Discreetly poured cocktails under the pavilion of George Walls’s Texas Avenue bathhouse made Atlantic City one of A’Lelia Walker’s favorite getaways. Sunrise on Indiana Avenue beach lured her back every year. During the annual Easter parade, when families in springtime finery jammed shoulder-to-shoulder along the seven-mile Boardwalk, A’Lelia and her friends arrived draped in furs and diamonds for their own quite fashionable festivities. Wherever else they vacationed during the intervening summer months—whether Martha’s Vineyard, Saratoga Springs or Long Branch—they returned to Atlantic City’s predominantly black Northside for Labor Day concerts, dances and camaraderie. Like everyone else, they came for chewy pastel chunks of saltwater taffy and breezy rides in wicker rolling chairs. Like everyone else, they savored ocean air and the gentle rush of waves around their ankles, collecting seashells and memories as they strolled barefoot in the sand.
Those Americans without the finances and social status to summer in the mansions and on the yachts of Newport began flocking to Atlantic City, especially after 1882 when Colonel George Howard built an elevated oceanfront entertainment pier the length of two football fields. By the early 1900s, it had become the nation’s largest and most affordable resort, valued as much for its vices as its virtues. Catering to the needs of hundreds of thousands of white tourists were thousands of black waiters, waitresses, maids, bellmen, elevator operators and valets—more than nine out of ten of all hotel employees, in fact. Catering to their needs were black inn keepers, undertakers, seamstresses, café owners, preachers and physicians, who—with their families—comprised a quarter of the city’s total population after the summer crowd had left.
Having missed her usual springtime trip, A’Lelia was especially eager to be back on the Boardwalk in September 1924 after the stroke she’d suffered while in Los Angeles that April.
“Everyone is glad to see Mrs. A’Lelia Walker look so well again,” Pittsburgh Courier society columnist Eve Lynn Crawford reported after she’d been seen about town at several parties.
She always stopped by to visit Laconia and Benjamin Fitzgerald, whose Fitzgerald’s Auditorium*—with its soda fountain, billiard room and 1,000 seat hall—was booked every night during that last week of August. “In no other place in Atlantic City, open to the free and unquestionable accommodation of our people, can one find a menu more inviting,” boasted Ben Fitzgerald about his chef’s selection of wild game, live lobster and soft shell crab. Those in the know made their way to the back room for poker and black jack.
At the annual balls hosted by the Philontas Club and the Bachelors Benedict, smartly dressed couples from Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York and Boston were still getting the hang of The Charleston steps made popular that year in Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles’s Runnin’ Wild. Harlem’s Happy Rhone and his sixteen-piece De Luxe Orchestra made their Atlantic City debut that season before an overflow crowd at Waltz Dream Academy. The Soap Box Minstrels, a group of 23 harmonizing Philadelphia friends, remained a perennial favorite. A few blocks away the Arctic Avenue YMCA benefit jumped with “Red Hot Mamma,” “Hard-Hearted Hannah” and George Stamper’s Broadway dance routines.
Unwelcome at the Marlborough-Blenheim, the Traymore and the Shelburne, black tourists found refuge, rooms and meals at Eveleigh Cottage, Wright’s Hotel and the Hotel Ridley, where Maggie Ridley’s buttery hot dinner rolls were legendary.
The long weekend was “a riot of excitement and fun and life,” Crawford reported. “Everyone from everywhere seems to be down by the seaside, relaxing, playing and forgetting that there is such a thing as worry in all the world.”
[This post is an excerpt from the forthcoming biography, The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, by A’Lelia Bundles.]
Geraldyn Dismond — later well-known as Gerri Major in her role as editor of Jet’s “Society World” — wrote this about Easter Weekend 1927 in her Pittsburgh Courier “New York Society” column:
“It is a tradition throughout the East that the proper place to make the transition from prayer and fasting to the frivolities of Spring is Atlantic City. True, the last week in August brings the largest crowds, the far distant visitors and the wildest extravagances, but at Easter the ultra-fashionable of the East gather to get the first whiff of salt air and pines, to take the early ocean dip, and the thrilling horseback ride on the sands. The natives who have spent the winter season between New York, Philadelphia and Washington open their white homes of many windows and porches and settle down to the serious business of being hosts and hostesses for the World’s Playground.”
“The season opened with the popular game of basketball Thursday night at Waltz Dream where Atlantic City’s two favorite teams, the Vandals and Buccaneers, fought for the South Jersey title. Three hundred fans watched the fast Vandals defeat the hardy Buccaneers to the tune of 37 to 17. It goes without saying that dancing followed.”
“The beautiful Mrs. Laconia Fitzgerald, whose hospitality is a by-word throughout the East, had as her guests Miss A’Lelia Walker, Mrs. Grace Lezama and Algernon Roane of New York, who motored in Saturday in Miss Walker’s Lincoln.”
1926 Video found on YouTube.
Here are links to more excerpts and updates on The Joy Goddess of Harlem, the forthcoming and first major biography of A’Lelia Walker, daughter of entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker.
*Fitzgerald’s Auditorium was purchased in 1935, five years after Benjamin Fitzgerald’s death, by Leroy “Pop” Williams and his son Cliff Williams, who re-opened it as Club Harlem, the night spot that dominated the Kentucky Avenue entertainment scene for three more decades.