Mar. 20: Race, Public Space, & Tourism in the Interwar Period

For Tuesday, please read Bryant Simon, Boardwalk of Dreams, chapters 1-3 (ECR). Then, in a 200-word comment to this post, discuss the racial geography of tourism and residence in Atlantic City. How and where did interracial encounters occur between tourists and locals?

Avatar of Mark Souther

About Mark Souther

I am an associate professor of history at Cleveland State University and director of the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities. I'm the author of New Orleans on Parade: Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City, editor of American Tourism: Constructing a National Tradition, and am writing a new book on perceptions of decline in postwar Cleveland. Apart from my involvement in CPHDH, I authored a recent successful National Register of Historic Places nomination and serve on the Cleveland Heights Landmark Commission. My history interests include urban and suburban history, 20th-century U.S. political and cultural history, leisure and tourism, and architecture and historic preservation.
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7 Responses to Mar. 20: Race, Public Space, & Tourism in the Interwar Period

  1. Avatar of cciullafaup cciullafaup says:

    Initially, the area of Atlantic City, New Jersey was home to just handfuls of Indian families and a few white farmers. Once the railroads came, businessmen saw what the area could attract and become. Ultimately, it became a seaside resort city sporting gambling, shopping, and dining. The local population grew when Italians, Germans, Quakers, and African Americans came to reside from nearby areas looking for new freedoms. Although the city boasted a democracy of sorts, the middle class coupled with elitism grew and segregation became a norm. African Americans populated much of the city but opportunities mainly included to work in service positions. In response to people/visitors ridiculing the city for African Americans occupying the beaches, city officials wanted to corral them onto one beachfront. Furthermore, other businesses set up rules of segregation. The only way an African American could have full access to the “middle class utopia” was to be able to pass as white. African Americans were exploited and a “curiosity” for tourists. Whites went slumming to entertainment clubs like Club Harlem. Choreographed acts of African Americans played on so-called authentic blackness that whites found incredibly thrilling and titillating. Atlantic City was a place of eroticism for middle class whites. Whites could not regress to primitiveness; in turn, they had to visit Atlantic City to spectate the uncivilized. Eventually, the raucousness and separation of races lead to an abandoned tourist trap.

  2. Avatar of hfearing hfearing says:

    During the first half of the 20th century, African Americans filled positions of service in Atlantic City, most notably as chair pullers along the Boardwalk. The status of African Americans as service workers and their exclusion from participating in the luxuries offered by the Queen of Resorts, created the main appeal of Atlantic City as a resort destination for middle-class whites. Seeking a feeling of superiority and wealth, the middle class valued the city that excluded others from tourist activities. Like most tourist destinations of the time, Atlantic City’s offered an escape and an illusion of social mobility for the middle-class. Within this illusionary city was one that was very real, where the workers that made their livings serving the “wealthy” lived their lives and developed their own community. In the “true” Atlantic City, the one where people lived, worked and built communities, there was also a divide amongst blacks and whites. This “great divide” was Atlantic Avenue with blacks living to the North and West and whites to the South and East (66, 68-69).

    As stated previously, African Americans were typically confined to service jobs. They were kept in the public eye – in restaurants, hotel lobbies stores and on the Boardwalk pulling rolling chairs – but at a safe distance as a reminder to the middle class that they had successfully experienced upper mobility as they flaunted their fancy garments and expensive meals and souvenirs. To city leaders, skin color was not enough to keep up the façade of exclusivity, safety and comfort. They regulated interactions between the two racial groups with “the city’s unwritten Jim Crow laws” (39-40) African Americans who did come in direct contact with white tourists were watched, had to wear badges, and were punished if they made the Atlantic City’s guests uncomfortable. Hotels, beaches, movie theaters, the Boardwalk and even the city itself were segregated.

    Whites also encountered blacks at entertainment venues, but still at a distance as blacks were typically the performers. Vaudeville, a popular form of stage entertainment at the time, would give tourists a chance to see African Americans play instruments, perform comedy, and dance (45-47). Whites could also experience another tourist trend of the times – slumming. They visited places on the Midway that crossed to “ the other side of the racial divide,” such as Club Harlem (51-52).

    Atlantic City’s luxuries were available to blacks during the heyday of Atlantic City, but only within the limits of Jim Crow and most often during the off-season (70). The Civil Rights movement eliminated the exclusivity, and therefore the appeal, of Atlantic City for the middle class. As the blacks took full advantage of the new places to which they then had full access, middle-class whites found their ideal, safe and comfortable environment elsewhere, and the Queen of Resorts fell from her throne.

    (Dr. Souther, I know this is an unusually long post, but I wanted to try and make up for the fact that I missed the one we were supposed to do right before spring break.)

