ATLANTIC CITY - Discover a world of African-American memorabilia and art at the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey.
The museum, housed in four locations, and featuring a 21-exhibit traveling museum, combines art, culture and history. Only about 20 percent of the museum’s 11,000-piece collection can be displayed at one time, so the museum warrants multiple visits because the exhibits are constantly changing.
The massive collection began when museum founder Ralph E. Hunter Sr. of Atlantic City was only 5 years old. His teacher used to read “Little Black Sambo” by Helen Bannerman to his class and his classmates would call him little black Sambo. He would cover his ears to block it out. “I was offended by that book,” he said.
Years later, he traveled south on a quest to find African American memorabilia. He walked into an antique shop in North Carolina where the clerk reluctantly showed him a first edition copy of “Little Black Sambo.”
He purchased the book and it was the first piece in what became the museum’s collection. “What I have been able to do with this very unique story is to turn a negative into a positive,” said Hunter. He now reads the story to groups and ends it with his own comical ending.
Soon he had 3,200 pieces, many that were displayed in his house and even more that were in storage.
“You can’t walk into his house without seeing something pretty spectacular,” said Brian Jackson, chief of staff at Stockton University and AAHMSNJ board member.
“It’s important that people in our community remember their history,” Jackson said. “I think we sometimes get so bogged down with what is happening with the casinos that it sort of overshadows the fact that there is a rich history and culture in this community. If we don’t take the opportunity to share, particularly with young people, their history here, it will get lost ... There would be no Atlantic City without the African American population. It simply would not exist.”
Hunter’s first public display of memorabilia was at Wash’s Inn in Pleasantville. Then he was contacted by the mayor of Buena Vista Township, and he set up an exhibit at the Dr. Martin Luther King Center in Newtonville. Interest grew, and the museum was quickly established. It is now housed in four locations, including the Newtonville location, the Garden Pier, the All Wars Memorial Building and the Noyes Arts Garage, all in Atlantic City.
“Nothing lasts forever. The only thing that lasts forever is the history of it,” said Hunter. “So we are going to make sure that the history is stored and prepared in such a way that the next generation will come in with archives in place … Knowing where one came from certainly encourages where they end up.
“We try to emphasize that Atlantic City was a melting pot. It was part of the Chitlin’ Circuit. Kentucky Avenue was the entertainment capital for African Americans in the summer,” said Hunter as he talked about African-American history in Atlantic City, a topic he could talk about all day.
Inside the museum, you will find various items from Billy Holiday’s gas stove to artifacts from the first African American pictured in a Coca Cola advertisement.
“We believe in telling the story. We have a section of the museum that’s called ‘Stereotypes.’ It tells the story of folks like Aunt Jemima, Cream of Wheat, Famous Amos, Gold Dust Twins, advertisements of fortune 500 companies that featured an African American in a negative way,” said Hunter. “We also have some old pieces of furniture that relate back to the times when people were leaving the south.”
Exhibits change monthly, and receptions are hosted the second Friday of each month. A reception for the current exhibit featuring collections from the estates of Fredric Toone Bacon and Theodore “Ted” Young is scheduled for 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday. Both artists were educators in the Philadelphia School District, and their family members will lecture on the artists and their estates. Select pieces will be for sale at the reception.
Next month is Women’s History Month and will feature an exhibit on local women of historical significance. Learn about Madame Sarah Spencer Washington, founder of Apex News and Hair Company; Maggie Creswall, the first female police officer in Atlantic City and the country; and former Stockton University president Vera King Farris, the first African American female president of a college in New Jersey, among others.
The traveling museum is available for schools and nonprofit organizations. Museum staff will even train students to act as the docent, or spokesperson. They learn each exhibit and switch stations throughout the day as they share the history with their classmates.
The Noyes Arts Garage is at 2200 Fairmount Ave., Atlantic City, and is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The Garden Pier is at New Jersey Avenue and the Boardwalk, and its open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The Dr. Martin Luther King Center is at 661 Jackson Road., in Newtonville, and it is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and by appointment on Saturday.
For more information, call (609) 350-6662 or visit www.aahmsjn.org