While there are facets of Topsail Island’s history that are visible for all to see, there are plenty of hidden treasures that are far less obvious hidden just below the surface of this pivotal island home.
The north end of the barrier island is known today as the Town of North Topsail, incorporated in 1990. It is not, however, the first residential enclave to call the northern stretch of beach home. That honor falls to Ocean City, what many believe was the first beach resort for African Americans in the still segregated South.
It was the late 1940s and the military had cleared off of Topsail Island. Edgar Yow, a white attorney from Wilmington, and later mayor, owned 1-mile stretch of beach front property about 3 miles north of Surf City. The lawyer approached Dr. Samuel Gray, a black physician in Wilmington, with the idea of creating an African American beach community where residents could actually own a beachfront home. Dr. Gray turned to Bertram, Wade, Louise and Robert Chestnut, siblings who purchased the first tracts of land in the new Ocean City.
“In the 1950s, Father Kirton of the St. Mark's Episcopal Church along with the Chestnut family decided to have a summer camp located in Ocean City,” writes Chris Rackley, president of Lewis Realty Associates in a recent blog on the company website. “Soon after the community built a dormitory that housed over 60 children for the summer camps. Today, the Wade H Chestnut Memorial Chapel still stands and is the center of community activities along with the Ocean City Community Center.
“In 1959, Ocean City Developers, Inc. decided to build the Ocean City Fishing Pier,” continues Rackley. “The pier was located and built upon one of the watch towers left over from Operation Bumblebee. A personal connection of the history of Ocean City lends itself in this era of the community. Elizabeth "Peggy" Lewis, a then paralegal with the attorney Yow and later owner of Lewis Realty Associates, Inc. from the 1980s until 2011, assisted the Ocean City Developers, Inc. in their meetings by serving as their secretary. Lewis also through the law firm assisted with real estate purchases and development.”
Rackley’s great aunt Peggy and his great-grandfather enjoyed fishing at the pier, he said, and caught many mullet from their “secret” fishing hole located just off the side of the pier.
The pier itself was demolished after suffering extensive damage from Hurricanes Fran and Bertha in 1996, the realtor said, but the tower that it was built around remains as a reminder for the strides that were made for the civil rights movement on the shoreline it overlooks.
In May of 2012, the community of Ocean City received historical recognition with commemorative street signs and each summer the community celebrates with a Jazz Festival, supported in part by a grant from the NC Arts Council. More than 60 years later, the site continues to be a vibrant community.