Ralph Hunter, 75, of Atlantic City, co-founded and directs the nonprofit African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey in the Newtonville section of Buena Vista Township. Hunter opened it 11 years ago with his private collection of African-American memorabilia, and the nonprofit has added to the collection throughout the years. Hunter recently signed a contract to write “Atlantic City Icons,” his first book, for local-history publisher Arcadia Publishing, of Mount Pleasant, S.C. He spoke to The Press of Atlantic City about Black History Month, the museum and its collection.
Q: How did the museum end up in rural Newtonville?
A: We had a one-day display in Wash’s Inn in Pleasantville. We got a call from the mayor of Buena Vista Township. He said we could possibly use the walls here (at the Martin Luther King Center in Newtonville) to display our museum goods. We’ve been here for 11 years.
Q: Any plans to open a satellite somewhere else?
A: We’re in negotiations with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and the Noyes Museum. They are going to be opening (a display space in Atlantic City’s arts district) in a parking garage called The Wave, located on Mississippi Avenue. They have 16,000 square feet there. We’re going to have a satellite of about 1,000 square feet. It’s going to open this spring.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about how many individuals come through here a year, how many school groups?
A: We have anywhere from 10,000 to 12,000 people come through in the course of the year. That includes school and bus trips, churches, sororities and fraternities, the Red Hat Ladies, Boy Scouts, the group homes, nursing homes, they all come here. Today we had a (school) group from Pennsauken.
Q: Are the folks who give people tours volunteers or paid staff?
A: We don’t have any paid staff here at the museum. The gentleman giving tours here this morning is my assistant, Rev. Milton White. He’s been volunteering here for 10 years. Board members will come in and help, because February is difficult for us. Everyone wants to come in February. I just hate that Black History Month is not every month, as opposed to the coldest, shortest month of the year.
I will visit some 22 schools in the month. It’s called the traveling museum. We go to a school, take over the entire gymnasium. We take 17 of their best and brightest students, and those students become docents. Each one is responsible for presenting about five to six items. We tell them what we are going to be bringing. They go online and do research and make the presentation.
Last week we were in (a) Galloway Township elementary school, and we served some 650 students with 17 docents. Once a kid becomes a docent and learns something — whether it’s that George Washington Carver had nothing to do with peanut butter, or that Angela Davis did what she did, or how Harold Washington was the mayor of Chicago — that will stay with them the rest of their lives.
Q: How do you fund the museum?
A: The bulk of the funding comes from our traveling museum. We charge anywhere from $1,000 to $1,400 if we go to North Jersey. We’ve gone to all the major colleges in New Jersey, as well as in Pennsylvania and Delaware.
We do get sponsors for our individual exhibits, and we have a fundraiser once a year. We don’t charge to come into the museum. It’s absolutely free. But we do ask for a goodwill offering.
Q: Are you still adding to the collection?
A: Yes. When I first started the (museum from my personal collection), it was only about 3,000 pieces. Now we have 11,000 to 14,000 pieces. Some are not even cataloged yet. We have three warehouses with goods in them now we have to get curated.
We’re constantly trying to change our exhibits and tell a new story. The bulk of our collection tells about Atlantic City, but none of them you will see today, because there is no room. We have a small satellite at the Soldiers’ Home in Atlantic City, where we have the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Atlantic City notables, but since the hurricane that building has been closed. We’ve got some collateral damage because the moisture came in. We’re working that out with the city right now.
Q: What do you wish more people knew about regarding black history in southern New Jersey?
A: I wish people knew more about black businesses in Atlantic City, and how the African Americans came to Atlantic City along with Mr. Pitney and helped build Atlantic City — from building the first hotels to building the railroads. And about blacks coming to work in the hotels, then starting to open their own businesses.
When I arrived in Atlantic City in the early ’50s, I could not believe the number of African Americans who owned their own businesses. Whether it was a barbershop, beauty parlor, restaurant or corner store, you name it ... even the black mortuaries. It was just unbelievable coming out of West Philadelphia, where the immigrants from Europe (owned the businesses), not African Americans.
