By Donald Wittkowski
Ocean City’s founding as a Christian seashore retreat by four Methodist ministers in 1879 has been chronicled countless times by historians and journalists.
Not nearly as well known in local history is that the first black family arrived just six years later to find work in the beach town’s fledging hospitality industry, said Jeff McGranahan, executive director of the Ocean City Historical Museum.
Now, the museum and a local organization whose name is inspired by a pivotal event in black history are collaborating on a new exhibit opening Feb. 12 that traces the deep roots of Ocean City’s African American community.
Brittany Battle, a leader of the Ocean City Juneteenth Organization, said the exhibit will help fill in a “gap” in local black history by recognizing the contributions of African American families.
Battle, of Ocean City, appeared before City Council on Thursday night to promote the exhibit and describe the charitable efforts of the Juneteenth Organization, which was founded by her and two other former Ocean City High School graduates, Takiya Wilson and Joshua Baker.
Their group is named after the celebration of Juneteenth, which marks the day that slaves in Texas finally learned of their freedom on June 19, 1865, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Council members praised the Juneteenth Organization for its charity work and efforts to raise awareness of local black history.
In December, the organization sponsored a holiday drive and day of service to collect clothing, toiletries and other items that were donated to homeless shelters in Atlantic City.
In addition to teaming up with the museum for the black history exhibit, it is planning the second annual Juneteenth Celebration and Brunch on June 16 at Ocean City High School.
“They’re doing great things,” Councilman Antwan McClellan said. “I think this is a great project.”
Councilman Keith Hartzell said the museum’s new exhibit will recognize the many achievements of the African American community that have been unintentionally “overlooked.”
“I’m thrilled to see more of that will get out,” Hartzell said.
In an interview after the Council meeting, Battle explained that up to this point, there was “really nothing” in the museum that chronicled local black history, other than a few photos of African American churches.
She said the new exhibit will build on the efforts of the Juneteenth Organization to help local children understand the contributions of older African Americans.
Titled “The Seasons of Life: The African American Community in Ocean City,” the exhibit will open Feb. 12 and run through March 31. To celebrate the exhibit, the museum will hold an open house, free to the public, on Feb. 23 from 7-8:30 p.m.
The exhibit will share artifacts, images and stories about the lives of Ocean City’s black families “through the lens” of the four seasons of the year, according to a museum press release.
Spring will focus on the importance of the churches in African American life. Summer will look at how black families came to Ocean City in search of jobs and economic opportunities in the resort’s hotels and restaurants.
Fall will shine the spotlight on Ocean City’s Elks Lodge. Winter will examine the ways black families endured the long, slow days of Ocean City’s off-season and how they created their own economic opportunities.
In addition, the exhibit will detail the founding and growth of the black community beginning in the late 1880s, McGranahan said.
“So many of the African Americans came to Ocean City when the hotel industry became big,” he said. “They worked in the hotels, in the service industry and the restaurants.”
The exhibit is being stocked with clothing, photos and an array of other artifacts collected from local black families, McGranahan noted.
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.