The Enoch 'Nucky' Johnson regime courted, and counted on, Atlantic City's Northside.
His white hair tufted beyond tolerance, the minister stepped into the barbershop and its buzz of bonhomie. Combs raked scalps, scissors snipped furiously, and the scent of lilac water suffused the air. Twenty minutes later, the clergyman stood from the pedestal-chair and surveyed his reshaped dome. The dark skin of his forehead glistened below the white fringe.
He paid the barber and paused on the black rubber mat.
“Am I good for another dime?”
The barber grinned. “You bet.”
And so he did — 10 cents on number 357, a wager to be rewarded only if the digits corresponded, respectively, to the last number on each of the day’s win-place-show handles at Aqueduct Racetrack, some 90 miles to the north. The “numbers,” or “policy,” game was a lottery before lotteries were legal. Nearly everyone in town played it even men of the cloth and damn near every shop accepted bets.
Hereabouts, the Northside conceived the game and Nucky Johnson co-opted it, taking a sizable share for local government (and, of course, himself) and spreading the action citywide. The Big Guy knew a good thing when he saw it.
Nucky and the Northside. A made marriage. The boss man was a good provider, leaving generous chunks of his cash with neighborhood businesses and residents, and making sure that poor families had fuel, food, and medicine. In return, the black population revered him and joined the ranks of the Republicans, ruled by none other than Nucky himself.
“Ninety percent of [Atlantic City] African-Americans registered Republican,” says Ralph Hunter, of the African-American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey.
Since the local citizenry was 30 percent black, the numbers helped ensure GOP dominance. Though he was effectively giving back some of the dollars that he already had plucked out, benevolent despot Nucky had more on his mind than just political power.
“I believe there was a very strong, two-way bond between the African-American community in Atlantic City and Nucky Johnson,” says local historian Arthur “Boo” Pergament.
“He [Nucky] established friendships and kinships,” says Hunter, who points to Negro League baseball games at Bacharach Field [Nucky bankrolled his own team, the “Stars”], the all-black golf team at black-owned Apex Country Club in Pomona, and the All Wars Memorial Building [honoring black vets] as beneficiaries of the “financial support made available by Johnson’s organization.”
Northside residents repaid Nucky at the ballot box, where they cast their votes and, sometimes, additional in absentia votes for the dearly departed. And when residents — alive or dead — were not enough, the Johnson machine registered nonresidential summer employees to vote in-person or, compounding the chicanery, via a surrogate. Such patently illegal stratagems consistently kept tallies in Nucky’s favor.
“That’s three ways to make votes,” says Nelson Johnson, author of Boardwalk Empire and the new The Northside. “If the local boss could keep the attorney general’s office in Trenton from snooping around, election laws were loosely enforced.”
To put it mildly.
Nucky also cast an eye toward bolstering the local legit economy, sharing that perspective with civic leaders who sought to extend the resort town’s season. According to historian Hunter, in the late 1920s and early 1930s when teenage workers from the Carolinas came north early to grab summer seashore jobs, Nucky gave a thumbs-up, though as a result, the local youths found the pickings a bit slimmer when their school term ended. But the southern influx helped move the season’s start ahead, ultimately generating more business and employment for the locals. Another “everybody wins” proposition of the sort favored by Mr. Johnson.
While Nucky mobilized Northside residents to produce desired results at the polls, boosted their economic prospects per the city’s growth, and helped them survive during the off-season, he failed to acknowledge — much less correct — the persistent squalor of their living conditions. By the time that reformer Morris Cain, a West Indies import, helped launch the federally funded Stanley Holmes public housing project — the Northside’s first — in 1936, Nucky faced a foe he could not pay off or ply with good times. He was in the crosshairs of the FBI for a career’s worth of sins. Prison loomed.
The G-Men had his number.
It was a great turnout and Ralph Hunter was in rare form last Saturday when the African-American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey was honored with the U.S. Postal Service’s unveiling of the Rosa Parks commemorative stamp on the 100th anniversary of her birth.
When a car accident left him homebound in 2000, he became bored with household chores and to save his sanity, he said he began to draw again and by trial and error, taught himself how to paint people, places and things.
FEMA even hired local residents to help out with the pick-up. One day, I saw at least 15 young people following Department of Public Works trucks because regular employees could not keep up with the amount of flood-damaged goods.
A public discussion entitled “The Atlantic City Experience: The Roaring ’20s” will be hosted by the Atlantic City Free Public Library on Saturday, Oct. 13, in the Atlantic City Historical Museum
Jubilee: "Things don’t work that way in policing. The Atlantic City Police Department has jurisdiction for the entire city.”
Placed in charge of Atlantic City’s two “colored” schools by 1921, Pennsylvania native Brock succumbed the following year at the age of 42, in the thick of a battle over whether or not to integrate the local schools.
If you’ve never been to the Civil Rights Garden in Atlantic City, you should make it a point to drop by there and sit awhile. It is a contemplative place.
"...the feeling I left with from the Kwanzaa celebration was that 'the village must look out for the village — regardless of who or where we are.'"
“There was no crime in Atlantic City — they [the “organization”] took care of crime,” says local resident Richard Black, whose grandfather was a law enforcement official at the time.
There was a reason why I dedicated my book, Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City: Wash’s and the Northside, to all the families in Atlantic City, in addition to my own grandparents and children — I knew they had similar stories to tell.
With the current focus on non-gaming, family-friendly and cultural attractions in Atlantic City's future, here are some of the reasons why Ralph Hunter and the AAHMSNJ should have a home in Atlantic City:
Judge Nelson Johnson's latest book 'The Northside,' on Atlantic City's history of African-Americans, is missing key components says community leader. Johnson's previous book Boardwalk Empire was turned into the 2010 HBO series, the second season of which is filming now.
The Atlantic City Free Public Library's "Experience" exhibits, Live Music at Forimca Bros. in Northfield, Robin Thicke at Tropicana, plus Raves & Faves.
Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, treasurer of Atlantic County, ruled the rackets and the Republican Party in Atlantic City. Former cabbie Louie Kessel ordered his master’s life. Home base was the posh Ritz Carlton Hotel at Iowa Avenue and the Boardwalk (near today’s Tropicana).
It’s been very weird. When I decided to self-publish my book in Dec. 2009, I did it because an agent in New York told me — and this is pre-Obama — that nobody’s interested in black history now. I said, ‘What?’ And she said, ‘Nobody is interested. That’s just the truth.’ Then, I think it was in April, HBO calls me.
For years the Atlantic City Free Public Library (ACFPL), located at One North Tennessee Ave. in A.C., has been putting together an exceptional array of free exhibits and activities to honor February as Black History Month.
DEAR MAYOR LANGFORD, It is impossible for me to reflect upon your time in office without thinking about your life before you were mayor. A lot of people don't know that when we saw each other in the ...
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