Do you like this story?
A day on Chicken Bone Beach might yield an encounter with Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, or Sammy Davis Jr.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the fashionable section of the Atlantic City Boardwalk ended at Missouri Avenue, currently the site of Caesars Atlantic City. John L. Young’s lavishly ornate Million Dollar Pier became a symbolic wall isolating the resort area’s grand hotels from a stretch of sand derisively known as Chicken Bone Beach.
“It was demeaning and derogatory. There’s no question about that,” says Atlantic City resident Henrietta Shelton, co-founder and president of the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation. “The name came when people said they saw chicken bones in the sand that black people left on the beach. People used to eat all kinds of things on the beach. They still do. But because black people were seen on that beach and some of us eat chicken, it was given that name.”
Today a small plaque on the Boardwalk identifies the shoreline between Missouri and Mississippi avenues as Chicken Bone Beach, enduring evidence of the de facto segregation that for black residents and visitors once made this beach what Shelton, a technical editor at the Federal Aviation Administration tech center in Pomona, remembers as “the place to be when the sun was out. I was just a little girl, but I could tell it was classy,” she says. “It was refined. You’d hear people playing music. We had our own lifeguards. We had our own life. The feeling was like going to a family reunion. There were times the party would extend as far down to Convention Hall.”
Chicken Bone Beach was not far from Northside, the city’s black neighborhood, where, from the 1920s to the mid-’60s, the Kentucky Avenue nightclubs created a vibrant scene that featured nationally known black entertainers, musicians, and comedians. “The day after you saw them in the clubs, you’d see Duke Ellington on Chicken Bone Beach,” Shelton says. “You’d see Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Armstrong, Billy Eckstine. They’d be doing what everybody was doing on a nice day in Atlantic City: socializing, enjoying themselves, cooling off in the ocean.”
In the 1990s the Casino Reinvestment and Development Authority replaced the mostly dilapidated clubs along Kentucky Avenue with a supermarket. “There was a feeling that something had been lost,” Shelton says. She and her brother, Gene Wallace, founded the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation, and in 1997 the city put up a plaque to identify the site as historic.
In recent years the foundation has hosted a series of free outdoor concerts, first on the beach itself and then at Kennedy Plaza, on the Boardwalk in front of the Convention Center. “We chose jazz because we did not want to be in competition with the casinos, but we also wanted to get the story out,” Shelton says. “Straight-ahead jazz has been telling that story of black people and continues to do so.”
Concerts have featured noted vibraphonist Roy Ayers, the late singer Etta Jones, bassists Charles Fambrough and Camden native Buster Williams, drummer Lenny White, and the Jazz Crusaders. This year’s concerts will take place rain or shine at 7 pm every Thursday in July and August.
“I still get people asking me how you could take something that was racist and derogatory and celebrate it,” Shelton says. “We are not celebrating the derogatory. We are telling the old story of how black people took what was derogatory and turned it around and made it great.”