From Exhibit To Experience: Designing ‘A Time For Change’ Heritage Tour

Left: ‘A Time for Change’ exhibit at the library of Stockton University. Right: St. James AME Church, the first site on the tour. Photo credit: Levi Fox.

Last year I was lucky to be able to attend the opening of the ‘A Time For Change’ exhibit at the Atlantic City branch of the African-American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey. The exhibit, which garnered much media attention, is subtitled ‘Civil Rights in South Jersey’ but primarily focuses on Atlantic City. While chatting with colleagues at the reception, I hit upon the idea of trying to adapt the exhibit by putting together a free walking tour in February of key African-American heritage sites in Atlantic City. While the exhibit has since traveled to Stockton’s main campus library in Galloway Township and is now reaching new audiences on display at the AAHMSNJ branch in Newtonville, I believe a place-based approach such as a tour can foster a fuller appreciation of local history, as suggested in Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place and Cathy Stanton’s The Lowell Experiment.

Left: the most interactive panel in the exhibit confronts visitors with the longstanding racialized rules of Miss America. Right: the alternative set up of the exhibit at the AAHMSNJ location in Newtonville. Photo Credit: Levi Fox.

After sketching out a rough tour route that starts across from the historic St. James AME Church and ends in front of Boardwalk Hall, the site of the 1964 Democratic National Convention where Fannie Lou Hamer famously testified about her violent struggle to register to vote in Mississippi, I started looking for possible sources of funding and discovered a new program at Stockton University called the Adjunct Faculty Opportunity Fund. I then put together an application highlighting the potential benefits of such a tour for the university as well as the Atlantic City community, and my prior experience offering historic tours at local sites.

While I was gratified when my application was successful, I quickly realized that I now had to perform the real work of putting together a quality tour which included mapping out a full route, researching the history of each location, and drafting a script. In my experience, the first step to creating excellent edutainment for heritage tourists is finding strong sources that allow you as the tour guide to tell the most engaging possible stories. My sources included The Northside: African-Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson (Plexus Publishing, 2010), Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America by Bryant Simon (Oxford University, 2004), and Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City: Wash’s and the Northside by Turiya S.A. Raheem (Xlibris Publishing, 2009), as well as news articles, property records, oral histories, and The Atlantic City Experience, a project run by the Atlantic City Free Public Library.

Left: All that remains of the famous Club Harlem is a parking lot demarcated by signs of a band and a chorus line as well as a marker in the pavement. Right: part of the Civil Rights Garden next to the Carnegie Library. Photo credit: Levi Fox.

Once I had read through these sources, I started to finalize the tour route, which is akin to outlining the narrative I plan to present to tourists. The historical importance of many spots guaranteed their place on the tour. Two examples are Club Harlem, founded in 1935, a nationally known night club on the “Chitlin Circuit,” and the Civil Rights Garden, the first Northern memorial of its size celebrating the expansion of freedom over centuries. But how to get from Club Harlem to the Civil Rights Garden and where to stop on the way were two of the specific challenges I faced, alongside the issue of what information to present at whatever stop I selected. I decided my best option was to take visitors down Kentucky Avenue to the Corner of Pacific because at that spot I could talk to them about several topics. At the corner of Kentucky and Pacific Avenues, I selected a tour stop based not only on what is there now (a soul food restaurant) and what is visible from the spot (a historic casino) but also what was once across the street (the now demolished Sea Gull Hotel) and what exists a few blocks down the street (Sister Jean’s soup kitchen), while also describing the role of local black soldiers fighting in segregated units during WWII, when Atlantic City became Camp Boardwalk.  In another case, finding a second street sign honoring Negro League Baseball legend Pop Lloyd directly in front of the historic Claridge Hotel, where in 1964 the FBI wired-tapped the suite that was occupied by Martin Luther King Jr., let me re-route to go by the segregated Warner Theatre.

Left: Horace Bryant’s bust in the Carnegie lobby, a memorial that lets me connect to his birth city of Lawnside which is also covered in the exhibit. Right: former site of the Sea Gull Hotel across from Kelsey’s. Photo credit: Levi Fox.

Beyond the challenges of overlaying content onto a tight tour route while simultaneously creating a coherent local historical narrative, actually offering a tour also requires a good bit of organization and a great deal of promotion, which for me is the hardest part. Where to park for walking tours is often an issue, both because of urban commuter congestion and because tours rarely begin and end in the same place. Since I’m planning for large groups that may not be familiar with the area, I chose a communal parking location near the middle of the route where I’ll meet up early with the tourists and walk them several blocks over to St. James AME Church prior to the formal start of the tour. However, just because I’m hoping for large crowds—and I’ve got a microphone ready in case the crowds grow too large for me to be heard—doesn’t mean people will come unless I can do an effective job spreading the word. This means targeted email marketing to organizations such as the two libraries that I mentioned and to local African-American history groups, as well as to my colleagues at several nearby colleges and to interested members of media organizations who have written about Black History month events. It also means making use of social media. In order to keep tabs on the size of the group, as well as to make the tours available both to those affiliated with Stockton and interested members of the general public, I set up a Ticketleap page which also made social media marketing somewhat easier.  I then created an event page on Facebook to share the tour with others, even going so far as to splurge for a Facebook ad since these tend to offer the best return on a small investment, and made up a Twitter tag (#TimeForChangeHeritageTour) which can also be used live on the tours. Hopefully some readers of this blog post will even be able to come out and join us for the tours.