Integration started when Brown v. Board of Education took place in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act was signed (in 1964). Before integration, blacks would come to the city and pay $1.50 to $3 a night to have a room (in a black-owned rooming house on the Northside). Once integration took place, that same individual came to Atlantic City, and they had just built a new hotel there called the Holiday Inn. Rooms were $13 or $14 a night. They no longer had to spend their dollars on the north side of town. They took that integrated dollar to the south side of town. That was the demise of black businesses. That money stayed on the south side of town.
To me, integration was good in many ways and terrible in other ways. It was good for education. A lot of folks had the opportunity to go to school, get their master’s and Ph.D. and go on to become doctors, lawyers and things of that nature. But by the same token, once those people earned those dollars, they no longer came back to the old neighborhood. Those dollars went to the suburban areas.
Q: Can you tell us about some of the objects in the collection? What is most valuable, and what do you think is most interesting?
A: We have an actual bust of the Lincoln Monument, by the same artist (who did the monument) and signed by the artist. We have Billie Holiday’s stove from (jazz drummer and Atlantic City native) Chris Columbo. I don’t know how to put a dollar value on an individual item. The collection that was found under the house in Atlantic City, portraits of the people: priceless. I have statues of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King made by Lladro in Spain: priceless. Dr. King’s cufflinks: priceless.
A person walked in here not too long ago from southern New Jersey. I won’t name the town. He was a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. And he had some items he wanted to drop off to us. I said to myself, ‘Why should we be promoting Klan information here at the museum?’ But that’s history, and that’s the story we have to tell. We accepted them, and he must have brought 25 pieces of Klan material. That’s all part of the makeup of the museum.
There was a lady by the name of Madame Sara Spencer Washington from Atlantic City who owned a company called Apex. She was a very wealthy African American who employed more than 300 black folks. I have some of her letters to former employees. One lady wanted to leave Madame Washington and open her own dry cleaners. And Madame Washington wrote to her and said if your business is not successful, you can reapply to come back to work for me.
Just thinking of an African American owning a golf course in Atlantic County — unheard of — Madame Spencer Washington owned the Apex Country Club, which was a black country club in Pomona (today called Pomona Country Club). People like Nucky Johnson had his own golf team. I have photos of him playing there. I have photos of (boxer) Joe Louis playing there.
Just to know we had seven African-American doctors in Atlantic City practicing medicine. We had wonderful educators. And the doctor or educator didn’t live in Margate or Ventnor or Egg Harbor Township, they lived next door to you or down the street from you. It was a different kind of community. Today’s community, once a person earns those extra dollars, right away they flee to the suburbs.
I’m a product of Stanley Holmes Village, lived there when I first came to Atlantic City, paid $35 a month rent. By the way, I was making 90 cents an hour, worked 90 hours a week and made (less than) $90 a week, and built a house in Atlantic City. The house is still standing.
You could pull yourself up because you saw those other people around you. The doctors, lawyers, the nurses, the hotel workers. Everyone had a purpose. They wanted to get their kids educated and get them to the next level. So you can go from Stanley Holmes Village to owning your own property.
Q: How do you feel about having a Black History Month? Is it helping to bring black and minority history into the mainstream all year? Or does it mean a lot of attention is paid only in February?
A: I think it’s good and we’re delighted to be part of Black History Month, but I think black history is 365 days a year. It’s not black history, it’s American history. We’re all part of what happened. We made this melting pot work for all of us.
More and more black history is being taught in schools because of the (state) Amistad Act, number one. Because it has to be taught. But when schools reach out to the museum and ask us to come in to help out with their programs, I think that’s what makes the difference. It’s bringing the kids to the actual subject matter and letting them look at it, letting them look and feel and smell and touch.
Q: Are the people who come here from a diversity of ethnic groups?
A: I would say maybe 60 percent of the people who come here are not African Americans. They come here because they go to our website. They see what we are doing. They understand we bring young artists in here and give them an opportunity to showcase their goods. We’ve gone through more than 120 different African-American artists here at the museum in the past 11 years who showcased their goods here for a minimum of 30 days and some of them 60 days.
