Keith Mills has spent years learning about Atlantic City history, mainly so the history could be documented and distributed around town on a series of plaques and markers that the city and others have put up over decades.
But now you can take just a few minutes to learn the history it took years to gather - and many more years for all that history to happen in the first place, of course.
Because the Atlantic City Free Public Library has just made local history much more convenient and accessible by gathering up every historic plaque and marker in one place - online at a new haven for history: acfpl.org/markers.
The site includes a map of every plaque in the city - or at least every one that the library knows about. (More on that later.) A click on the map calls up the text of the marker and a picture of it, and zooms in on its exact location on the map, and gives an address and directions for getting there.
But the library resource also offers another easy way to learn history, because it divides almost 60 plaques into three categories - historic people, places and events.
So you can click on a familiar name - or a new one to you - and find out about everyone from the "Father of Atlantic City," Dr. Jonathan Pitney; to Madame Sarah Spencer Washington, the millionaire founder of an Atlantic City-based company that made beauty products for black women; to Skinny D'Amato, who ran the legendary 500 Club and palled around with Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack; to James L. Usry, who became the city's first black mayor in 1984.
The list of notables includes athletes, artists, architects, pioneers, priests and politicians and people from many more professions. It runs from residents who lived in Atlantic City before it became a city, in 1854, to ones who are still living there today - a few of the historic names belong to people who are still alive.
Plus the places and events range from a shipwreck to a landmark, Absecon Lighthouse, that was built to reduce the dangers of "Graveyard Inlet," as Absecon Inlet was locally known before the light was lit for safety more than 150 years ago. It includes the Ritz Carlton Hotel, the home of local political boss Nucky Johnson and the visiting spot of legendary mob boss Al Capone - plus U.S. Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Warren G. Harding, and Herbert Hoover.
And because it isn't limited to the number of words that can be squeezed onto a brass plaque, even in small letters, the library site actually gives a much more complete history in some cases than the original memorial markers.
Mills, now the city's acting planning director, explains that most of the 41 markers for people went up in four phases since 2004, when then-Mayor Lorenzo Langford backed a project to mark the city's history better. Over those years, officials solicited nominations for notable people from community groups, and at one point, members of City Council got to name a set of honorees.
Mills detailed the history of cataloguing history standing outside one of the city's history-heavy buildings, the All Wars Memorial, built after World War I - and most commonly known as the "Soldiers' Home" in its hometown. That same war also also led to the creation of perhaps the best-known memorial in Atlantic City, a monument so prominent that it's mainly just called "The Monument."
That's the Greek-temple style structure so firmly rooted at Albany and Ventnor avenues that the road - one of the city's three main entrances and exits - was rebuilt about 20 years ago to swerve around the statue, rather than messing with The Monument.
Many of the memorials on the list also have some military connections, including Capt. William Charles Walker Jr., one of the famed Tuskeegee Airmen in World War II - who also has a statue along with his plaque. The statue directly faces the New York Avenue School, which is just across the corner from the Soldiers' Home, and Mills said that placement was a conscious choice.
"Captain Walker looks toward the school to help inspire and give the kids a sense of history," he said, standing by the statue.
But most of the people honored have a far more local place in history, including Virgie Jordan, who was known around Stanley Holmes Village, the housing project, for putting kids there into "work teams" that helped rebuild playgrounds, among other neighborhood improvement projects. Then there's Sister Jean Webster, who became famed as the "Mother Theresa of Atlantic City" for her decades-long work feeding homeless people in her hometown.
And since that map of the markers is already created online, Mills adds that the city hopes to get hard copies to hand out at local visitor centers - to encourage tourists and residents alike to tour an "Atlantic City History Trail" made up of every plaque and place on the list of markers.
But Ben Saracco, who's in charge of digital and information services at the city library, adds that anyone who wants to can already follow that trail with a smart phone - you just call the map and lists up on your screen and go.
The library knows that its list of monuments and plaques isn't finished yet. Saracco and other staff members expect the map and site to be a work in progress - always in progress, as more monuments are added or discovered and more local history is made.
Still, they're so serious about keeping up with people and places they missed that the site also has a clickable button to send the library an email to point out a historic omission - or to add more depth to the online history. In another section, there's a listing of historical references in the library's Heston Room collection of local history, for people who want to learn even more about a subject than they can find on the markers' site.
"We're asking for people's help," Saracco said.
Plus Heather Halpin Perez, the archivist in the Heston Room, hopes that either the markers and monuments out on the streets or the maps and lists of them online will lead a new generation to an appreciation of their local history.
"I can see kids with school projects saying they want to be a Dr. Pitney, or a Madame Washington," she said. "I'd love to see them start by being curious about 'Oh, what is that ... marker? What does that say?' - and then going farther and making a whole project out of it for a history day or a biography assignment."
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