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Black in Stone Harbor: New documentary tells the story of Shore town’s ‘Miracle on 81st Street’

A century ago, a dozen Black families settled in Stone Harbor, today one of the most affluent, exclusive and white Jersey Shore towns.

Greg Hudgins, 75, and his wife Rose Hudgins, 76, of Woodbine, N.J., pose for a portrait outside where Rose grew up along  81st Street in Stone Harbor, N.J., on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021.
Greg Hudgins, 75, and his wife Rose Hudgins, 76, of Woodbine, N.J., pose for a portrait outside where Rose grew up along 81st Street in Stone Harbor, N.J., on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

STONE HARBOR, N.J. — Gerald Anderson’s simple four-sentence truth begins the new documentary Miracle on 81st Street.

”People say, ‘Where are you from?’ I say, ‘Stone Harbor.’ They say, ‘I don’t see any Black people over there.’ I say, ‘Because you’re not looking for them.’ ”

“Simple as that,” he concludes.

Over on 81st Street the other day, there was, indeed, laughing and reminiscing among a half dozen of the descendants of those original Black families that settled in Stone Harbor a century ago, workers who brought their families to a town being built along a new railroad line.

Standing on the street again, the group melted happily back into their memories of Stone Harbor childhoods.

”Love it,” said Angela Rodriquez Moore, a producer on the film, whose mother, Rose McCargo, grew up on 81st and whose grandfather kept the house while she was growing up. “I want to get a Tastykake from the Back Yard [restaurant] and ice cream from Piccolo’s.”

She was able to buy cigars for her grandfather at the age of 5, she recalled. The Back Yard is now owned by the Union League of Philadelphia.

“Old times,” said Marcus Harmon, who still keeps in touch with his Stone Harbor buddies, and whose uncle was John Roberson, a legendary football and basketball coach at Middle Township High School who is featured in the documentary.

“I feel nostalgic. It feels great being back. You see where the beach is, you run to the beach, it’d take you 2 1/2 seconds. They were like, ‘Go, go to the beach.’ ”

In the other direction, Harmon remembers being pushed off the Piccolo’s dock to learn to swim. “I could swim my butt off that’s for sure, but I didn’t want to be a lifeguard. I was doing other things.”

It’s a piece of history that, if you didn’t already know it, might seem fanciful when compared to the Stone Harbor of today, among the most exclusive, affluent and white of Jersey Shore towns, where homes sell for as an average price of $2.5 million and the year-round population is 99% white.

It’s one local filmmaker Jim Talone set out to tell after producing another film, Stories of Stone Harbor, for the Stone Harbor Museum, that did not feature any Black people.

Most of the original homes are gone, and all but a handful of the Black families eventually sold their homes, moving on to Philadelphia, Virginia, nearby towns like Cape May Court House and Whitesboro. A few families continue to own homes they use every summer or rent out.

“My family sold the property because no one wanted to stay,” said Rodriquez Moore, a producer on the film whose cousins still own homes on 81st. “No one at that time knew this was going to end up being a million-dollar entity. It wasn’t like that.”

A recent local showing of Miracle on 81st Street was attended by Anthony Anderson, the nephew of Gerald Anderson and a producer on the documentary, along with Rose and Greg Hudgins, who met and married in Stone Harbor, and Doris Reddick, whose memories animate the documentary. The audience of about 100 people was emotional and nostalgic. “It was a wonderful showing,” said Talone.

Many in the audience recalled Roberson, the celebrated coach who graduated Middle Township High School in 1948 and who died this summer at the age of 91. In the film, Roberson describes going to the Park Movie Theater in Stone Harbor, where a small corner was “where they wanted you to sit, Blacks.” One night, he and a couple of friends just refused to go along with that.

“That’s what we did,” he said. “The guy said, ‘You have to move.’ And we said, ‘No we’re going to watch the movie here.’ And that was it.”

In the documentary, which can be found on YouTube, Reddick, now of Philadelphia, memorably describes the day in Stone Harbor Elementary when classmates were told of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and wondered nervously about its proximity, knowing themselves only two harbors: Stone and Egg Harbor.

Talone is hoping for an encore screening around Thanksgiving. The documentary is narrated by the Rev. Douglas Moore, with a lilting jazz soundtrack from Atlantic City’s Eddie T. Morgan Jr.

When the church was sold

Eighty-First Street is located almost to the Avalon border, in a narrow stretch of the island. A block one way is the beach, in other direction, is the Stone Harbor public works building, and then the bay and a public marina.

The community was anchored by the Bethel Union American Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1917.

“When the church was sold,” said Greg Hudgins, who as a teenager “huckstered” fruit and vegetables up and down the street, where he met his future wife, Rose, “that was the beginning.”

Their memories are mostly positive, filled with the details of a childhood near the beach, “city cousins came to visit, and the street filled with the sounds of kids playing.” They went to Stone Harbor Elementary, where, for the most part, they found welcoming classmates, inspiring teachers, and the small class sizes of a Shore town school.

(Though Rose Hudgins, for one, recalls feeling like an outsider in Stone Harbor, and then again, in Middle Township, because she was from Stone Harbor.)

These families built homes, found work building the town, and created lives amid the simple pleasures of the quiet local’s life during a time, the movie points out, “when racism and segregation were on the rise.”

It was still a Stone Harbor where in 1928, according to the documentary, the Women’s Civic Club put out a schedule of events with a baby parade one day, a Ku Klux Klan rally the next.

But these families say they found mostly acceptance, and lived happily until, in the words of filmmaker Talone, “it was blown away by a rising tide of money,” that prompted (or pressured, a matter of some debate) most of the families to sell beginning in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The type of people that live here now is just different,” said Rodriquez Moore. “My cousins were able to keep the property,“ she said, despite repeated offers for their property.

Rodriquez Moore says the pressure to sell came from the town itself, as well as private buyers and developers. ”They wanted everybody gone off that street,” she said. “One by one, people were like, ‘I’ll sell, I’ll sell,’ because the money was so great.”

‘It’s everybody from the movie’

On 81st Street the other day, Nick Sommer, a lawyer from Philadelphia, returned from a bike ride to his in-laws’ Shore house, and found “everybody from the movie” outside reminiscing. His in-laws’ house had once been owned by members of the Anderson family.

“It’s everybody from the movie,” Sommer said. He’d gone to see the documentary at the recent showing at the Stone Harbor theater.

“We knew a little bit about [the history],” he said. “My wife’s been here since 1987. She told me the building down there used to be a church. But we did not know the extent of it.”

Harmon thinks about his Stone Harbor childhood, the lifelong friends he made and continues to see often, the deep connections he made, and contrasts that with the surprise many people express when they find out about the deep Stone Harbor roots of these Black families.

Though he might not have given it much thought growing up, he said, some things in Stone Harbor were, in fact, off limits. “That’s like me joining the Stone Harbor Yacht Club,” he said. “I could go over there, swim over there, and have fun. But when it came to the sailboat races, hmm, no, I wasn’t allowed.”

Hudgins said the documentary captures a piece of history that was being lost in today’s Stone Harbor, out of reach to all but the wealthy.

“The way the island is now, you wouldn’t think African American people even lived here at one time,” said Greg Hudgins. “They actually built the island. The way the island was, the way it is now is two totally different environments.”