For younger generations, Atlantic City’s Club Harlem exists only in legend. But this weekend, remnants from the premier jazz club will have a chance to dazzle again.
With the help of local donors, several items from the club have a new home at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., which opens Saturday. The Smithsonian’s 19th institution is the first national museum to document the history, culture and life of African Americans in the United States.
The Club Harlem items appear together in their own glass case in the Stage and Screen section in the Musical Cross Roads exhibit.
Founded in 1935 on Kentucky Avenue by Leroy “Pop” Williams and his brother Clifton, Club Harlem was a premier venue for black artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr. and Aretha Franklin.
The new museum is “long overdue,” said Henrietta Shelton, one of the local donors and founder of the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation in Atlantic City. Shelton sent a table and chair from Club Harlem to the Smithsonian.
Although the 74-year-old Shelton remembers Kentucky Avenue and the city’s segregated yet thriving Northside, she said younger generations may not know about it. Its connection to the new museum will highlight Kentucky Avenue’s importance, she said.
“To see what the blacks had accomplished would really nowadays make young blacks understand what an important part Atlantic City played and an important part we played, period, in America,” Shelton said.
Atlantic City historian Vicki Gold Levi, whose father was the first photographer for the city, sent the D.C. museum items from the Cotton Club in New York City as well as items from Club Harlem, including a sign advertising Sam Cooke, a table knocker, an ashtray and a cigarette holder. Audrey Hart, of Atlantic City, donated a photo of Gold Levi’s sign stretching across Kentucky Avenue in front of the club.
Gold Levi, who was a consultant on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and co-founder of the Atlantic City Historical Museum, talked about the importance of making sure the city’s “profound history of black culture” is recognized.
“It was wonderful to put my collection in really good hands to help build their archives, and I thought it would be an honor to have Atlantic City represented in some way,” she said.
Atlantic City resident Sandy Warren, the long-time partner of famed jazz drummer and Grammy Hall of Famer Arthur "Art" Blakey, who lived in Northfield and played at Club Harlem, also donated items to the museum.
"The things that I donated were signed pictures of him playing drums, pictures of him and the band," she said, noting that not everything was signed. "Festival and concert programs, pictures of Art offstage from our family albums, and of course a signed copy of my memoir, 'Art Blakey Cookin' and Jammin.'"
Despite the sentimental value of the items, Warren said it wasn't difficult to part with them.
"Our son Takashi, who is the executor of the Art Blakey estate, feels the same way. That’s where Art’s things belong," she said. "It’s never hard to part with things that are going to bring joy to so many thousands, millions of people."
Warren said the museum isn't just about African American's it's about "the history of America of which African Americans are such a huge part."
"Any book, display, talk, about the history of the music in America has to include Art Blakey," said Warren. "Of course he’s just one of the black musicians it has to include, but it has to include Art Blakey. He changed drumming from simply being someone who was a time-keeper to someone who could sing. His drums sang.”
Locals also donated pieces of black history that came from outside South Jersey.
Ralph Hunter, president of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, sent down his father’s horn, which was played on the famous Beale Street in Memphis. Although the horn had been passed down through his six brothers, Hunter and his younger brother agreed to send it to the museum.
“(My brother) agreed that would be a wonderful resting place for the family heirloom,” he said.
Last Saturday, donors such as Gold Levi, Hunter and Shelton were among the select few to get a preview of the museum.
“The museum is so respectful, so beautiful. It takes you on this incredible journey of black history,” Gold Levi said. “It’s very moving, very poignant and also very lively. The entertainment section, it’s so well designed and so well presented. It’s just glorious.”
Dwandalyn R. Reece, curator of music and performing arts at the museum, said guests can look forward to a lot of “exciting stories.”
“That’s what we’re really focusing on,” she said. “It’s not just the hall of fame, it’s about how African-American music has shaped music here and abroad.”
Reece’s interest in Club Harlem dates to the 1990s, when she worked as a curatorial associate with the New Jersey State Museum and the state’s Historical Commission on an exhibition-planning project on the history of African-American institutional life. Now at the new museum, the curator was keen to highlight the story.
“I had a great fondness for the story and its place in American history,” she said.
Standord Alten’s father, Ben Alten, was the co-owner of the Paradise Club and became one of the Caucasian partners at Club Harlem. During his ownership, Alten said, his father did a lot for the club as well as Kentucky Avenue.
Alten himself fondly remembered working at the club and the excitement of Kentucky Avenue.
“One of my favorite memories was just being there. Just being able to interact with the people and watching the front bar and celebrities come in,” he said.
He also remembered the table knockers, which were used instead of clapping. How they got their start, he’s not sure.
“Now they’re selling for $15, $20 on the internet, on eBay, and we had boxes of them, hundreds of them, thousands of them,” he laughed.
Looking back at Atlantic City's Kentucky Avenue
Photo gallery of Kentucky Avenue in Atlantic City, well-known for its historic importance to the African-American community as well as the city. once counted the famous Club Harlem among the structures that lined the street. The entertainment venue included well-known performers such as Louis Armstrong and Sammy Davis Jr. By the late 1970's, the club was in decline and eventually demolished in 1992. Like the city, Kentucky Avenue has had its times of prosperity and decline. But the dream of reviving what once was has always remained. Take a look back at historic Kentucky Avenue.
From its ownership to its last days, Reece said, Club Harlem was not only a significant place for African Americans to go in the community, but a significant place for the wider community as well, she said.
“It really shows how music plays a role in bringing people together and sustaining people through times of obstacles and struggle and in good times as well,” she said.
Wendel White, distinguished professor of art at Stockton University, photographed many of the items in the museum’s collection, including Gold Levi’s donations, for his on-going project, “Manifest.” Recently, his photos were featured in Smithsonian Magazine.
“To go from shackles used during the middle passage all the way up to a coffin constructed as a protest item for demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri — that whole range of things in between was just remarkable,” he said.
He said the most powerful object he encountered at the museum was a collection of shards of glass from the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The explosion of killed four young girls and injured more than 20 others.
“That someone preserved it and brought it when it was time to add objects was remarkable,” he said. “That was powerful. I was honored to have an opportunity to photograph it.”