ATLANTIC CITY — 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.
Everybody is not willing or able to write their family’s story, so I tried in the narrative of my own family’s to give a general sense of the feelings, aspirations and motivations of those who came to this tiny northern beach town seeking a better life than what they had in the South.
Though there had been small numbers of blacks in Atlantic City almost from its incorporation in 1854, with each decade that the city grew, its black population did the same. For many decades, we were even in the majority, not unlike southern states with larger populations of enslaved people than slaveholders in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Who else would provide the cheap labor force needed to attend to visitors as the city became “The World’s Playground”?
I read every book I could find about what Atlantic City was like in the 1920s, and scanned many articles trying to get a sense of what the city was like for my grandparents when they first stepped off the train from Petersburg, Virginia. The following is a revised excerpt from my chapter entitled, “New Arrivals.” My maternal grandmother, Alma Washington, is the speaker.
The first time I put my toes in that soft, beige sand, burning the soles of my feet in the midday sun, I felt maybe I could make Atlantic City my home. As we rode the Camden-Atlantic that chugged further and further east towards the Atlantic Ocean, rivers and swamps led into ever-larger bodies of water in the distance until the greatest expanse of water I had ever seen gleamed in the sunlight so far out that I thought I could see all the way to the coast of Africa.
I wondered about that water in a frightening way, even though I knew how to swim. A few days after we arrived, Clif and I strolled over from the Northside, crossed Atlantic Avenue, which was so wide it had cars on both sides of the street and train tracks down its middle. We crossed Pacific Avenue and continued across the wood planks people called “The Boardwalk,” laughing at the signs: No rowdiness, No sitting on rail, No drunkenness, No crossing in bathing suits without a cover-up.
We removed our shoes and socks and headed down to the water’s edge. Strolling along Missouri Avenue beach — the colored section, we had been informed — we listened to the timeless rhythm of the waves as they swished coolly over our feet.
They crashed and receded, crashed and receded with a monotonous melody that you knew had been around even before the creation of Adam and Eve. The water in our bodies seemed to take on the same rhythm as we walked in silence, Clif empty of his usual easy conversation, our hearts cheerful with our new beginnings. I think we knew we were a tad bit afraid back then. We were oblivious to the colored sunbathers congregating on blankets and towels and in the surf all around us. As the sun crept higher into the sky, we hurried back over the hot sand to where we’d started and headed towards the boarding house.
That’s when we looked back and realized how many colored people were on the beach and in the water.
When we reached the Boardwalk promenade, we were astonished to find throngs of people, young and old, Coloreds and Whites, families, singles and couples, all immersed in various types of entertainment. Taking in the city’s majestic hotels, we hadn’t noticed before that people were dressed in their finest clothes, what we called “Sunday Best,” having changed out of their bathing suits and stockings at one of the nearby bathhouses. Women carried ruffled parasols and children ate cotton candy while men smoked hefty, brown cigars. Families seemed to be celebrating some sort of holiday.
There were twinkling red, green, blue and yellow lights everywhere and game bells rang out for winners, clowns juggled balls high into the air, musicians played horns and drums and fancy ladies danced gaily near the bands. High up over the piers and novelty stores, there were humongous electric light billboards advertising everything from cigarettes to cars and chewing gum. I could hardly believe my eyes. I recalled Clif looking at me as if to say, “See what I told you,” but he knew he was as overwhelmed as I was.
Atlantic City was the place to be, better than Philadelphia or New York City even. It held the promise of long-term work as waiters, waitresses, cooks, porters, doormen, bellhops, busboys, chambermaids and more, and there was room for advancement in every field, especially for educated Negroes. Ruby Lee and Bobby had told us plenty of Coloreds were already buying houses, cars and modern appliances, and owning their own businesses too, right there on the Northside. As we walked home, it was clear to us that this city could not survive or progress without our community and Clif and I aimed to get a piece of this American dream too.
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.
Jubilee: "Things don’t work that way in policing. The Atlantic City Police Department has jurisdiction for the entire city.”
From Pop Lloyd to Pattie Harris to Nucky Johnson and the Northside, not to mention Nina Simone and Sam Cooke and other entertainers' connections to Atlantic City and region.
It dawned on me the other day that I have completed my first year as an acweekly.com columnist. It’s been one of the best years of my life, a year that has forced me to challenge myself and grow as a writer.
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.
A list of Black History Month related events in the Atlantic City region.
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.'"
Today, most funding comes from city grants, local businesses and casino donations.
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.
Jewish Family Service charity event bigger and better this year, plus a Drew Toonz take on the 'Moonshine Follies' billboard; Tyrone Hart's 'Northside' T-shirts and MBCA scholarships currently available for students.
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...
Pop Lloyd played professional baseball in the Negro Leagues from 1906 to 1932, as a shortstop, second baseman and first baseman, including two stints with the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City. In 1910 he out-hit Ty Cobb in a Cuban winter league series — .500 to .385.