It’s officially summer here in New Jersey, and we’re heading down the shore to the beautiful beaches of Atlantic City. In a special 2019 episode of State of the Arts dedicated to Atlantic City, we met with Henrietta Shelton, President of the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation. She discussed the efforts being taken to preserve the art of jazz in Atlantic City—and to explore the history of the city, all the way back to the 1920s.

Sammy Davis Jr. in Atlantic City

Sammy Davis Jr. in Atlantic City

In 1927, Atlantic City beaches were segregated following a meeting by the city council and hotel owners. Specifically, Black beachgoers were only permitted to visit Missouri Avenue Beach in front of the Convention Center, which was city-owned. “From Dr. Martin Luther King to Sammy Davis Jr., all came to that beach because they were in town for the summer,” says Ralph Hunter Sr., the founder and director of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, also featured in our Atlantic City episode. City rules would not change until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the beach itself was declared a historical landmark in 1997 by the Atlantic City Council.

A black and white historical image of beachgoers in Atlantic City

“Our main purpose was actually to shed light on Atlantic City when it was socially restrictive for Blacks,” Henrietta tells us. “I grew up in that era. I remember the Black community was dynamite. I mean, it was entrepreneurs, a village raising the children… It was a camaraderie that was like none other.”

Chicken Bone Beach Jazz continues to honor the city’s history, performing jazz concerts right on the beach. Their name references that historical segregation of Atlantic City’s beaches, reclaiming an initially derogatory title from the time. Today, the Chicken Bone Beach Jazz Foundation continues to share the music. This summer, the 23rd Annual Jazz on the Beach free concert series has returned to the Kennedy Plaza Stage—you can catch a performance there every Thursday through Sept 7 from 7-9 pm.

Directly supporting the community and encouraging music education are top priorities for the foundation. In fact, Chicken Bone Beach holds tuition-free Youth Summer Jazz Camps for Atlantic City kids every year, and presents the Children’s Choir of Southern New Jersey. Every season, Chicken Bone Beach Jazz illustrates how jazz is “more than just musical entertainment; it is a progressive, gathering force of inclusion.”