Joe Greenidge’s dream of leaving an apprenticeship to open his own funeral home seemed far beyond his grasp in the winter of 1961 and 1962.
Carolyn Greenidge, his widow, remembers Joe being rejected by bank after bank in Atlantic City. Each one made it plain: They did not lend to blacks.
“That was said to us in English, so we understood,” she said. “No ifs, ands or buts.”
The enterprising couple had to go to Newark to find a lender, Prudential, willing to underwrite their loan.
“That was Atlantic City — that is the way of life and once you learn it, you just deal with it,” said Greenidge, 75, sitting 50 years later in the business they built together. Joe Greenidge died in 1984.
U.S. Census statistics show black-owned firms accounted for less than 5 percent of sales receipts in Atlantic County in 2007, the most recent year available.
“I remember as a kid growing up on Arctic Avenue, there were at least 10 black businesses in (the 700) block,” said Joseph Greenidge Jr., 49, who helps run the family business. “I think you’d be hard pressed to find 10 black businesses in the city now.”
The overt racism that prevented the Greenidges from obtaining a business loan in 1962 indirectly promoted a black economy in Atlantic City — the Northside — that grew in tandem with the city’s booming tourism industry.
Workers barred by segregation from eating in the restaurants and sleeping at the hotels of their employers invested their money into homegrown businesses. And business leaders founded an Atlantic City Board of Trade, in essence a black chamber of commerce, to draw conventions from across the country to the Northside.
By the 1920s, a self-sustaining economy had emerged with amenities comparable to the white resorts of the city’s south side. According to an annual directory from 1940, the Northside boasted 63 restaurants, dozens of boarding houses and beauty parlors, and professionals ranging from doctors to lawyers to undertakers.
“It was a year-round economy, because people came throughout the course of the year for Atlantic City’s food and its nightlife,” said Ralph Hunter, founder and curator of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey in Buena Vista Township.
Nightclubs along Kentucky Avenue attracted the most popular entertainers of the era. Major black colleges played football inside what is now called Boardwalk Hall. A section of beach named Glamour Row, Hunter said, was where the “most beautiful black women of the world came to sit and party.”
Perhaps most importantly, the burgeoning Northside economy helped a legion of summer employees — many of them transplants from the south — attend college.
“Tuition back in the ’30s and ’40s was less than $500 a semester,” Hunter said. “They could easily earn that in a summer in Atlantic City and, after college, many came back to teach in Atlantic City High School.”
The erosion of that separate economy came gradually, starting with integration in the late 1950s and 1960s.
“Before you had desegregation, the Northside was a city within a city,” said lifelong resident Elwood Davis, 85, who’s served city government in various positions.
The Northside merchants had benefited from a “captive consumer market,” Davis said. They now had to compete with traditionally white businesses. As nice as some of the black-owned establishments were, Hunter said, they couldn’t compete with the established white resorts’ elevators and ocean views.
“A black couple who came from New York or Chicago could come to Atlantic City and stay in the Holiday Inn for $12 to have a room with fresh towels and running water,” he said. “If they stayed at the rooming houses, they’d pay $3 a night, but wouldn’t have those amenities.”
Some businesses survived by moving out of the city. Wash’s Inn, for example, opened near Kentucky Avenue in 1937 and relocated to Pleasantville in 1974. Many simply closed.
Further complicating the situation was the overall state of the economy, both in the 1960s and today. In the 1960s, it was the shift of tourism dollars to far-flung places via air travel. Today, it’s a nationwide recession.
“When the Mainline gets a cold, we get pneumonia,” Elwood said.
The black-owned businesses that survived Atlantic City’s decline tended to be barber shops, beauty parlors and funeral homes, Hunter said. But even in those sectors, the hold-outs are few.
“If you’re living on the Northside of town and earned $100,000 a year, in the old economy you spend $100,000 at black businesses,” he said. “You couldn’t spend 10 percent of your money with an African-American businessperson today in 2012.”
And the difficulties facing black entrepreneurs haven’t changed much since the Greenidges struggled to find a lender who believed in their dream.
When Kelsey and Kim Jackson opened their first soul food and barbecue restaurant 17 years ago in Pleasantville, they had to finance the enterprise themselves with the help of family. The couple’s four children have all worked at the restaurants.
For the first two years, Kelsey continued working full time as a relief cook at a casino.
Kim Jackson said they still work 12-hour days. Building a reputation for a consistent product and attracting steady clientele is hard to do, she said. Kelsey said there’s a pride that comes with owning your own business that’s worth all the hard work and risk.
“When I was at the casino, I was nothing,” he said. “No matter how good or bad I did, I was nothing, and I wanted to be part of something.”
Next door to the Jackson’s second location near Gardner’s Basin in the Northeast Inlet section of Atlantic City, Al Smith, another former casino employee, runs Specialty Cleaning & Maintenance Co.
“I got tired of working for the casinos,” said Smith, 62, who started the business in 1988. “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, so I did something about it.”
Although he initially qualified for a minority loan program established under former Mayor James L. Usry, he ended up financing himself. “To tell you the truth, I ended up giving it back, because by the time I got it, I had financed most everything myself,” he said.
“A lot of people told me no, but I’m hard-headed,” Smith added. “I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Community leaders say rebuilding locally owned businesses would help rebuild Atlantic City by improving opportunities for young people who are otherwise fleeing the area or becoming mired in criminal activity. But that reconstruction faces many obstacles.
Hunter said it’s impossible to recapture the culture and economy of the Northside, because the Northside was a product of its time. That time, he said, is gone.
“America’s not black and white anymore,” he said. “It’s brown and yellow and orange and white.”
To succeed, Hunter said, black entrepreneurs must “cross over” and appeal to the city’s changing demographics.
The Greenidges have seen that in their own business. After performing funerals for mostly black clients, they now serve increasingly diverse ethnicities and religions. One recent funeral, for a Hindu, was held at night.
Davis said the city and business leaders need to turn their focus away from just the casinos and create things in Atlantic City that other cities don’t offer.
“It’s going to take strong leadership to get a sense of community,” he said. “And not just the black community — all communities.”
Kim Jackson said so many of the obstacles, at least for Atlantic City residents, are tied to education and opportunity.
“The kids need to desire something more,” she said. “They don’t dream big because they haven’t experienced big things.”
Without that perspective, Kim said, most people aren’t prepared to put in the hard work and sacrifice it takes to succeed.
This month, the Jacksons took over the lease of one of those failed establishments for their third restaurant at the former location of Redding’s at the corner of Kentucky and Pacific avenues. That restaurant, operated by Carl Redding, lasted just 17 months.
Named simply Kelsey’s, the new restaurant is a supper club with a bar and live entertainment. The Jacksons said they hope it will fill a niche absent in Atlantic City since the original Kentucky Avenue clubs all closed down. But its success also depends on the community.
“What we need is for our locals to support us,” Kelsey said.
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