OCEAN CITY — Residents, past and present, celebrated some of the city’s most notable black community members Saturday at its inaugural Juneteenth Celebration.
Family and friends reunited and chatted about the seaside resort’s history. That’s just what organizers Joshua Baker, Brittany Battle and Takiya Wilson wanted.
“This has been an idea that our committee members have been thinking about for a while: How to recognize the people who have contributed,” Battle said, “not just at funerals or sad occasions.”
Juanita Rolls-Chalmus, Rozelia Wiggins-Cobb, Johnny “Red” Brown, Samuel Rowell and Ruby Baker, who all have died, were remembered the high school cafeteria.
Lula Mae Rowell, Angela Graham and John Henry Sr. were there to accept their recognition.
“It is an honor,” said Graham, 83, known for her spiritual leadership. “I think this is just wonderful.”
Henry Sr., 68, recalled his athletic legacy at Ocean City High School.
“I did the best I could. God touched my feet when I was 7 years old,” Henry said.
Rowell, 75, who was recognized for her business success, said she was happy to be honored.
Battle, of Somers Point, said incorporating these honors into a Juneteenth celebration builds on other events around the country to honor the important day in African-American history.
Juneteenth is celebrated in 45 states near June 19, the day in 1865 the last slaves in Texas were notified by Union soldiers of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Our big thing was focusing on fellowship and education,” said Battle, a 2005 Ocean City alum. “A lot of the Juneteenth celebrations happening around the nation really focus on those two concepts.”
In that vein, the organizers conducted interviews to make a documentary about city’s black history. Some of it was previewed Saturday.
“We’re all learning so much ourselves, really trying to develop a way to get this history down and in print,” Battle said.
Baker, who graduated from OCHS in 1995 but lives in Elmwood Park, said an inspiration for organizing the event was all the changes in the community over the years, especially in the traditionally black neighborhood of the 2nd Ward.
“There was a possibility for a lot of our history, which is a rich history, to be lost,” Baker said.
Wilson, of Egg Harbor Township and a 1997 OCHS graduate, said many black-owned businesses she used to frequent no longer exist.
“I used to have breakfast at Elliott’s,” Wilson said, as well as shop at Ralph’s produce store.
“And there were a lot more homeowners,” she said, noting the proliferation of duplexes in the neighborhood now.
Wilson said the city’s black community is like a family. “They raised us collectively,” she said. “I wanted to let everyone know how their sacrifices made an impact on my life.”
“They call it sacrifices. I call it love,” Graham said.