The Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture is looking for Club Harlem (Atlantic City) artifacts for a planned permanent exhibit.
ATLANTIC CITY — On Tuesday, Feb. 22, groundbreaking will commence on the newest Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian’s 19th museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, will occupy a five-acre site on Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th streets N.W., between the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Although the museum isn’t slated to open until Fall 2015, intensive planning, collecting and architectural work has been ongoing for several years.
Designed to “illustrate the major periods of African American history, beginning with the origins in Africa and continuing through slavery, reconstruction, the Civil Rights era, the Harlem Renaissance and into the 21st century,” according to the Smithsonian, the new museum will also place “special emphasis” on pop culture and “the full spectrum of the arts.”
That’s where Dwandalyn R. Reece, PH.D. — and Atlantic City — come into the picture.
Reece, the curator of the music and performing arts permanent exhibit for the new museum, has a vision that is slowly but surely coming to fruition. “I am building the museum’s collection [of] the music and the performing arts,” Reece tells Atlantic City Weekly. “My most immediate priority task is to develop the permanent exhibition on music.”
That permanent exhibition is slated to include Atlantic City’s former Club Harlem in a big way. “I had the benefit in the early 1990s to work at the New Jersey State Museum,” says Reece, who has been traveling the country far and wide collecting objects and securing acquisitions for the permanent exhibit. “The State Museum and the New Jersey Historical Commission were doing a collaborative project, looking at African American history in New Jersey. So I was brought in to work on that project ... to help research and locate objects on New Jersey. The focus of that exhibition was going to look at institutional life — organizations, clubs and businesses in the light that explores New Jersey’s African American history through that lens. I was working with [a variety] of people [and] spent two years really traveling the state, following up on leads, and looking and meeting people — and Club Harlem was one of the places that was brought to my attention.”
At that point, Reece recalls, “I think the building was still standing [and] there were some objects still existing. I remember seeing photographs of the sign and some other things, so that was definitely going to be a focal point of this exhibition. When I had come and visited Atlantic City, and done some other research [I] met with a variety of people. So that’s where I got familiar with Atlantic City.
“When I got this job about two years ago, and I was tasked to do this exhibition, I was thinking about what I wanted to do and I wanted to really look at [several] parts of African American music history. We look just not at music and musicians, but really the social and cultural context, which would be performance venues, and working in the industry and all of that. Club Harlem popped back into my mind. And then I became re-acquainted with [Atlantic City historian and author] Vicki Gold-Levi. We started talking about it, and I always wanted to feature a real venue such as the Club Harlem to tell the story about, not only music, but the role that a venue that promotes African American performance plays in a community. So, Vicki and I became re-acquainted and started talking, and I did find out that it had been torn down. I was heartbroken to hear that.”
Reece, however, did not give up on her idea to re-create the Club Harlem for the museum, one of Atlantic City’s and the world’s most incredible music venues, which was in operation for a better part of the 20th century.
Reece has made several trips to Atlantic City over the past few years — among other music history hot spots through the country — doing research at the Atlantic City Free Public Library, meeting with local historians such as Ralph Hunter of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, Henrietta Shelton, of the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation, and several others. Yet, she still has a lot of calls to make.
“I’ve gotten a sense there are materials out there [and] people who are very passionate about the story,” says Reece. “As a museum person I’m all for preserving the history, but as I work towards developing this exhibition, we need objects to help tell the story. So that’s where I am right now. This is still a placeholder for me, but I am hoping that I have enough that I can do a small segment. I mean, this is a large story that we’re doing on African American music and with a finite amount of space. I envisioned telling the story of Club Harlem as — and telling the story of African American Atlantic City — a venue that promoted African American performers and the community that came from it. And also I’d love to try and get more details about what the club was like — the Breakfast Show, and the performers — and trying to get more pictures of the interior.”
For the designers of this permanent exhibition, Reece needs to help them with “trying to get a sense of what [Club Harlem] looked like,” so that the builders can re-create a version of it.
“We have had some donations,” says Reece, “and I’ve got more names. I am hoping people will share what they have. I need the three-dimensional objects to tell the story. We really are building a collection and I really see this as an opportunity to recognize an important story on a national and international level. I know how collectors are and it’s hard to let go of things. And I also think it’s important that you have things in the community to help tell that story, but I am hoping that people will understand the opportunity here, and getting Atlantic City out there, and its uniqueness as a community, and its whole contribution to the entertainment scene.”
PICTURED: Lonnie Smith's Blue Note recording Move Your Hand was recorded live at the Club Harlem.
Although Reece has been dedicating as much time as possible to making the Club Harlem a permanent part of the new museum’s exhibit on African American music, she is also tasked with telling the story of African American music and performing arts as a whole.
Some objects she has recently obtained from across the country include a Cadillac from Chuck Berry, Lena Horne’s dress from the 1943 film Stormy Weather, Michael Jackson’s shirt and jacket, Harriet Tubman’s Gospel hymnal, and an early recital card for a Nina Simone performance — when she was still known by her birth name, Eunice Waymon; she changed her name in Atlantic City, in fact — in Philadelphia.
“I was just out in Las Vegas, and the discussion, while I was meeting with musicians, they were also talking about the history of Las Vegas, and how difficult it was to be black and get an opportunity to be on the Strip, and be a performer. It’s funny how Frank Sinatra kind of factors into several of these stories, helping to open doors and make opportunities for people. Through a little of his own subterfuge, you know, it’s interesting some of the parallels there.”
The one person Reece has yet to make contact with is the son of the late Atlantic City historian and drummer at the Club Harlem, Sid Trusty.
Trusty had a massive collection of memorabilia, posters, photos and items from the Club Harlem, carefully organized in his garage museum in Atlantic City prior to his death in August 2004. His son is rumored to have possession of the collection in Connecticut.
Now, more than ever, Reece needs help as she searches for objects for the new Smithsonian museum in Washington.
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