  3. Avatar of luzelac luzelac says:

    Chicken Bone Beach was the name of the area that the African Americans were forced to use in Atlantic City. This is not a very attractive name and considering that the area was “moved behind a stone wall in front of the Convention Hall “, I do not imaging the space was that attractive either. This typifies the racial geography created in Atlantic City. The segregated beach allowed for the continued illusion that the area was populated by whites or people of color who would serve whites. The movie houses were segregated to appease the masses of white tourists. Restaurants and nightclubs had similar color distinctions. Even people of color who could afford to stay in the Boardwalk hotels would be turned out. Conversation between the races was strictly regulated and monitored. Feelings of safety were blamed for the segregation rather than the needs of white tourists to ‘feel’ superior to someone. As long as African Americans were carrying luggage, cooking, cleaning or pushing tourists in the wicker wheeled chairs, interaction was permitted. Swimming together or shopping or dining with persons of color was unacceptable during those narrow-minded times. Some people could ‘pass’ for white or at least an acceptable lighter shade (perhaps Italian or Greek) and they could participate in all they could afford in Atlantic City. Those not as fortunate endured the worst housing and difficult work with less chance to enjoy the sites of the city. All interaction would be created to make the whites feel superior even though they were not.

  4. Avatar of ysaleh ysaleh says:

    As the boardwalk became popular a town grew up around it. You had Italians, Irish,Quakers, Germans and African Americans all flocking to Atlantic City looking for work and a place to call home. The boardwalk attracted millions, simply because it gave the illusion of everyone being equal,This ofcouse was just that an illusion. Atlantic city was segregated just like anywhere else in the early twentieth century. African Americans were okay to push the rolling chairs, but were unable to enjoy the hotels, theaters, restaurants, or nightclubs. It appeared as if African Americans had escaped slavery, only to be a party to a legal form of the same thing. The town itself became segregated to where an address could tell your ethnicity. Actual interaction between the races was more likely to occur on the boardwalk than in the town itself. Each neighborhood was segregated and people stuck to their own. On the boardwalk, in the hotels and in the theaters tourist were likely to see many African Americans, but only in so far as they worked the menial jobs that helped the white tourist enjoy their vacation. The enjoyment of the boardwalk and the entertainment factors were reserved for those that could dress properly, act properly, and overall be acceptable to the powers that wanted to keep Atlantic Citya functional, money making City. So the “Board Walk Of Dreams” wasn’t quite that way for everyone, but it was definitely a way to make money, and if you stayed with your “own kind” it was not much different than everywhere in America at the time.

  5. Avatar of elkaiser3 elkaiser3 says:

    Atlantic City had a reputation in the tourism world as being a place where any well enough dressed American could go and feel like they belonged. It sold itself as an inclusive environment, but for only certain tourists. For black Americans, the Jersey coast did not offer the same hospitality. The Atlantic City Boardwalk was a very segregated, racist place since its conception to at least the middle of the twentieth century. African Americans were not allowed the same privileges on the Boardwalk. They could not eat at the same restaurants, stay at the same hotels, or swim in the same section at the beach. Whites and blacks only mingled in a professional setting, typically with the African American individual performing a service to the white customer. Beyond getting pushed around in wheeled carts on the Boardwalk by them, white tourists enjoyed a type of slumming interaction with the local African American community. The tourists would cross the town, into the black neighborhood, to experience “authentic” African-American nightclubs and see famous black performers. Only service and performance jobs were available for African American locals, otherwise they were not welcome in the white area. White and black interaction was not encouraged, even thought of as indecent. Although located in the North, the Jim Crow of the South laws seemed to be present in the tourist city.

  6. Avatar of Matt Sisson Matt Sisson says:

    Simon’s first mention of interracial encounters is very brief, and he simply mentions that tourists of Atlantic City would employ black men to wheel them around in rolling chairs. Simon explains that this was just one example of the race and class exclusion that occurred in Atlantic City as part of tourists’ efforts to create a ‘fantasy of leveling up’. This fantasy was high maintenance, therefore the city and its leaders constantly made efforts to appease tourists and limit interracial encounters. Initially beaches and theaters were places that interracial encounters occurred for tourists alike on equal footing, but white tourists and business owners complained that such interracial negatively affected their experiences and businesses respectively. This caused the city officials to create segregated facilities for black tourists, and limit interracial encounters to situations that encouraged the white tourists’ fantasy of being on another level than their black counterparts. Interracial encounters that encouraged this fantasy often portrayed blacks in subservient roles, such as the rolling chair pushers or bellhops. The only way for blacks to have interracial encounters with whites in a non-subservient role in Atlantic City was to act white so other whites would accept them as such, which involved being impeccably dressed, having relatively light skin, and feigning ancestry for one black man in the 1920s.

  7. Avatar of James Lanese James Lanese says:

    The evolution Atlantic Citiy’s tourism from elite to middle class opportunities brought the growth of various services and attractions into the picture. The Boardwalk rolling chairs moved from a touted therapeutic vacation to an escapist middle class luxury. Rolling car pushers were traditionally African American men. Caught up in the mix of jobs and services, African Americans also provided much of the labor for selected services. The city and business leaders imposed a strong set of segregation policies, seemingly to protect the tourist business which catered to exclusively white middle class clients. The policies encompased behavior codes, segregated residential areas, and Black business and entertainment locations.

    The segregation extended to neighborhoods. Simon documents the specific street boundaries which divided white ethnic and ‘melting pot’ spaces from Black nieghborhoods.

    Undeterred by the segregated surface of Atlantic City, some tourists would seek the Black entertainment experience after dark by visiting segregated areas of the city to enjoy attractions officially out of the tourist venue. The ‘underground’ network expanded the interracial encounters among locals and tourists.

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