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An Oasis Between Invisible Lines

“It was the only place black people could go.” In the 1950s and 60s, a newly established community on Topsail Island, off the coast of North Carolina, became an oasis for individuals and families who could not legally vacation on any other beach in the state. Even though the law has changed in the years since, many still do not feel as though they can comfortably travel to certain areas of the country.

The stories of the individuals and families that made Ocean City Beach a thriving community on Topsail Island, despite the challenges of the Jim Crow era, are the focus of the stories in An Oasis Invisible Lines, a mission-based, change-oriented book designed to remind readers of the past and encourage continued change for the future.

“An oasis in the south, in the Jim Crow era.” Ocean City was the result of an interracial effort to develop abandoned land and provide an oasis for black professionals. The community’s story began when a white lawyer approached his client, a black physician, about buying land on an island that was recently abandoned by the US military.

In 1949, North Carolina was a state deeply enveloped in segregation and Jim Crow laws. In the city of Wilmington, memories of the 1898 insurrection and massacre of black residents by white supremacists were still painfully fresh. Some mark that as the turning point in those Jim Crow laws that would clearly separate whites from blacks in every aspect of life.

However, at least one person in Wilmington thought differently, in the midst of this oppressive environment of the American South in the 1940s. Edgar Yow, a white attorney practicing in the city, befriended a client of his, Dr. Samuel Gray, who happened to be black. In fact, Yow proposed to Dr. Gray an idea that was virtually unheard of given the issues of the day. Even though blacks were not supposed to own land – and certainly not beach property – Yow would sell Dr. Gray and his friends and family a bit of land on Topsail Island.

The daring idea resulted in a short stretch of beachfront homes, a pier, a restaurant, a community center, and a chapel in an area where black families were able to breathe and just enjoy life after driving through back roads and past Ku Klux Klan signs and confederate flags.

“There was an invisible line on the beach.” The story of whites and blacks working together in this segregated southern state to make Ocean City a reality is intriguing in itself. This is not just another historical account, though.

It is a collection of personal stories of those who established themselves in the community of Ocean City, of memories of having a place to go that “helped us keep our sanity and our health.” It is the story repeated by many about the “invisible lines” on the beach they could not cross in a time of segregation. It is a recounting of happy times on a fishing pier, playing games in the street, and neighborhood gatherings in a beach community that was “the only place where blacks could come.”

“A lot of white people were resentful that black people had oceanfront property.” Each person involved in this uniquely integrated effort has an important tale to share about what they went through, what they saw, what their parents and family sheltered them from, and how they overcame barriers.

These stories are critical not only for their intrinsic value but also as a lesson for others moving forward, a real-life example of how integrated groups of people can work together, in the most challenging of times and circumstances, to make a vision come true. A valuable personal record of black history, An Oasis Invisible Lines will prove meaningful to those who lived it as well as to new generations who will benefit from their lessons and life experiences.

The stories of the individuals who established Ocean City and of those who continued to purchase property and enjoy the community of friends and family in this oasis between invisible lines are in danger of being lost. Their stories will be told in this book, to maintain their legacy and to serve as inspiration for a new mission of change even as racial tensions are now challenging the country once again.