English Teacher Turiya S.A. Raheem, who returned home to Atlantic City in 2008, is the author of Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City: Wash’s and the Northside (Xlibris, $19.99 paperback, available at amazon.com), a look back at her life growing up in Atlantic City and the history of her family, which includes her grandparents, Clifton and Alma Washington, who owned Wash’s sandwich shop (opened in 1937) on Kentucky Avenue. It is one of the few books focusing on the city’s black community written by someone from within the community. As interest in A.C.’s history is at a high point, we talked to Raheem recently.
Your book has been out more than a year, but since the premiere of Boardwalk Empire there’s been an explosion of interest in Atlantic City’s past and the city’s historic black community. What’s been your reaction to that?
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. And I knew they were working on something and I had read Boardwalk Empire myself while researching [my] book. And they said, ‘You know, we’re doing all this research and we know there’s this huge black community in Atlantic City. But we just can’t find anything on that. Can we send a limo to bring you up for an interview?’ I didn’t believe them at first, but I go up there with other A.C. historians. ... So then everything gets to be about Boardwalk Empire. And that blows up over the summer and I’m going to the premiere and the parties. It was amazing.
Why did you decide to go ahead with the book?
Vicki Gold-Levi was very supportive. She had been saying to me, ‘You have a story to tell. Tell your story. Publish it anyway you can. Because it’s just such a great story to tell and nobody from inside the community has written anything.’ And I said it just drives me crazy to go into bookstores and you find all these books on Atlantic City — but maybe they have a few pages, or 15 pages on the black community, if that. And I’m like, we built this city. This city wouldn’t have been what it was in its heyday had it not been for the black community.
Looking back on the days of segregation in the city, do you think that the story of the black community isn’t often told because those who lived through those times still have some bitterness towards the era.
I don’t think so, because while yes, it was segregated, it was also a wonderful community and place to live. The Atlantic City that I grew up in the 1960s and early ’70s, that’s the place that I remember. ... One of the reasons I came back to the city (she raised her family in Washington D.C.), was those memories. And even though it was segregated, it wasn’t the type of segregation — and this may have been different for the older people in my family — but my generation didn’t have to deal with the hostilities of segregation. My generation was the one where we had this strong, loving, tight-knit community behind us.
Did the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s start to spill over into the community?
Oh yes. It seemed that we were having race riots everyday in the high school. And sometimes, we didn’t even know what we were fighting about. We wanted to be part of the movement. Whatever the movement was, it was in the air and we wanted to be a part of it. But to join a lot of those organizations in the movement, you had to be 18. And we were like 16 and 17. But it got to the point that we were having problems every day until they had to have police minding the halls. And they would shut the school down and there would be crazy bomb threats. But there were also some legitimate things we could be part of as student leaders. We got to sit in on plans to introduce more black history into the school.
Whenever people reminisce about the old Atlantic City, there seems to be such great affection for it. Why does this city’s past bring out so much love?
I feel the same way and I just don’t know what it is. I think its because the city just has this weird combination. ... How many places do you know like Atlantic City? It’s a small town where you can walk everywhere. And we always joke in the black community: ‘Watch who you marry, because everyone’s related’; it’s so tiny. But you also have a beach resort. I can walk to the beach from my house. And then it’s urban. And there’s always been this great entertainment in the city. It’s just a very unique and exciting place. It gets to you.
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With the new TV series based on early Atlantic City, Boardwalk Empire, coming this fall to HBO, I was glad when I received Turiya Raheem’s book Growing Up In the Other Atlantic City: Wash’s and the Northside. Finally there is a book that researches and documents the sights and sounds of A.C. from the African-American/Kentucky Avenue perspective. In other books and TV specials, places like Chicken Bone Beach, Club Harlem and the Wonder Gardens are footnotes to stories about places like the 500 Club and/or the Steele Pier. In Raheem’s book these places are more than just background. The long-gone...
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