Loranger Memorial School students Kylie Mininni and Chloe Drown interview Velma Williams at the school library on Tuesday, LIZ GOTTHELF/Journal Tribune

OLD ORCHARD BEACH — History can be learned from reading textbooks, but if you want to go to the primary source for local history, look no farther than older community members.

Students at Loranger Memorial School are learning this first hand through the Making Memories project, an initiative being conducted through a partnership with the school and local community group Old Orchard Beach Community Friendly Connection.

Through the project, sixth-grade students worked together in teams of two this week to interview residents and former residents who have insight on life in Old Orchard Beach through the years.

The students digitally-recorded the interviews on iPads, and the footage was collected onto a hard drive. Old Orchard Beach Community Friendly Connection Facilitator Pat Brown said the plan is to find a student or community member who can help the group edit the footage and compile it into a documentary or a format that can be shown on a loop at the Harmon Museum.

Students Chloe Drown and Kylie Mininni had done some practice interviewing beforehand and were prepared Tuesday morning when they met 89-year-old Velma Williams in the school library.

Kylie held the iPad focused on Williams, and Chloe asked a list of questions she had on hand.

Williams, they discovered, moved to Old Orchard Beach in 1942, and lived there until moving to a retirement community in Saco less than a year ago.

Williams gave the two girls insight on Old Orchard Beach when she was young, the sadness she felt when The Pier, where she used to go dancing, burned in 1969; and her job at a former five and dime in downtown that spurred a future career in retail.

“I feel like I know a lot more what it was like (back then), so I can compare and contrast,” said Chloe. She said she enjoyed hearing Williams’ stories, and found especially interesting Williams’ accounts of E. Emerson Cummings, whose family owned The Cummings Guest House on Portland Avenue, which opened in the 1920s to accommodate African Americans performers who were denied accommodations elsewhere.

“They came to Old Orchard Beach to play at The Pier, but they weren’t allowed to stay,”said Williams.

Over the years, many famous performers stayed at The Cummings Guest House.

“Duke Ellington finished one of his songs there,” said Williams.

Williams met Cummings while visiting a sick friend, and struck up a friendship that bloomed into a relationship that spanned decades, until Cummings death in 2000.

The two never married. She lived at her family home and took care of her aging mother, and he lived at his home across town, but they had a close bond.

“My significant other,”she said. “He was a great man, a great, great man.”

She held a picture of the E. Emerson Cummings Avenue sign, that marks the street named after him, where the high school is.

She spoke of what it was like as a white woman, to be dating a black man, and the looks they received in public.

“I just turned and stared right back at them,” she said.

According to Williams, Cummings enjoyed music and was very studious and intellectual.

“His idea of a good time was reading a manual,” she said.

Cummings worked hard for what he accomplished in life, Williams said, often having to put in extra effort to prove himself to others in a world full of prejudice.

“I hurt for him, when they hurt him,” she said. But, Williams said, Cummings was never outwardly bitter, and kept his head up high and tried to be a good person.

Cummings was very dedicated to his students, she said, and very generous to the children in his family.

“At Christmas, they didn’t look for Santa, they looked for Emmie,” said Williams.

Staff Writer Liz Gotthelf can be reached at 780-9015 or by email at [email protected].

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