Legacy of Chicken Bone Beach Lives Within Henrietta Shelton

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

ATLANTIC CITY – For Henrietta Shelton, Chicken Bone Beach speaks to the rich African-American culture in Atlantic City and how blacks turned a segregated part of the city into a must-stop location.

Shelton has dedicated her life to save and promote that history through the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation, Inc., which just completed a popular Boardwalk jazz series and had a ribbon cutting this summer for its youth jazz studio.

“My brother and I started the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation when I return home in 1974,” Shelton told Front Runner New Jersey recently. “All of Atlantic City’s rich Northside history was no longer here. 

“I grew up in Atlantic City from 1950 to 1960 and I can remember most of the wonderful rich Northside history that I loved and was very proud of. I was never very interested in history but I had fond memories of the town I grown up in an wanted to share that with the world,” she said.

Making Most of Segregation

While history well-documents Jim Crow segregation in the South, blacks where excluded from locations all around the country. Atlantic City was exception. Missouri Avenue Beach, between Missouri and Mississippi Avenues, was designated for African-Americans at the request of beachfront hotel owners to keep blacks in one location.

The Chicken Bone Beach remained the only place African-Americans could enjoy the beach in Atlantic City from 1930s until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Atlantic City blacks, though, made it an attraction where many of the popular African-American celebrities and entertainers at the time stopped, from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, showgirls and other stars frequented the beach when they were in town. Shelton said, though, Chicken Bone Beach allowed blacks from all walks to life to come together as one.

A Beach for For Everyone

“Doctors, lawyers, inventors, teachers, the list is long and I want our young people to know and learn about how rich our history is in America,” Shelton said of those who frequented the location.

In 1997, the City of Atlantic City passed an ordinance naming Missouri Avenue Beach a significant Atlantic City Landmark and was earned a Historic Landmark designation in 2017.

She said the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation was created to promote family programs and events on and around the Chicken Bone Beach area, display educational and historical photo exhibits of the Chicken Bone Beach era and provide yearly music scholarships to high school seniors.

Documenting History

The foundation also highlight Atlantic City’s African-American businessmen and families, conduct fundraisers, solicit contributions and pursue grants to provide educational programming for youth.

One of the biggest events the foundation every summer is his Summer Jazz Concerts on the Atlantic City’s famous Boardwalk. The concerts threw crowds from around the region, featuring nationally-known and local jazz talent.

READ: Chicken Bone Beach Jazz Series kicks off June 27 in AC

“The annual Chicken Bone Beach Jazz on the Beach Series showcases some of the nation’s top jazz artists and returned to Kennedy Plaza this year after three years,” Shelton said. “It was a series of 10 free concert series, every Thursday from July and August. The concerts was made possible this year by a grant from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.”

Next Jazz Legends

On June 18, the foundation held a ribbon cutting for its new Chicken Bone Beach Youth Institute for Jazz Studies, in hopes to spark interest in jazz to young people and give them a home to craft their musical skills.

The studio, at 726 N. Indiana Ave., was made possible by Wells Fargo, which donated the house for the studio, Shelton said.

Henrietta Shelton (right), founder of the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation, with sister Cynthia Primas, executive director of the IDEA Performing Arts Center in Camden.

“We will be able to put a part of our goal/dream into this house – a Youth Institute for Jazz Studies to help locate, display and promote the many talent of our Atlantic County youth,” Shelton said.

“We decided to keep some of the Northside history alive by bring jazz masters who played in Atlantic City. I loved the beach, after meeting Martha’s Vineyard folks and finding out about their beach where most of the black enjoyed the ‘Ink Well,’ we decided to tell the world about black beach,” Shelton continued, explanation to idea of mixing the beach’s history with the city’s history of music.

Keeping Chicken Bone Beach History Alive

Shelton, who has won numerous awards for her work and dedication to Chicken Bone Beach, said her plans in the near future is to continue to share and spread the rich history African-Americans have built in Atlantic City and the segregated beach they turned into their part of heaven and prosperity.

“My family came from St. Petersburg, Fla. in the 1950s we went to elementary school and high school in Atlantic City,” Shelton said, who worked at the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center. “I married an Army military person and had the chance to travel and live in Japan, Germany, Colorado Springs and Washington D.C. 

“After divorce I moved back to Atlantic City, my father built my sister and me a home on the Westside next to the family home my father built in 1950s. In 1988 remarried then divorce but never left Atlantic City,” she said.

Atlantic City and those who remember Chicken Bone Beach are glad she stayed.

Photos Courtesy of Henrietta Shelton, Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation.

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