Our history in Atlantic City is typical of the African-American experience in this country. Many of us migrated north, beginning in the late 1800s, from the perils of Jim Crow's rigid segregation and racist laws that controlled all aspects of life in the South. We came to Atlantic City, and many other northern cities, seeking job opportunities and a better way of life for ourselves and families.
Newly arriving African-Americans to Atlantic City found discrimination and segregation alive and well in our seaside resort. African-American citizens were discriminated against in virtually all aspects of social, economic and political life in the city. Confined to the Northside, the city's new arrivals toiled as maids, cooks, waitresses, servers, bellmen, chauffeurs, doormen and literally in any wage-earning capacity they could find. In spite of these difficulties, progressive African-Americans refused to quit or give up the fight for their rights. They struggled, sacrificed, worked hard, and forged a life for their children and families.
During the 1940s, '50s, '60s and early '70s, African-Americans made considerable progress. The Northside's predominantly African-American communities flourished during this period. The city could boast of having many prominent African-American churches, hotels, tourist houses, restaurants, nightclubs and businesses of all sorts. Sara Washington, a very successful business woman, owned Apex Enterprises, a small conglomerate with offices around the nation. The late C.J. Newsome, a respected and admired businessman, his wife, Gertrude, now in her 90s, and members of the Atlantic City Board of Trade fought and succeeded in bringing black conventions and events to Atlantic City. They demanded that "black tourism and historic preservation" be a part of Atlantic City's promotion and marketing programs. C.J. Newsome and the Board of Trade brought many national African-American conventions to Atlantic City such as the Omega-By-the-Sea, National NAACP Convention, National Black Mayors Convention and the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters. These conventions not only brought investments into Atlantic City, but also gave the resort diversity and prestige.
The African-American political community also gained in stature and power. The late Horace Bryant not only became a city commissioner, but also the first African-American state commissioner of insurance. The late James L. Usry, Atlantic City's first African-American mayor, Ada McClinton and Bryant were political trailblazers who opened the doors and paved the way for our next generation of political leaders.
Atlantic City also witnessed the rise of African-Americans in public service, like Joseph Allmond, who became one of the first black police chiefs in the nation. The late John Jasper followed by becoming the first black fire chief. Willie Clayton and Marvin Beatty, both deceased, rose to the position of director of public safety.
In the area of civil rights, the late Pierre Hollingsworth was second to none. For almost a quarter of a century, Hollingsworth presided over the local branch of the NAACP and navigated the organization through some of its most fierce battles fighting for equality and civil rights.
The careers of many world-famous entertainers, like Rosalind Cash, and world-class athletes like Art Dorrington and Pop Lloyd were launched in Atlantic City.
But perhaps one of our most celebrated claims during this period was the large number of African-American doctors who had local residences and practices right here in Atlantic City.
The late 1970s experienced a decline in the resort tourism industry, and the city embraced casino gaming as the panacea. For 30 years the industry blossomed, but today, confronted with fierce competition, it, too, is floundering.
So where does this litany of struggle, sacrifice and then success leave the African-American citizens of Atlantic City during this 2011 celebration of Black History Month?
In 2011 we find ourselves confronted with myriad social and economic dilemmas. We have high unemployment, poverty and crime that are crippling the African-American communities.
Our high school seniors had the second highest failure rate on the recent High School Proficiency Test of all schools in the county.
Far too many of our young black males, most from fatherless homes, have abandoned the pursuit of excellence and careers in science, engineering, technology, education, math, medicine and business.
Many have chosen to pursue criminal activities and glorify ignorance, ill-preparedness, disrespectfulness and, sadly, mediocrity. Many African-American adults also celebrate this abnormal behavior.
We must, at all cost, endeavor to save those young males who want to succeed in life.
We must establish safe havens or schools and academies that will protect and serve this endangered population. Jobs, education, retraining in the new green-energy industries and a realistic hope for the future would have a positive impact on reducing crime in our city.
We welcome and salute Black History Month. And, as former Atlantic City Councilman Eugene Robinson once said, "History is the search for truth, and Jesus said the truth will set you free."
John H. Lyles-Belton, a resident of Atlantic City, is an author and CEO of Lyles-Belton Publishing and Communications Co. He is also a retired Atlantic City firefighter, a disabled Vietnam veteran, former president of the Atlantic City branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and first vice commander and adjutant of the American Legion Kenneth B. Hawkins Post 61.