By MADDY VITALE
When Loretta Thompson Harris researched the history of black residents in Ocean City for her book, “The Westside: Ocean City in True Color,” she came upon the name of a man who had a distinguished musical career outside of the resort, but is not known by many people from his hometown.
Dr. Roland Wiggins, who died at age 87 in 2019, was an accomplished and acclaimed musical genius, yet he is not a household name in Ocean City, but should be.
In celebration of Black History Month, the storied life of Wiggins is being shared with an exhibit at the Ocean City Historical Museum celebrating, “The Man and His lifetime of Music, Dr. Roland A. Wiggins.”
“People who knew Roland told me about him and his musical genius. I grew up in Ocean City, but I knew nothing about him and his musical prowess,” Thompson Harris told OCNJDaily.com in an interview.
On Saturday, Feb. 17, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. the exhibit will include a reception, speakers who knew Wiggins and a live jazz performance by The Skip Spratt & Greg Pordon Duo.
“In talking to people who knew him as I was doing interviews, I think the first person to mention him was Ted Ford and then Nate Davis, who will be here on the 17th to talk about Roland from firsthand information,” Thompson Harris noted.
Her book features the notable of the city’s first black residents who became successful in their lives achieving great things.
“I started digging around. Roland had lived on the Westside at 302 West Avenue and attended local schools. He was Class of 1949 at Ocean City High School. He started playing music as a young child,” Thompson Harris said. “He played primarily piano. He also played tuba. He taught all types of students, saxophone, tuba.”
According to his obituary, Wiggins began formal studies on the piano at the age of eight. At 15, he was featured as a star performer at the Atlantic City Steel Pier. After graduating from Ocean City High School, he attended The Philadelphia Conservatory of Music and studied classical piano.
After one year, he enlisted in the military and served in the U.S. Air Force. In the Air Force Band, he met and performed with renowned jazz and R&B trumpeter, Donald Byrd.
After serving in the Air Force, Wiggins moved to New York. He became an authorized teacher of the Schillinger System of Musical Composition.
In 1956, he married Muriel Dockery of Philadelphia and had three daughters.
At that time, he enrolled in The Combs College & Ornstein School of Music with Liberal Arts requirements at The University of Pennsylvania. He earned his degrees there, which included his doctorate. He taught there and at many junior high schools in Philadelphia, according to his obituary.
Among his musical students were the famous saxophonist John Coltrane and pianist Thelonious Monk.
Thompson Harris noted that the exhibit gives museum patrons the opportunity to get to know and appreciate Wiggins’ contributions to the music world.
The exhibit features a three-dimensional collection of instruments that Wiggins taught, photos of him through the years, his resume and biographical information about his lifetime of achievements. There is also a QR code for information about him at the tap of a cellphone.
The exhibit will be up through the end of March for anyone to see who can’t make it this month, museum representatives said.
Karl Wirth, a museum volunteer, and Thompson Harris, along with Carol Dotts, the curatorial and exhibit committee chairwoman, worked together to create the exhibit.
“Loretta, of course, was the driving force and researcher for the exhibit,” Wirth said. “I think it came together nicely. The people who have come in so far that I have spoken with have shown real interest in it.”
The next step is for Wiggins’ accomplishments to be forever memorialized in a special cabinet for standout graduates of Ocean City High School inside the Ocean City Community Center.
The plan is to move some of the pieces from the museum exhibit into the cabinet after the exhibit is dismantled.
Thompson Harris said she anticipates a very good showing of parishioners from the Macedonia United Methodist Church to see the exhibit on Feb. 17.
Wiggins and his family belonged to the church.
“I’ve talked to a number of people about the exhibit and they’re excited to see it. I talked to a member of Macedonia Church,” she pointed out. “They have a room named after the Wiggins family, so I expect to see a number of church members to come out.”