BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP - Ralph Hunter Sr. is busy telling stories. Very busy - especially now.
Hunter, a man who seems to have a story about everything, is the founder of, and driving force behind, the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, based in the rural Newtonville section of this township on the western edge of Atlantic County. But part of his operation is a traveling museum, and Hunter had to spend Friday at the Atlantic City Free Public Library to set up his latest exhibition, "The Black Northside Empire: A Photographic Look at Atlantic City's African-American Community."
Next week, he heads to Newark for a few more days to mount his complicated, comprehensive collection on Atlantic City's legendary Club Harlem - the same show that made a splash at Atlantic City's library last year - in the art gallery of WBGO-FM, the jazz radio station.
Both those exhibits are in honor of Black History Month, a time of year that always keeps Hunter, 73, busy showing and telling what he has and knows to anyone who's interested. He figures he takes his traveling museum out for about 100 school visits a year - and 20 of them are next month.
"I'm out every day in February except for two days," he says, pausing as he shows a visitor the almost-permanent-collection area in his museum, and tells the story of almost everything in it. "But the museum is still open."
And the museum has its own special Black History Month exhibits, of course - but at this museum, most of the exhibits come and go constantly anyway. Hunter says that except for that semi-permanent room, everything on the walls and on display changes roughly every three months.
The new February exhibits include a hallway lined with 30 or so mounted posters describing the lives and times of "The Great Kings of Africa," all decorated with original art. Sure, Hunter has a story on them.
Anheuser-Busch, the Budweiser brewer, put out the series as promotional items for black bars in the 1970s, and a tavern owner in Lawnside collected them all carefully, to show off in her home. When she died, her will left them all to the African American Heritage Museum, and Hunter had each one mounted and framed artfully - to tone down the brewery's name to the point of being just barely visible.
But before he put them up in this hallway for the next few months, Hunter and his assistant, Lavar Temple, took the kings to Monmouth University earlier this week for another black-history exhibition. That day started at 5 a.m. in Atlantic City, where Hunter lives, so they could be at the college by 7:30 to set up. The exhibit opened at 10 a.m. and closed that afternoon, when Hunter and his "right-hand man" started breaking their stuff down to head back to Newtonville.
By the time he got home to Atlantic City, it was about 9 p.m. Hunter says - a full 16 hours after his day started with that rude, early alarm. The next morning he was back at the museum, putting the African kings in their place.
They join several other Black History Month exhibits in the museum, including a room filled with art that Jacqueline Hall-Smith, a retired teacher from the Weymouth section of Hamilton Township, has collected on repeated trips to Africa. She has "sand paintings" from Senegal, oil paintings from Ghana, several Ethiopian artists' versions of "The Last Supper" and much, much more.
Rod Robinson, a semi-retired lawyer from Sicklerville, in Camden County, also had to go to Africa often to bring back what he's showing: 44 large-format wildlife photos. Robinson captures some spectacular moments - everything from the languid detail of morning dew shining on the mane of a lounging lion to the action burst of a cheetah hitting top speed, literally in full flight.
All of Robinson's work is for sale during the show, at a discount - but it can't be taken home until the museum flips its exhibits again, in April. The photos, also on display on Robinson's website, www.theimagesofafrica.com, have a prime piece of real estate for this year's Black History Month, the main exhibit hall - the biggest room by far in a museum whose home is also Buena Vista Township's busy Dr. Martin Luther King Community Center. (The main hall doubles as the cafeteria and meeting room for the center's senior citizens.)
There's a story too on how Robinson, 60, found the museum that's now hosting his work for the second time: In 2008, after the photographer saw a news item about an African American museum he'd never heard of, he put some of his photos in the car and went to check the place out. The curator was there, Robinson showed him a few pictures and Hunter was apparently impressed - enough to agree to feature Robinson's work in just the second showing of the lawyer's career as photographer. (The first was at his local community college, in 2007.)
"The response (at Hunter's museum) was pretty good," Robinson recalled the other day. "When it opened, I was surprised at the number of people who came."
Atlantic City's library often finds a similar reaction when it hosts one of Hunter's exhibits - something the library has done the last four years, at least, to help observe Black History Month.
"Generally, whenever Ralph Hunter is involved, you can count on us filling our meeting room with people who are very enthusiastic about the topic Mr. Hunter is presenting," says Don Latham, a library spokesman, remembering a standing-room crowd that came out to the Club Harlem show opening last February. "He's obviously very knowledgeable about African-American history in the city, and when people come out, they enjoy sharing their memories with him - the same way he enjoys sharing his memories and stories with them."
Latham, who has worked often with Hunter, adds that the museum maven "is pretty hard to keep up with. He's very enthusiastic and passionate about what he does, and he seems to have ... the energy of somebody 50 years younger."
Nelson Johnson is the author of two books on Atlantic City history - "Boardwalk Empire" and "The Northside" - the latter published last year to detail the history of the town's black community.
Johnson calls Hunter "the rare combination of entertaining storyteller and serious historical curator."
The author especially credits Hunter for preserving and even rescuing countless "documents, artifacts and photos" - including boxes of the papers of C. Morris Cain, a minister in the city's black Northside neighborhood. Cain became a central figure in Johnson's book after Hunter shared that collection with the author. By the Johnson's telling, those precious papers were headed for a trash dump until Hunter stepped in and "saved (them) from destruction."
So, Johnson adds, "I am deeply indebted to him. ... My work as a historian would not be possible without people like Ralph Hunter."
And Hunter shows a visitor few signs that he's slowing down - except to stop and tell the story of another museum item, then the next and the next. But during one break in his tour, he stops to tell an uncharacteristically brief story, one about the founder of the African American Heritage Museum.
"I just got out of the hospital about two weeks ago," Hunter says, adding that his latest visit wasn't long after he had triple bypass surgery in 2010 - a year when he also lost two sons. Ralph Jr., or "Pete" Hunter died, at 53, in November, a few months after his brother, Lamont, died at age 49.
"It was really a rough year," Ralph Sr. adds. "But I'm OK, and up and running again."
Yes he is running - constantly, endlessly, and talkatively. But that's just the story of this time of year for him.
Contact Martin DeAngelis:
The African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey
Located in the Dr. Martin Luther King Community Center, 661 Jackson Road, Newtonville, Buena Vista Township. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, Saturdays by appointment only. Groups must call to arrange tours. Free. Call 609-704-5495 or visit www.aahmsnj.org