By Dale Hopper
February 26 – Growing up in Atlantic City, N.J., in the 1950s, Henrietta Shelton loved going to the beach – even though “social restriction” confined her and other African-Americans to a two-block stretch of sand just north of the old convention center. As an adult, the ATO Technical Operations training coordinator tapped into the pride of the city’s African-American culture to commemorate the old “Chicken Bone Beach” with t-shirts, an official marker and, since 2000, a popular summer jazz series. “Other blacks thought I was crazy. They felt embarrassed by the name,” Shelton said in her office at the William J. Hughes Technical Center about her early efforts to remember the beach. “After I told them the story, they’d buy a t-shirt.” The t-shirt recalls “black, brown and beige bodies on burning sand and blue surf – a cultural oasis, our place in the sun.”
Her success preserving the positive spirit of a harsh time has been noted. In 2005 Shelton was named by local media one of the 10 people in Atlantic City “who made a difference” – a list that mostly included casino honchos like Donald Trump and Steve Wynn.
In 2006 the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority gave her its Spirit of Hospitality award for “an outstanding individual who has made a significant long-term contribution to the region’s hospitality and travel industry.”
Last fall, she received the FAA Administrator’s Volunteer Service Award for historic preservation.
Shelton wasn’t always an Atlantic City girl. Her parents, with seven children (“Henri” was the middle child), moved to Atlantic City from St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1952. Shelton’s father was a waiter and bartender on passenger trains that ran the East Coast.
Chicken Bone Beach, a little more formally known as Missouri Avenue Beach, had been set aside because the hotels didn’t want blacks to mingle with the white tourists, Shelton said. Atlantic City, then as now, was a destination for busloads of tourists who came for the entertainment, the boardwalk and beach and then-illegal gambling, she said.
African-American visitors had to contend with discrimination of all sorts, including food options. As a result, the out-of-towners brought lots of food to the beach, Shelton remembered. Fried chicken did not spoil in the heat and bones were regularly found during cleanup, so locals gave it a nickname, she said.
Thousands of people hit the beach and Shelton has documented sightings from that era of Martin Luther King Jr., Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr., “Moms” Mabley, Sarah Vaughan and the showgirls of Club Harlem. “They were being restricted, too,” Shelton said.
Shelton, who is afraid of the water, preferred to “profile” – see and be seen – instead of swimming. The entertainers set a high standard for style. “If people could have worn mink stoles on that beach they would have,” Shelton said. The black lifeguards, kept to the “restricted” area, were not allowed to help anyone outside that area, she said. Some white lifeguards were “punished” in the 1960s by being assigned to Chicken Bone Beach but ended up loving the assignment, said Shelton, who has identified 41 of the beach’s former lifeguards. After graduating from high school in 1960, Shelton worked as a keypunch operator in Newark, N.J. She married her childhood sweetheart, who joined the military. They lived all over the world and had a daughter. (That girl, now Pamela Alleyne, grew up to marry a man she met while visiting her mother at the Tech Center and has three children.) Shelton returned to Atlantic City in December 1974 to find much of the African-American landmarks gone or run down. The rise of casinos in the late 1970s overshadowed the city’s past.
“People do not realize how dynamic the black community used to be. We had a lot of black entrepreneurs,” Shelton said. But the past segregation was as firm and cruel in Atlantic City as elsewhere. The “social restriction” of the beach was not a legal prohibition and no signs identified it, but it was rigid, Shelton said. Anyone with dark skin who wandered into the white area was hustled back, she said. At the FAA, Shelton started as a Tech Center keypunch operator and rose steadily through the ranks, working with microfilm and as a technical editor before her current job. In the late 1990s, she visited Martha’s Vineyard and saw people selling t-shirts and telling stories to commemorate Ink Well Beach, a spot historically restricted to African-Americans on the island. That gave Shelton the idea to start building interest in Atlantic City’s African-American beach and social history. But she didn’t stop with t-shirts and stories. “When I got the jazz idea, that’s when it took off,” Shelton said. More than 2,000 people came for the first show in August 2000 with vibraphonist Roy Ayers. Since then, thousands attend free shows every year, featuring jazz headliners and local aspirants on the same stage. The 32-piece Chicken Bone Beach Youth Jazz Ensemble also gets the chance to play. As she scrambles for sponsors performers for this year’s jazz shows, Shelton is dreaming up her next big idea. “I would love to have a jazz hall of fame in Atlantic City,” she said.