Loretta Harris remembers not having Black History Month growing up as a young girl by the beach in the mid-20th Century. She’s now made it her mission to discover and document Ocean City’s Black History.
Of course, Black History Month didn’t always exist; It wasn’t until 1976 that it was fully recognized by President Ford. Loretta grew up in Ocean City on Widow’s Row. Her schooling was non segregated and there weren’t many Black kids. Fueled by a desire to know where her ancestors came from, she’s spent the past 25-30 years digging through archives and graveyards in South Jersey to learn more and to document Ocean City’s Black history. We sat down with Loretta to learn more about her and the research she’s done.
How it began- Settling in Ocean City
“People came here for summer jobs, but the earliest people came for religious reasons,” said Loretta.
The Black community settled in Ocean City from 2nd Street to 10th Street, primarily between West Avenue and Bay Avenue.
One neighborhood was referred to as Widow’s Row, a place for those to live who were widowed by a variety of circumstances.
“Widow’s Row is on Haven Avenue between 6th Street and 7th Street. That’s where I grew up. Our first house was in Widow’s Row. Originally, those houses were possibly military houses. They’re very old. I think it started out with 13 houses in the row. Over the years, a few houses have been taken off the southern end,” said Loretta.
The Black neighborhood used to spread farther east.
“In the beginning, it used to go over to Asbury Avenue,” Loretta said.
There was a good reason why they chose to settle there.
“I think because at the time, that was the center of all of the activity. The Lake brothers started out in 1879 up around 5th and 6th streets. The Tabernacle was their property. It was right in that general area,” said Loretta.
Settling also meant founding churches; four of which still exist today.
“From the research I found, there were four churches that started in the early 1900s,” said Loretta.
Three started as missions.
“A mission is almost like a test run. You’ll have a convention and they’ll decide that maybe they want a church in a certain area. They’ll send a preacher out to see if he can get things started. If things go well, they give them a charter and let them start their own church. In Ocean City, the missions ran during the summer. When things go well, they start the regular church,” Loretta said.
Macedonia United Methodist Church started in 1893 as a mission after breaking away from St. Peter’s Methodist Episcopal Church and was incorporated in 1903. Their founders were from the Maryland area.
Tabernacle Baptist Church began as a summer mission in 1897 and was then founded in 1901. Their founders were from Germantown, Pa.
St. James A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) Church started as a summer mission in 1901 and was later incorporated in 1906. The founders were from Cumberland and Salem counties.
Shiloh Baptist Church was fully founded in 1912. Their founders were from Virginia.
Living in Ocean City – Beaches and Lifeguards
Growing up, Loretta went to the Black-only beach.
“It sits between 5th street and 6th street. It was the same block that was reserved for open space when the city was founded. It had always been a segregated beach. I grew up in the ’40s and ’50s. As a kid, the beach was segregated. Before I got out of school in the ’60s, it was no longer segregated. There was nothing official. It probably fazed out in the late ’50s,” said Loretta.
“We used to climb across the jetty between the two beaches. Typically, the other beach goers would yell at us to, ‘Go back! Go back!’”
The next step beachgoers would take would be to get the lifeguards.
“If you still resisted [after the lifeguards were involved], you had to leave the beach all together,” she said.
Loretta has a personal connection to one of the Black lifeguards – Alvin Thompson, her uncle. Alvin started with the OCBP in 1922 and was the first Black man on the patrol. According to Loretta, he was only allowed to guard the Black-only beach.
“It appears when he started that he worked by himself. In later years, they always worked in pairs,” said Loretta.
Loretta never went to a segregated school – there weren’t enough Black kids. At the time, there were two elementary schools in Ocean City – one on Central Avenue, where the current police station is, and another on Wesley Avenue that has since been torn down. Seventh and eighth grades were at the high school in a separate area.
“I was the only Black kid in most of my classes. When we graduated, we may have had 13, which was the highest in a graduating class. There weren’t that many Blacks in the city,” said Loretta.
Loretta does her research on her own with periodic help from some of her relatives.
“Not too many people like stomping around cemeteries and going through the vault in the historical society,” said Loretta.
Her research on Ocean City’s Black history began as a personal quest.
“I was sitting outside talking to my dad one day on the steps of the house and I had just gotten a letter from my mom’s family from Florida. She moved up here when she was 13 and I didn’t know much about them in Florida. I had gotten a letter from her relatives and my dad told me one thing about my family at the time. I jotted it down on the envelope,” said Loretta.
She visited her aunt, who has the family Bible.
“They generally have a place in the Bible for the births, marriage, and deaths,” said Loretta.
She picked a name – John Brooks Thompson- and decided to research him so that Loretta could give the information to her aunt.
“I found that he had lived a block over from us in Ocean City and I had no idea! It feels like I should have known that my great grandfather lived in Ocean City.”
He died before she was born.
After digging deeper, she discovered that he is buried at Seaside Cemetery in Marmora.
“I live right behind it. I had no idea,” said Loretta.
“When I started visiting these different historical societies – Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem Counties – they all asked me for copies of the research when I’m done. I’ve been working on a book for quite a while. There’s so much information to cover. I also try to share what information I have with other family members,” Loretta said. “I want my kids to know who their ancestors were.”
Photos courtesy of Loretta Harris