Hidden History: Jacksonville-Onslow African American Heritage Trail

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In Onslow County, there are a number of historical markers highlighting African American unsung heroes also known as the Jacksonville-Onslow African American Heritage Trail. 

Freedom, peace, and opportunities; the common themes associated with what African Americans faced to lift their circumstances to new heights. 

There are more than a dozen stops throughout the county highlighting the unsung heroes of today and yesterday. 

It began with a vision during an unparallel time in Ocean City, North Carolina.

Edgar Yow was a Wilmington attorney and wanted to provide African Americans with the opportunity to own properties along the coast. 

Kenneth Chestnut works to preserve the history that his father built in 1949. 

“You’re talking about a group of people having the audacity to build and develop ocean front property and build homes on this island and this community in 1949,” said Chestnut. “They had difficulties, selling lots, people just didn’t have the vision or sometimes the money to invest in lots,” 

Segregation was prevalent and opportunities for African Americans to own property were slim.

Chestnut’s father saw Yow’s vision and took a vast approach to new beginnings. 

“My dad left the automobile business that he and his brothers were in, and devoted the rest of his life to developing the community,” said Chestnut. 

The word soon spread about the growing interest of home-ownership, sparking a wave of black professionals to migrate to the coast. 

“People from Wilmington, Fayetteville, Durham, and Charlotte all descended on the island,” said Chestnut. “Black physicians and attorneys across the state were aware of the community.” 

By 1953, 3 families bought land and businesses started popping up. Game nights, outings and explorations helped foster relationships across Ocean City. 

“The men would go fishing or get together for social events,” said Chestnut. “The ladies would go crabbing, and they’ll come back and share whatever meals they prepared.”

In 1954, the manifestation of real estate turned dark after Hurricane Hazel.

The storm wiped out dozens of homes, but that didn’t stop the people in Ocean City. 

“They could’ve just said ‘well, we tried’ and then let it go but they didn’t do that, they came back and rebuilt,” said Chestnut. 

Resiliency is why Chestnut continues educating visitors about the town’s history. 

“I’m very proud of our ancestors and people who had the vision, the where-with-all to make this happen,” said Chestnut. “A community doesn’t exist for seventy years by accident.” 

In 1949, a similar unbroken spirit rose at St. Julia A.M.E. Zion Church.

Pastor Reverand Dr. Amy Ciceron says  A.M.E. Zion offered an outlet for African Americans. 

“If you were black during that time you knew of St. Julia,” said Dr. Ciceron. “We received our information from the church and we use that information to fight racism, sexism and all the ism’s that have sought to hold back the African American community.” 

Overcoming racism was widespread in Jacksonville.

Georgetown High school was the only African American high school in Onslow County in the early 1900s. The school caught on fire and was later bombed after efforts to desegregate the schools. 

Willie Saunders and Rose Adams both graduated from Georgetown High. They say their teacher’s lessons of overcoming adversity are unforgettable. 

“They kept us on the straight and narrow path,” said Saunders. “They didn’t only educate you but they were part of the community,” said Saunders

The path to success wasn’t easy for the students at the time. 

“We had hand-me-down books, some of us had to walk to school,” said Saunders. “Sometimes we didn’t’ have the proper clothing; but, we persevered.” 

While the school is physically gone, the school pride lives on. 

“It was one of the best things that happened in Onslow County as far as we’re concerned,” said Adams. “History needs to be told, as it happened.” 

The Jacksonville-Onslow African American Heritage Trail is open year around. 

A memorial for the Voting-Rights Task Force was created to shed light on a group of African American leaders fight for representation on the Jacksonville City Council in the 1980s. 

This year Ocean City will celebrate its 70th year anniversary. 

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