ATLANTIC CITY — Friends and family of Ralph E. Hunter Sr. will gather Monday in the city to celebrate his 80th birthday and the 16th anniversary of the museum he founded, the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey Inc.
Hunter will graciously accept the praise and accolades sure to come his way that night, but he has more interest in acknowledging some of the people who impacted his life and looking toward the future.
Hunter started his collection of artifacts of black life in America when he was 35 years old in 1973, but he was influenced by the example set by his employer from his teen years, the late Herman Blum, who was president of Craftex Mills Inc., of Pennsylvania.
Blum was a collector of historical papers, photographs and bronze statues, Hunter said. Hunter’s father worked for him as a night watchman.
“I used to go there and work on the weekends to help him organize his library as well as organize his paintings on the wall,” Hunter said. “He (Hunter’s father) got me to work with Mr. Blum on his great artifacts.”
Hunter said Blum had a big mansion in Philadelphia. When Hunter started working for him, he was paid 35 cents an hour, but eventually, he was paid 65 cents an hour, he said.
Hunter credits the late Reese Palley with calling him to run a retail store called the Lucky Elephant from 1978 to 1993 inside Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City before he started living in the resort year-round in 1994.
After the store closed, Hunter went on a five-year sabbatical and started collecting in a major way. He had 3,000 pieces spread among his house and warehouses in New Jersey and Delaware.
Hunter never gave opening a museum a thought.
Hunter’s collecting was for his personal use for decades. A mobile museum at Wash’s Inn in Pleasantville was the first public showing of part of Hunter’s collection outside his home.
“Then, we formed a little committee, and I invited some people over my house,” Hunter said. “Sitting in that meeting, that day, was one of, I think, the most important people in my life and in the museum’s life. My hero was at that meeting. His name is Brian Jackson,” Hunter said.
Jackson is now the chief operating officer of Stockton University’s Atlantic City campus.
Hunter said Jackson’s interest in doing something for the black community and the city as a whole by bringing in some culture the area was lacking at the time directed him to continue working to make the museum happen.
The 16th anniversary celebrates the museum’s first permanent home, which is in the Dr. Martin Luther King Center in the Newtonville section of Buena Vista Township. The location inside the Noyes Arts Garage of Stockton University opened in 2013.
When thinking about the future, Hunter said he would like to spend next year writing his autobiography because hundreds of people over the years have told him he should tell his life story.
Even though Hunter has two locations for his artifacts, he is looking forward to one day when the opportunity presents itself to have something huge done in Atlantic City.
Only 5 percent of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey items are on display to the public at any one time, Hunter said.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg. I think in the next five to 10 years, you will see an edifice go up to talk about the history of African Americans in Atlantic City, Atlantic County and throughout Southern New Jersey.”
The celebration will be held at 5:30 p.m. Monday at the Noyes Arts Garage, 2200 Fairmount Ave., Atlantic City.
Tickets are $80 per person and $150 per couple.