As one of the oldest African-American literary events in the nation, Art Sanctuary’s annual Celebration of Black Writing, now 30 years old, has grown from a week of events to a month-long observation—which kicked off last Thursday—aimed at exploring and glorifying the black experience as expressed through literature. In addition to presenting informative panels and workshops, Art Sanctuary also hosts in-house performances and author signings, live interviews and readings during the 2014 CBW, along with a May 30 awards gala honoring, among others, noted scribe Ernest Gaines, Pulitzer Prize nominee and award-winning author of such classics as A Lesson Before Dying, A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
While many of its activities take place at Temple University and the University of the Arts, Art Sanctuary’s home gallery is housing Chicken Bone Beach thoughout May, a remarkable exhibition of photos by John W. Mosely curated by Temple University’s Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, giving viewers a glimpse into summers past at Atlantic City’s once-segregated beach at Missouri Avenue. Art Sanctuary Executive Director Valerie Gay spoke with PW about the significance of these stunning photographs, which will be on display—with some available for purchase—through the month’s end.
PW: What prompted the Art Sanctuary to host an exhibit about Chicken Bone Beach in particular?
VALERIE GAY: We knew that during the festival, we wanted to have an anchor that brought people in to our gallery throughout the month, and we happened to hear about this incredible photo collection of this Atlantic City gem from a former board member. We reached out to the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University Libraries, and they were happy to curate this exhibition for us. This is a great opportunity to shine a spotlight on a cultural and historical gem, while also highlighting a great organization that other folks should visit—that being the Blockson Collection.
How influential was Chicken Bone Beach during the civil rights era?
Chicken Bone Beach provided a space that African-Americans could call their own. Additionally, the civil rights movement was a movement of the people. There were celebrities and everyday people in it together. Chicken Bone Beach encompassed that. Whether famous or not, there were places that African-Americans could not go. But they were all welcome here.
What are some of the collection’s more remarkable photos?
Well, I have to say that Dr. Martin Luther King in a sophisticated short set is one of my favorites, as you’ve never seen him so relaxed! I love the photos from the 1940s as they show the vibrancy of the community, during a time period where most felt that African-Americans were living lackluster lives. Another favorite is a group of African-American women walking down the avenue, past a string of black-owned businesses. It makes you proud just looking at it.
Are there any literary pieces inspired by photos taken at Chicken Bone Beach featured during this year’s Celebration of Black Writing?
One of the authors during our weekly In the Sanctuary live podcast, Turiya Raheem, wrote the book Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City: Wash’s and the Northside. While not directly inspired by Chicken Bone Beach, the book ties back to that time of the civil rights era, and African-Americans’ influence in the region. Art Sanctuary’s founder Lorene Cary would often say that we are in the business of “life giving art,” and that is what separates us from most organizations. With Chicken Bone Beach, we have the opportunity to not just entertain our audience or share art for art’s sake, but to educate and leave people illuminated.
Through Sat., May 31. Art Sanctuary, 628 S. 16th St. artsanctuary.org