High Tide

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A look at Cape May MAC’s new exhibit ‘Line in the Sand’

MAC’s new exhibit combines historic photographs, personal quotes, and original art to illustrate the racially segregated beaches in Cape May and Atlantic City prior to the civil rights movement.

Many visions and informative sources came together to curate the current exhibit in the Carroll Gallery at the Emlen Physick Estate. Cape May MAC (Museums+Art+Culture) and the Center for Community Arts (CCA) have teamed up with Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation and Cape May County artist Chanelle René to present Line in the Sand.

The exhibit portrays the lives of African American beach goers primarily in the 1930s through the 1950s during times of racial segregation in America. Featuring real pictures taken on Cape May and Atlantic City beaches from this period, original artwork inspired by the images, and informative plaques with text derived from the book Black Voices of Cape May, this display carefully comes together to illuminate us on how our local history was impacted during the Jim Crow era. It also showcases how human nature is keen on making the best of unfair circumstances.

Even though there are multiple components at play, Steven Olszewski of Cape May MAC designed the exhibit in a way that presents its contents seamlessly, allowing the story to unfold while informing the viewer without being overwhelming. “Getting all the materials and putting it together into a story is a fun challenge,” says Olszewski. “I’d like to think that without my guidance you can figure it out.” 

From my experience, this goal was certainly accomplished. The exhibit is capable of guiding you all by itself. This is the sort of display that may take each person into a different direction. One could connect with an individual story pulled from a CCA interview, absorbed directly into the past from one of the photographs taken on Chicken Bone Beach in the 1950s, or be taken back by Chanelle’s bright and beachy portrayals of the time. You are invited to explore the contents on display; each viewer’s process and personal draws may differ from the next.

Chicken Bone Beach, located between Missouri and Mississippi Avenues, was the designated Black beach in Atlantic City for decades. There was nothing written in ink, no official legislation forbidding interracial beaches; however, police in Atlantic City enforced Jim Crow customs by forcing Black families off the sand everywhere besides Chicken Bone Beach. There are gorgeous period photographs of the beach on display taken by Philadelphia photographer John W. Mosley. These shots capture the camaraderie and joyous fun in the sun pursued by African American beachgoers.

In Cape May, Grant Street Beach was the unwritten Black beach, though there was not blatant enforcement by police for going elsewhere. It was a common understanding that Grant Street was the most welcoming beach for people of color. Grant Street Beach’s history inspired Chanelle René’s series that is on display at the exhibit. Her family history consists of many generations that attended this beach, at first as a result of social customs and restrictions, but eventually out of choice and ownership of their past.

“I see [the] Grant Street Beach series as a journey from segregation to a tradition of choice,” says René.

Chanelle is originally from West Cape May, and generations before her lived in Cape May and beached on Grant Street. Her curiosity piqued as a child in the 1980s as she was perched with her family on Grant Street Beach soaking up the sun, prompting her to inquire why they always went there. Her mother educated her on the family’s history with Grant Street Beach and how the tradition originated as a result of racial discrimination. 

The process of assembling the materials for Line in the Sand was more instinctive than scholarly, recalls Hope Gaines, member of the CCA and Community History Committee. They would pull quotes from the real people interviewed by the CCA who could speak directly to the experience from first-hand accounts. The CCA’s book Black Voices of Cape May consists of over sixty interviews and documentation from theirs and the Community History Committee’s extensive collection on Black history.

The CCA has been collaborating with Cape May MAC on Black history exhibits for over twenty years, with Line in the Sand as their most recent moving and illuminating installment. Jody Alessandrine, Cape May MAC’s Director & CEO, expressed how MAC is always willing to collaborate with people and organizations that will help serve the story being told. He was gracious to the offerings of René, along with the CCA and Chicken Bone Beach Foundation, for helping to round out this complex and significant side of South Jersey history.

Line in the Sand is free to the public and active through March 25, 2024. Visit the Carroll Gallery located in the Carriage House at the Emlen Physick Estate, 1048 Washington Street, Cape May. The Carriage House is open from 12-3pm every weekend in February and 12-3pm daily throughout March. Parking is free—just follow the driveway past the tennis courts, staying left past the Hill House, leading to a large parking lot behind the Estate. Restrooms are located in the outbuilding directly behind the Carriage House. Viewing the exhibit may take anywhere from 25-45 minutes. 

For more information about any of the contributors mentioned above or the exhibit itself, see the links below.