Black History Month: Museum Shines At Hard Rock Atlantic City

Feature Photo: Ralph Hunter Sr., founder of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey. Photo by Meredith Winner/Mer-Made Photography

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

ATLANTIC CITY – Anne Glapion said she was excited to take on curating the history of the Black church for the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey and that she will get a nationwide audience for it this summer.

The “This Little Light of Mine: The Black Church” exhibit made its debut earlier this month at the Hard Rock Atlantic City Casino and Hotel and will return Saturday (Sept. 26) in front of Etess Arena for the Kirk Franklin concert to wrap up Black History Month festivities.

The exhibit documents the history of the Black church in Philadelphia and South Jersey. She said the exhibit had been a longtime vision of the museum’s founder Ralph Hunter Sr., who gathered support for the project.

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Hunter, 84, is an institution in South Jersey. He created the museum from his own personal collection spending his own funds to find items. Now covering two locations — Atlantic City and Newtonville — his collection of Black artifacts is largest in South Jersey, and arguably one of the best in the state and Atlantic region.

“I started researching and came up with the exhibit,” Glaspion told Front Runner New Jersey this month. “It could actually be a larger exhibit because it’s such a big story. I think we tell the beginning of the black church here.”

Glapion said the beginning of most African American churches in the country often start with a common theme – with the faithful creating their congregation after being shunned by Whites.

“The story of most of the black churches, whether it’s Baptist or Methodist or whatever, there was a reluctance in the white churches or the European churches to embrace these former slaves,” Glapion said.

“They were treated poorly in the church, which I just found amazing. So they founded their own churches. These are people who came right out of slavery. They were told that they did not have the wherewithal to even learn how to pray or they weren’t sure they would know how to conduct a service.”

The result was former slaves created churches and methods of preaching to their congregation all their own and have become engrained to the religious culture – and even imitated by some who once shunned them.

“When you walk through these exhibits, this was just an incredible gift that Mr. Hunter gave us because these exhibits tell a story of triumph and individuals who just refused to give up,” said Rita Mack, the owner of the McDonald’s restaurant chain in Atlantic City and longtime supporter of the museum.

“When you think of that our legacy and the legacy of the museum, we want to continue to see that strive forward,” she added.

Hunter said there is a rich history of the African American community and involvement in Atlantic City. One of the exhibits showcased earlier this month also focused on Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s last color barrier in 1947.

Hunter said the museum has cleats, a glove and a uniform once worn by Robinson that will be on display.

The church exhibit will get its national audience in July where it will be displayed at the prestigious national NAACP convention, which will be hosted in Atlantic City.

“I’m very delighted about that happening,” Glaspion said. “I don’t know if most people are like me, who didn’t know the whole story. I knew how important the black churches are to us. But I didn’t realize all of the pitfalls that were involved and the problems that were put in their way in order to just pray.”

Jim Martin, director of employee and labor relations at Hard Rock Atlantic City, moderated the opening of the museum exhibits. An area native, Martin is a former television news broadcaster and a casino veteran. He spent 16 years at the Hard Rock in Hollywood, Fla. before returning to the area four years ago when Hard Rock Atlantic City opened.

He said his knowledge of Black history expanded during the preparation of a show based on the history of Atlantic City’s historic Club Harlem, where many African American entertainment superstars performed, from Sammy Davis Jr. to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Count Basie, Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington, among others.

That show which highlighted Club Harlem and Kentucky Avenue played on Feb. 18 and 19 at Hard Rock’s Sound Waves Theater.

“I knew about Club Harlem but never had an education about it,” Martin said.

Martin said while months like February can be used as the catapult to a greater understanding of all people, and that work should continue all after the month ends.

“Black History Month is wonderful and we don’t want to ever minimize it but our goal is that every single day is a learning experience and it’s not limited to 28 days in February,” he added.

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