Keeping the History of African American Tourism Alive in Atlantic City's Northside
Special thanks to Ralph Hunter and the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey for their contributions to this story.
Like much of the United States, Atlantic City, New Jersey, was both de facto and legally segregated throughout much of its history, until the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act 10 years later mandated integration across the country.
But unlike many other segregated communities, Atlantic City has long been a tourist hub and beach town—and travelers, both black and white, have been vacationing in Atlantic City for more than a century.
After Atlantic City was incorporated in 1854, its economy flourished and its population grew quickly. African Americans moved to Atlantic City from the South during the Great Migration, in search of better-paying jobs. Other black people immigrated to Atlantic City from the West Indies and opened many of the town’s black-owned businesses.
Though no specific laws segregating the town existed at this time, discriminatory practices including redlining (where potential homeowners are denied access to particular neighborhoods based on race) sequestered African Americans to the Northside neighborhood of Atlantic City, according to Ralph Hunter, founder of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey.
“The 80-square-block Northside neighborhood was once a thriving community of businesses, entrepreneurs, and professionals including doctors, lawyers, dentists, and funeral directors,” Hunter said. “They could attend school, own property, and vote, but they had to go to a clinic at City Hall instead of Atlantic City Hospital [when they were sick].”
“Atlantic City was built on the backs of African Americans.”Ralph Hunter
Most African Americans who lived in Atlantic City worked as laborers or in the service industry at white-owed hotels. In fact, black workers made up 95 percent of jobs at resorts and in tourism in Atlantic City during the Victorian era, according to a story on according to a story on NJ.com.
“Atlantic City was built on the backs of African Americans,” Hunter explained.
The residential areas of Atlantic City may have been essentially segregated from the time of the city’s incorporation, but its beaches and hotels were not segregated until 1900, when white tourists visiting from the Jim Crow South started to complain about integration.
Only then did the City Council officially segregate Atlantic City. Throughout this period of segregation in the early 20th century, African Americans continued to work at white-owned hotels and businesses.
African Americans continued to travel to Atlantic City, but instead of visiting whites-only beaches, they traveled to the only beach open to black people in the area—Missouri Avenue Beach, which was located in front of Atlantic City’s convention center. And though whites-only hotels were now closed off to black travelers, black-owned hotels and residences provided an opportunity for travelers and African American entrepreneurs alike.
One of the premier hotels in the northern United States, Liberty Hotel, opened in the Northside in the 1930s. The six-story hotel was a safe haven for African American performers who were playing at local venues, as well as upper-class vacationers, including C. Morris Cain, a black entrepreneur who developed the first YMCA in Atlantic City and the first housing project in New Jersey. The building still stands today and has been converted into apartments for seniors.
The Lincoln Hotel Apartments was seven stories high and included more than 200 rooms and apartments on the Northside. In addition to the efficiency-style apartments, the building included a dance studio, grocery store, and other businesses. Travelers and seasonal workers would often rent out rooms at the Lincoln for the entire summer.
Several other black-owned-and-operated hotels existed in Atlantic City during this time—including the Randall Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in Atlantic City; Wright’s Hotel, which played host to dignitaries visiting the Elks Lodge fraternal order; and the still-standing Apex Inn, owned by black haircare tycoon Madam Sara Spencer Washington.
But the majority of black travelers looking for a place to stay during their vacation would bunk at tourist homes, residential buildings owed by African Americans who opened their doors to people with nowhere else to safely stay.
These homes and black-owned hotels were listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide for African Americans looking for safe passage through the country during a period of segregation and increased discrimination.
According to listings in the Green Book, somewhere between 20 and 50 cottages in the Northside were open to African Americans in the mid-20th century. Some residences were owned by families and travelers were welcome to stay in a single room. But individuals like Dick Austin, who immigrated to Atlantic City from the West Indies, owned several homes spanning an entire city block and provided housing for black travelers through their investment in real estate.
Hotels and tourist homes were not the only black-owned businesses in Atlantic City. In addition to his success in real estate, Austin also owned a restaurant and bar called Dick Austin’s Rose Garden. Several other black-owned restaurants and clubs existed at the time, but the most famous was Club Harlem, located near Liberty Hotel.
Founded in 1935 by Leroy “Pop” Williams and his brother,
Clifton, the club hosted performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sammy
Davis Jr., and Aretha Franklin, as well as their own in-house showgirls. “It
was an amazing place,” said Hunter.
Atlantic City also boasted African American-owned garages, cab services, and other businesses necessary to support the infrastructure of any tourist hub. In response to segregation, the Northside neighborhood duplicated businesses that excluded African Americans in the white areas of Atlantic City. In the process, the Northside created a thriving culture where African Americans could feel safe and accepted in a community that fostered black entrepreneurship and achievement.
After Brown v. Board and the Civil Rights Act, Missouri Avenue Beach—and with it, many of the black-owned businesses on the Northside—faded out of existence. And when Atlantic City’s famous casinos were built in the 1970s and ‘80s, many of its historic places were either demolished entirely or altered beyond recognition.
While some historic buildings in the Northside neighborhood remain, the majority have been converted into public housing. Hunter explained, “Black-owned businesses in Atlantic City are few and far between now. There were once 37 owned-and-operated black bars [on the Northside]. Today, there isn’t one liquor license held by an African American. And there’s just one cab license.”
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While Atlantic City’s landscape has changed, historians are working to preserve aspects of some of its most significant African American places. Artifacts from Club Harlem were sent to the National Museum of African American Heritage and Culture in Washington, DC, including a table and chair, sign advertising Sam Cooke, and several historic photographs.
The Missouri Avenue Beach was declared a historic landmark in 1997, and the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation (Chicken Bone Beach was its colloquial name) continues to promote the site’s heritage through annual summer jazz concerts.
The Atlantic City Free Public Library also collected hundreds of historic images depicting Atlantic City’s black history. The photos range from postcards to famous performers to families enjoying their time at the beach, as well as African Americans experiencing daily life in the Northside neighborhood. And the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey is working to educate future generations about African American contributions to the rich history of Atlantic City.
According to Hunter, though, historic markers, artifacts, and photographs aren’t enough to keep the memory of Atlantic City’s black history alive. “We have to save the buildings that are here and repurpose them into something that people will use,” he said. “Many good properties have stood the test of time, but we have to recognize their history.”