New exhibit at Charles Library recognizes the history and cultural significance of the segregated Chicken Bone Beach, which has risen to prominence as a place of recreation, resilience and community among African Americans in vacation in Atlantic City from the early 1900s to the 1960s.
Chicken Bone Beach: The Photography of John W. Mosley and the African-American Experience in Atlantic City opened on July 7 and will run until August 30. The exhibit was curated by Leslie Willis-Lowry, archivist of the Charles L. Blockson African American Collection, in conjunction with the Heston Collection at the Atlantic City Free Public Library and the private collection of Vicki Gold Levi, historian of ‘Atlantic City.
The history of Chicken Bone Beach dates back to the turn of the 20th century, when segregation practices of the time relegated African Americans vacationing in Atlantic City to the Missouri Avenue beach. The popular dish for the summer was fried chicken, earning the beach section of Missouri Avenue the nickname Chicken Bone Beach.
“In Atlantic City, black people had to find their own recreation space at the foot of Missouri Avenue, and despite that, they turned it into something beautiful,” Willis-Lowry said. “It was about creating a space in a society where they were systematically excluded from having a voice, but instead of working they embraced freedom, leisure and rest.”
Prominent black figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Joe Louis, and Sammy Davis Jr. vacationed at Chicken Bone Beach during civil rights-era summers, underscoring the beach’s status as a black cultural center and community place.
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, places like Chicken Bone Beach could no longer be separated, and in 1997 the Atlantic City Council passed an ordinance declaring Chicken Bone Beach a historic landmark.
The exhibit also features a rare collection of original photography studio portraits that dotted the Atlantic City boardwalk; artifacts from Levi’s private collection; and images and memorabilia from Atlantic City icons like Club Harlem, Paradise Club, Madame Sara Spencer Washington, and the Apex Empire.
Memorabilia from the Harlem Club of Atlantic City are on display in the new exhibit. The historic club has been around for over 50 years and has hosted a long list of distinguished artists. (Photograph by Joseph V. Labolito)
Willis-Lowry said the idea to mount the exhibit was inspired by the celebration of the NAACP’s 113th National Convention held in Atlantic City in July. John Mosley documented the NAACP rally and civil rights struggle to elect Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegates to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, also held in Atlantic City and on display at the exhibit .
The Charles Library exhibit is highlighted by images from the John W. Mosley Collection, which was acquired by the Blockson Collection in the late 1980s from Mosley’s family member Clarence Still, brother of Mosley’s wife, Teresa Still Mosley. Mosley was an African-American photographer from the Philadelphia area whose work appeared in newspapers across the eastern United States. He is well known for photographing subjects like Marian Anderson, Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Robeson, Cab Calloway, WEB Du Bois, Langston Hughes and others.
More of the John W. Mosley collection can be seen at the Blockson Collection on Temple’s main campus in Sullivan Hall. Part of the collection is also available online courtesy of Temple University Libraries. (Photograph by Joseph V. Labolito)
The Blockson Collection is the region’s premier special collection of African American history and culture for people of African descent. Willis-Lowry highlighted the importance of the Blockson Collection and Temple University celebrating the history of Chicken Bone Beach with the new exhibit.
“At a time when there is a movement to erase black history, it is important for the university to tell the story of not only the struggle of African Americans for human rights, but also of the experience of black joy as resistance in response to the heaviness of existing in an anti-black world,” she said. “Chicken Bone Beach was a way for people to come together to live happily and without restrictions.”