A key Atlantic City historical figure is set to be the subject of a public exhibition next month — after being buried under a house in his hometown for decades.
Well, Dr. Albert Forsythe — who made history as the first black pilot to fly across the United States and back, a 1933 flight that left from and returned to Atlantic City's Bader Field airport — wasn't actually under the house himself.
Letters from the doctor/pilot, who practiced in Atlantic City’s Northside neighborhood from the 1930s to ’50s, were found under an Ohio Avenue home in 2011. And Joi Dickerson-Neal, who rescued the historic trove from the long-vacant house — the family was selling the home of her grandfather, George Dickerson, after he died in 2010 — has arranged to display pieces of it in February at the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey.
Ralph Hunter Sr., the museum’s president, hopes to open the exhibition Feb. 11 at the museum in the Newtonville section of Buena Vista Township. But because Hunter and Dickerson-Neal agreed less than two weeks ago to put on the Forsythe display in time for Black History Month, the two also agree that they have plenty of details to work out.
“A lot of planning has to go into it, but I know how important it is to get this up and running,” Hunter said. “I do have to move some things around in the museum to make it happen.”
Still, it’s worth it “to tell the story of Dr. Forsythe, the first time it’s ever been told locally,” said Hunter, of Atlantic City. “That’s very exciting.”
Hunter was already busy with Black History Month. His museum has several exhibits scheduled for February, including one that arrived recently on Jackie Robinson’s importance in American history — and not just baseball history.
Plus, the African American Heritage Museum offers traveling exhibits to schools, and Hunter, 74, said he is booked to bring one to a different place basically every school day in February.
He also has an exhibit scheduled to open Wednesday at the Atlantic City Free Public Library, called “Atlantic City: Portraits of a People.” The exhibit features pictures and memorabilia from six prominent black couples from the city — some of them pieces that Hunter also rescued from being thrown out or destroyed.
So on adding the Forsythe exhibit at the last minute, he said, “It’s like Santa Claus at Christmas, man.”
Hunter stopped by Atlantic City’s library earlier this month to drop off some of the pictures and other materials for his exhibit there. He first showed them to Heather Halpin Perez, who is in charge of the Heston Room, which houses the library’s crowded local history collection.
She has just one picture of Forsythe in that collection, a group shot featuring the doctor and Alfred “Chief” Anderson — a black pilot from Bryn Mawr, Pa., who flew with Forsythe on his historic missions — along with a collection of Atlantic City dignitaries who supported their trips. Later, in 1933, after that coast-to-coast round-trip, Forsythe and Anderson flew to Montreal and became the first black pilots to cross an international border.
The picture is in a 1934 publication of the Atlantic City Board of Trade, the black Chamber of Commerce of its day. To recognize local contributions to their historic voyage, the plane the pilots flew across the U.S. and to Canada was called the “Spirit of Atlantic City.”
“There’s huge interest here in Forsythe and his work,” said Halpin Perez, who hopes the library can host its own exhibit on the pilot/doctor soon.
“I would definitely say it’s a big deal,” she said of Dickerson-Neal’s find of the Forsythe letters. “There’s not a lot left from that era here in Atlantic City, and to have that kind of family context” increases the importance of what Dickerson-Neal rescued from being thrown away in the clean-out at her grandparents’ house. She actually climbed into a trash bin to salvage some historic items.
The letters hidden under the house were ones the pilot wrote in the 1930s to a woman then known as Edith Holland, an Atlantic City resident who would marry George Dickerson years later — making her Dickerson-Neal’s step-grandmother. The doctor sent many of the letters while he was away from Atlantic City on another history-making trip, a 1934 “Pan-American goodwill flight” across Latin America and many Caribbean islands.
Along with those letters from the pilot, Dickerson-Neal also recovered much more history under her grandfather’s home. Her find included Edith Holland’s diaries from 1925 and 1927, which provide an intimate look at black society in Atlantic City more than 80 years ago.
Dickerson-Neal, who read the diaries and called them “very Roaring ’20s,” believes she knows why they and the letters were hidden — because Holland-Dickerson didn’t want her husband to find them. George Dickerson was a school principal for years in Atlantic City, a man known by former students as a strict, no-nonsense disciplinarian.
Dickerson-Neal lives in Los Angeles now, but grew up in New York and spent most of her childhood summers in Atlantic City, many of them in her grandparents’ home. She has sold most of the original documents to Emory University in Atlanta for its history collection, but she kept scanned images of everything that she can exhibit.
The letters show Albert Forsythe and Edith Holland were apparently romantically involved in the ’30s, but each later married someone else.
In 1945, the doctor married Frances Chew, a nurse he trained in Atlantic City. In 1951, the couple moved to the Newark area so the doctor could practice in that city — where, in 1933, he had been greeted by 15,000 cheering people in a parade honoring his historic flight. Forsythe died in 1987, and his wife died about four years ago, said her nephew, Ed Benson, of Doylestown, Pa.
In 1950, Edith Holland married George Dickerson, a widower and then a teacher in Atlantic City’s New Jersey Avenue school, where Edith also worked. She died in 1988. George Dickerson died two years ago at 99 but hadn’t lived in his home for years.
Along with the aviation history he made in Atlantic City, Forsythe has a direct connection to even larger figures in America’s black history. As a teenager, he was a student of Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and Forsythe considered Washington a mentor.
Forsythe, who was born in the Bahamas in 1897, returned to Tuskegee years after his school days as an instructor of the Tuskegee Airmen, the black pilots who flew for the U.S. during World War II. Anderson, his friend and fellow pilot, also helped train the Tuskegee Airmen — and was once first lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal pilot on a flight from the Tuskegee base, as Forsythe wrote in a letter to Holland.
And now, almost 80 years after he made national and international history by flying the Spirit of Atlantic City, Forsythe will be remembered again around his old hometown.
If you go
The African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey is at 661 Jackson Road in the Newtonville section of Buena Vista Township. The Dr. Albert Forsythe exhibit is set to open Feb. 11. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. For more information on the museum, click here or call 609-704-5495.
The Atlantic City Free Public Library will open its main Black History Month exhibit with a reception from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, in the second floor meeting room of the main library, at 1 N. Tennessee Ave. “Atlantic City, Portraits of a People” features pictures of six power couples from the city: Art and Dorothie Dorrington; former Mayor James L. Usry and his wife, Laverne ; Pierre and Soundra Hollingsworth; Karlos and Joanna LaSane; Ralph and Edythe Greene; and Elwood and Georgeanna Davis. Exhibit hours vary daily; for specifics, call the library at 609-345-2269, ext. 3115. For more details, click here.
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