One of the most important factors in the success of Atlantic City's growth as a resort and the cultural development of the city was its African American community. Beginning in the late 1800s, and escalating during the Great Migration, African Americans began leaving the South to work in the industrial cities of the North. Atlantic City offered job opportunities in its numerous boarding rooms, hotels and restaurants. The city was highly dependent upon African American labor in order to sustain itself.
By the 1920s, the Census shows a significant African American population in Atlantic City of 10,946 residents – approximately 22% of the total population. While African Americans in the North were "free" they were still subject to much racial prejudice, violence and segregation, and Atlantic City was no exception. Within the city, the African American community established themselves in a section of the city commonly referred to as the Northside.
|The Northside ultimately functioned as a self-contained city within a city – a direct response to racist barriers African Americans faced elsewhere in Atlantic City. The main street and center for much of the Northside's culture was Kentucky Avenue – a vibrant street of bars, restaurants, commercial and residential buildings. The Northside All Wars Memorial Building, dedicated in 1925, served as a community center. The Northside provided everything that one might need from retail shopping to funeral homes, all owned by African American business owners. To promote all of the businesses, community leaders in the African American community formed the Atlantic City Board of Trade.
African American students attended schools in segregated neighborhood elementary schools in the 1920s, with African American teachers educating students of the same race. The Girls' Vocational Schools were also segregated to focus on developing culture-specific trades, such as hairdressing. Atlantic City High School remained integrated for secondary education, as did the Boys' Vocational School.
For entertainment, Fitzgerald's Auditorium targeted the upper class citizens of the African American community with Saturday night dances, fine dining and entertainment. Though the Volstead Act forced business into a decline, Fitzgerald's was able to stay afloat via an illegal backroom gambling parlor and the dedicated patronage of the community to its restaurant. Fitzgerald's closed in 1933 and was reborn in 1935 as the Club Harlem – a famous Atlantic City nightclub that hosted acts including Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr, James Brown and Gladys Knight.
|Parade float participants for the Walls Bath House pose with members of the Atlantic City Beach Patrol in 1922. (H063.Walls001a Atlantic City Heritage Collections, Atlantic City Free Public Library).
Along the oceanfront, African Americans could enjoy the beach on their own designated stretch of sand, located from Missouri to Ohio Avenues. This area became known as Chicken Bone Beach, so-called for the picnic lunches visitors would bring to the shore in the summer. The beach was protected by an all-black unit of the Atlantic City Beach Patrol.
Resources in the Atlantic City Free Public Library Atlantic City Heritage Collections:
Atlantic City Board of Education. Annual Reports. Atlantic City NJ, 1902-1959.
Atlantic City Board of Trade. Annual Directory. Atlantic City NJ, 1939-1947.
Charles Funnel. By the Beautiful Sea. New York: Knopf, 1975.
Richlyn Goddard. Three Months to Hurry and Nine Months to Worry: Resort life for African Americans in Atlantic City, NJ (1850-1940). Howard University, 2001.
Nelson Johnson. Boardwalk Empire: The birth, high times and corruption of Atlantic City. Medford NJ: Plexus Publishing, 2002.
Nelson Johnson. The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlanitc City. Medford NJ: Plexus Publishing, 2010.
John Milner Associates, Inc. Atlantic City Schools: A historic overview, context and survey. West Chester, Pa., 2006. Turiya S.A. Raheem. Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City. Xlibris Corporation, 2009.
Audrey Hart Photograph Collection of the Black Community in Atlantic City (H006)
Harold P. Abrams Collection (H007)
Alma Fay Horn Photograph Collection (H008)
Local History Subject File - Nightclubs
Local History Subject File - Public Schools
Local History Subject File - Chicken Bone Beach
For a more complete list of resources on this topic, please see this subject guide from the Library website: African American History in Atlantic City