ATLANTIC CITY — When Nelson Johnson finally finished “The Northside,” his in-depth history of Atlantic City’s black community, relief washed over him.
Not the type of relief a writer feels when meeting a deadline, nor the relief one feels when an exhaustive process is finally finished. For Johnson, author of the acclaimed “Boardwalk Empire,” it was as though he had beaten death. Not his own, but the mortal timeline of some of his books’ key contributors.
“All of the key people that helped me with Boardwalk Empire are dead,” Johnson said before launching into a list of the deceased. “So, when Sid Trusty died, I said, ‘Oh no, not again.’”
Trusty, a native of the Northside and unofficial historian of the city’s black community, convinced Johnson to write the book, insisting that the story had to be told, and told accurately.
Johnson said he wrote the book for people such as Trusty, to give them what they deserved.
He had originally tried to summarize the Atlantic City black community’s history in “Plantation by the Sea,” a chapter of his bestselling book-turned-television-series “Boardwalk Empire.”
“Superficial, glib, patronizing” — that’s how Johnson describes that book’s ode to the community. After reading the chapter, Redenia Gilliam-Mosee, a prominent figure and success story in the city’s black community, simply told Johnson, “OK, now you have to write another book,” Johnson said.
Gilliam-Mosee is among those who did not get to see the final product. She died last year at age 61.
But regardless of how many Northside originals got to see the book, the nature of history tells us it is not truly meant for them. The book will serve as a guide for those who knew nothing of the community’s importance to Atlantic City.
Johnson said his book is doing quite well. The first round of print ran out quickly, and his publisher, Plexus Publishing of Medford Township, Burlington County, recently ordered more copies. Plexus publisher John Bryans said sales are approaching 100,000 copies so far.
Johnson also said he has heard from two colleges (he declined to identify them) that have interest in using the book as part of their curriculum, a base of interest he hopes grows to other institutions of higher learning. He also hopes to include Atlantic City High School.
And although the HBO series is called “Boardwalk Empire,” Johnson expects the Northside book to be heavily scoured for storylines on that show.
“They have the book,” Johnson said of the show’s writers. “I think the black community is going to have a larger role in the future seasons.”
But despite the new flock of minds learning about the importance of the Northside and its people, and the endorsements of dozens of members of Atlantic City’s black community who experienced what Johnson wrote about, the author remains hung up on those who will not be able to judge his interpretation.
Trusty was the inspiration for much of the book, and Johnson commonly recites nuggets of analysis he attributes to Trusty. Now, it's Johnson offering the insights into the Northside community, thoughts he wishes he could still discuss with Trusty. He read from one particular passage, “The better grew out of the worse and the worse grew out of the better.”
“That’s something I would have liked to have run past Sid,” he said. “I’d like to know what he thought of that.”
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