That’s one of the good things that’s going to happen in A.C. when we partner with CRDA, Stockton and the Noyes Museum. We’re going to feature African-American artists, so they will be able to come and watch an artist work at his or her craft, right there on the spot.
Q: We hear a lot today about the younger generation being truly color-blind and getting past the prejudices of their parents and grandparents. Do you see evidence of that with kids coming through here?
A: Not only through here, but in my regular life as a fellow citizen. I see the homogenation of black/white. I see the kids don’t have the hang-ups that my parents had. They don’t have the hang-ups perhaps that my brothers or sisters had.
We were just told you had to go to school, get a good education and a good job, and most of the good jobs were in the post office. That’s when I was a kid. I’m 75 years old now. I have a granddaughter who is an engineer, a grandson who is a professional ball player and one who works for the federal government. The kids are doing wonderful things.
This black/white thing no longer exists the way it existed when I was a kid. We have interracial marriages in my family. I’m still Pop-Pop. It matters not that I’m darker than my great-grandkids. I see the mixture of this grey line that goes down the street. At one point it was black or white. But life has changed so much in the past, since Brown v. Board of Ed. That line has turned grey. The pot of gold is still at the end. The tunnel is still awfully dark, but there is possibility of light at the end of the tunnel.
Q: What do you think is the next big hurdle to overcome for us as a country, now that we have a black president?
A: I think the country is probably on the right track. President Obama has brought a great deal of change to the thinking of people. When we saw the embracement of the governor and the president coming together at the latest hurricane — we’re bringing the people together to try to make this a much better place.
We just have to put our heads together and say we’re all in this together, and we have to find a way to feed our kids, pay our mortgages, pay our fair share of taxes. I think the new laws the president was just talking about will help to bring (immigrants) into the fold, so more people have an opportunity to get their green cards, speak English and get their GEDs, and to be part of the American machine. I went to a school in Galloway Township last week, I think there were 15 nationalities in each one of the classes of 30 people. It’s just amazing the melting pot we have here in South Jersey. It’s tremendous. I’m delighted to see it.
And more and more people have to understand, that if you work hard for something, good things will happen. You have to earn it.
Q: Can you talk about what the museum is doing particularly for this Black History Month?
A: We’re unveiling the Rosa Parks stamp (Feb. 9), and the Post Office will be here with a special cancellation for that one day. From Feb. 9 to May 1, we have Glynnis Reed, a local artist from Egg Harbor Township, showing her art. She has 35 pieces, and it’s her first time showing here at the museum. And we’re showing Paul Gibson’s collections of old newspapers covering black history dating back to the 1700s.
We also have an exhibit called Stereotypes. It talks about how African Americans were treated in the advertisement world. Aunt Jemima started out as a lady with a handkerchief on her head and big red lips, no smile, just mean looking. And the evolution started back in 1902 right through to today. (Now) she looks absolutely great. Evolution has taken place.
You can look at other products like Gold Dust Twins, where they stereotyped two young kids on a box of washing powder. You can look at Cream of Wheat — it started with a young man working as a waiter in New York. And a photographer comes in and takes a photograph of him, and said here’s five dollars. Ever since that day, Cream of Wheat has been using him on all its products, and his family has never received one penny more.
If you walk into a supermarket today, you can buy products like Wheaties and Famous Amos cookies, they have the actual black person on it, but they are getting paid. (Guys on the Wheaties boxes such as) Muhammed Ali got paid, Emmitt Smith got paid, Tiger Woods got paid for being on these advertisements. But these other (earlier) folks did not.
We have Joanna LaSane, a local lady from Atlantic City, who was the first African American to appear on a Pepsi ad. That happened because there was a young black doctor in Atlantic City with a group of other doctors who was commissioned to find black folks to put in Pepsi commercials. She’s alive and well and lives on North Michigan Avenue in Atlantic City. She was a dancer, and she taught in the Atlantic City school system.
So the evolution is quite interesting. If you come and take the tour, our experienced guides will guide you through.
Q: Do you prefer that people call ahead for tours?
A: Groups of more than 10, we ask to call to make reservations so they can have the proper tour. Go to aahmsnj.org for directions, hours and more.
Contact Michelle Brunetti Post: