City Historical Museum with the Ocean City Juneteenth organization on “The Seasons of Life: The African American Community in Ocean City,” which opened Monday in celebration of Black History Month.
An antique fishing pole, combs and brushes from barber shops of long ago, and vintage spring dresses, were some of the other items on display. Some artifacts coming this week include a Bible from the 1800s presented to Tabernacle Church in 1931, and an old hand saw.
Brittany Battle, of Ocean City, Takiya Wilson, of Egg Harbor Township, and Josh Baker, of North Jersey, all of the Ocean City Juneteenth Organization, created the exhibit through countless hours of research on social media and time spent interviewing elders in the African American community, Battle said.
“I really like the map because it is interesting to see the black community in Ocean City is like a microcosm of the south,” Battle explained. “What is interesting is a lot of people who came knew each other from South Carolina and Georgia.”
The story the Juneteenth Organization really wants to focus on is how the black community not only thrived, but survived, and grew over time in Ocean City, Battle said.
This is the first exhibit for Black History at the museum. There are just some photos and artifacts permanently on display focusing on African American life in Ocean City, Battle said.
Jeff McGranahan, executive director of the Ocean City Historical Museum, reached out to Battle and her organization, to do the exhibit.
On Monday, he said the exhibit is important to not only the museum, but to the entire community of Ocean City.
“It is the museum working with a community organization to bring new histories to light. The Juneteenth Organization has been great to work with,” McGranahan said. “They have been a bridge for our museum to bring new artifacts and stories of Ocean City’s African-Americans into the larger public awareness.”
The exhibit is told through narratives written by Baker, of the Juneteenth Organization, that highlight the seasons of life in the African American community.
Autumn is about reverence and highlights memberships in Ocean City’s Elks Lodge at 6th Street and Bay Avenue, along with memberships to youth baseball leagues and drill teams.
Winter is a time of perseverance, a tough time for families to make ends meet when Boardwalk businesses and tourist attractions shut down for the season. During that time, family and friends helped each other out to get by.
Spring is about innocence and the strength of black churches in the community and how religious traditions were an important part of life.
Summer is all about exuberance, when there is plenty of work as teachers, barbers, cooks and business owners.
McGranahan said it is a story that needs to be told.
“The story of African-Americans in Ocean City is complicated and often difficult, which is why the partnership with the Juneteenth organization is so important,” McGranahan said. “For many years the museum has opted to avoid those issues. It is my hope this exhibit is a first step in building stronger relationships with our African-American neighbors so that we won’t only celebrate Black History in February, but all year long and are able to integrate their stories with the rest of Ocean City’s past.”
Battle said she hopes that the two organizations will partner for a permanent exhibit in the museum.
“One of our goals in even starting the Juneteeth Organization in Ocean City, was getting the history of our community in an institution,” Battle said. “We were so happy when Jeff (McGranahan) reached out to do the temporary exhibit. We feel good about the partnership to get more black history included in the museum.”
Battle said there are plans to provide items to the museum, separate from an exhibit, on African American history.
Battle, along with a museum volunteer, plan to visit elders in the black community and record how they moved to Ocean City, where they worked, and other interesting information. Then they will transcribe the information and house it in the museum.
Babs Stefano, a member of the museum’s board of trustees and a museum assistant, called the exhibit something the museum members “eagerly awaited.”
“We are thrilled to have the exhibit in our museum,” Stefano said Monday. “This exhibit is an important part of Ocean City’s history and has been a long time coming.”
The museum will hold an open house, free to the public, on Feb. 23 from 7-8:30 p.m. in celebration of the exhibit which runs through March 31.
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.