By Gabrielle Corsaro
The Beach. Most people love it or hate it. I thoroughly love it.
Though I grew up in Philadelphia, my parents and I did not spend much time during the summers going to the beach – or “down the shore” as locals here say. Nevertheless, my affection for the sun and waves grew as I got older, and now my family and I visit Cape May, New Jersey during the summer as frequently as possible.
The power of the sun, sand, and sea are a tonic for some and an affront to others. But historically there have been additional powers that have impacted beach culture and who is there, and who isn’t. It is an unpleasant realization for white beach-goers who identify as “progressive” that US beaches, like most places that have functioned as predominantly white spaces, retain the imprint of their history of being rather unfriendly to people of color and other marginalized people, and unfortunately the Jersey Shore is no exception.
As US beach towns formed throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, segregation and exclusion were shaping every corner of our nation. Workers flooded into these new beach towns seeking to fill the many jobs created in support the growing summer tourist economies. Seaside hotels and restaurants were multiplying, and their staffs needed housing. Historically black communities in beach towns, such as the Northside in Atlantic City, New Jersey frequently formed when black workers found that they were unwelcome to live next to their white co-workers in the neighborhoods closer to their jobs.
The beaches themselves also frequently became segregated, with small sections designated for black beach-goers. From the years 1900 through 1964, Missouri Avenue beach in Atlantic City (aka, Chicken Bone Beach, a moniker not created by black people) became a popular and lively destination for black locals and visitors, with entertainers such as Sammie Davis, Jr. and Sarah Vaughan occasionally stopping by. Some US beaches would not become fully desegregated until the late 1960’s.
I've recently read two fantastic books on the history of the vibrant Northside city-within-a-city.
“The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City,” by Nelson Johnson, who is also the author of “Boardwalk Empire”. This book is a thorough history of Atlantic City and the critical role black Americans played in its development and success. In “Boardwalk Empire”, chapter 3 is titled “A Plantation by the Sea”, and it addresses the lives and struggles of black Americans who came to Atlantic City seeking employment and a new home. Johnson was moved to write “The Northside” as a sequel to “Boardwalk Empire” when he realized that he could not do the subject of how race impacted the development of Atlantic City in just one chapter of a book. “The town would simply not have come to exist if it wasn’t for its black community,” Johnson said in an interview, “How do I make that clear in one chapter? This was the tail wagging the dog.”
“Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City: Wash’s and The Northside,” by Turiya S. A. Raheem (nee Lillian D. Thomas) is a personal account by the author of her and her family’s life in Atlantic City from the early 20th century to the present, their business, and their community. This book has also inspired a play, “Our Side: The Other Atlantic City”, and a documentary, Our Side: The Other Atlantic City which had a screening, along with “The Sara Spencer Washington Story”, at the Scribe Video Center in West Philly earlier this year as part of their STORYVILLE documentary program.
I mentioned that I vacation in Cape May, NJ. Cape May is billed as America’s first seaside resort. Established in 1761, wealthy Philadelphians and even US presidents began spending their summers there. Stephen Smith (1795-1873), one of the richest black men in America, also vacationed in Cape May. Smith was an entrepreneur and philanthropist as well as the leader of the Cape May Underground Railroad, assisting hundreds of people to travel further north . In 1846 he built his summer house (pictured below and which still stands at 645 Lafayette Street). This house was thankfully spared during Cape May’s urban renewal period of the 1960’s, and there is an active historic preservation effort to ensure that the house is restored and preserved in honor of Smith’s achievements and contributions. Unfortunately, almost all of the surrounding homes of the large African American community of that period, including the hotel Smith built next door to his home for visiting black tourists, have since been demolished.
The Center for Community Arts in Cape May offers a weekly African American Walking Tour of this old neighborhood through the summer months, as well as a Underground Railroad Trolley Tour which includes stories of Harriet Tubman’s presence and work with Stephen Smith in Cape May in the early 1850’s.
For many of us white folks living in the Philadelphia and South Jersey area, proximity to the Jersey beaches has meant easy access to the healing properties of summers spent in the natural beauty of sun, water, and sand; to make family traditions and memories; and to pass those traditions and memories onto our children. But our nation’s history of racism and segregation has for generations largely kept our black neighbors from feeling welcome to enjoy the beach as we have. New York Times columnist and Philadelphia native Wesley Morris discusses some of his experiences with these feelings on “Still Processing,” his podcast with his colleague at The New York Times, columnist Jenna Wortham on an episode called “We Love the Beach, We Hate the Beach”,.
Learning the hidden or seldom-told stories of our national and local histories is an important part of honoring who we really are as a nation as well as individually. I encourage you to join me in this quest.
Gabrielle Corsaro Co-Founder/Co-Artistic Director, The Bridge PHL Theatre Festival
A native of Philadelphia, Gabrielle spent several years studying and working as an actor in New York. It was both wonderful and frustrating on a daily basis. Parenthood brought her back home, and gradually Gabrielle began writing and directing. She founded AngelPirate Productions in 2005 which evolved from a desire to serve the Philadelphia community by developing and producing original performance pieces by local artists which amplify voices historically underheard. In 2015 Gabrielle co-founded The Bridge PHL Theatre Festival with Hannah MacLeod, Meryl Lynn Brown, and Kathy Harmer to foster healing connections between our diverse communities through powerful acts of theatre.