CAPE MAY - As George Ator sets off to lead a group of visitors on the Cape May African American Heritage Walking Tour, he apologizes.
"You'll have to use your imagination because many of the places I'll be mentioning on this tour are not there anymore," says Ator, 40, a teacher in Hazleton, Pa., who summers in Cape May and volunteers as a guide on the tour, although his ancestry is not African American.
Cape May's stock of lovingly restored Victorian homes made the entire city a National Historic Landmark. But here, as in so many Jersey Shore resorts, few artifacts, stories or structures remain from another significant period - a time when de facto segregation restricted people of color to beaches staffed with black lifeguards.
In Ocean City, for example, Sixth Street was known as the black beach. In Atlantic City, a sign on the Boardwalk at Missouri Avenue notes this was once the site of Chicken Bone Beach, which drew visitors from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Sammy Davis Jr.
And yet, Cape May is the only South Jersey resort town to offer a tour like this. And that's saying something for a town where, in the 1900s, the local newspaper campaigned to remove all black residents from the city; where the grade schools were not desegregated until 1948; and where many black homes and businesses were shuttered in the 1960s in the name of urban renewal.
Henrietta Shelton, now 66 and one of the founders of the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation, says segregation on the beaches was not publicized.
"There were no signs saying colored-only beach," Shelton says. "You just knew your place."
New Jersey was not the only coastal state with socially segregated beaches, says Ralph E. Hunter Sr., founder of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, located in Newtonville, near Atlantic City.
Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard had the section known as Inkwell, for example. Every town beach community in New Jersey had a pocket of African Americans, Hunter says. "But none of the towns saved anything."
Inland, several small towns were founded by and for African Americans, in response to the social segregation they encountered in the larger Shore communities.
Gouldtown in Cumberland County was a community of mulatto families who did not want to be labeled black or white. Whitesboro, near Cape May, was formed by well-to-do African Americans as a refuge, in part, for Southern blacks. Comedian Flip Wilson grew up in Whitesboro, as did educator-author Stedman Graham (the friend of media mogul Oprah Winfrey).
Interest in recapturing this part of the state's history is growing, says photographer Wendel A. White, whose Small Towns, Black Lives project can still be seen on the Web at blacktowns.org.
"By claiming your presence in the past," White says, "you are staking claim to the future."
Cape May's African American Heritage Walking Tour grew from the efforts of six white and six black women who banded together to turn a decaying grade school for black children into a community center, says Yvonne Wright-Gary, the program director.
The Center for Community Arts is in phase three of that $3.5 million restoration, and fees from heritage tour visitors ($10 per person for adults) help fund this effort.
Guides such as Ator carry a looseleaf-bound photo album on the walking tour, grateful to at least have images of the past.
Harriet Tubman is believed to have spent the summers working here in a hotel from 1848 to 1852 to raise money for the Underground Railroad.
"We can't prove that," Ator says, "because Tubman herself was considered a runaway slave and there was a $40,000 reward for her capture. So, she likely worked [in the kitchen or laundry here] under an assumed name."
Paul Robeson entertained a full house at the opening of the black U.S.O. here in 1944. And here stands the summer home of Philadelphia industrialist Stephen Smith (1795-1873), one of the richest black men of his time.
Charlotte Faison, 64, who grew up in West Cape May, took the walking tour a few weeks ago with her mother, Evelyn W. Tenbrook, who is 88.
Faison was left with mixed emotions. "It's a little sad," she says. "There was such a rich culture here, and so much has been lost."
Ocean City is Richard Grimes' hometown. He was 6 when he came here to live with his grandmother in the wake of his parents' deaths. His wife, Marizita, became the city's first black high school teacher, and the couple raised two daughters here.
Grimes, who attained distinction in baseball and track, is 90 now, well-known and well-respected in town. Recently, the athletic field across from his home was renamed in his honor.
The schools he attended were not segregated, probably because there were so few black families, Grimes says.
But black students were not allowed to use the school's indoor swimming pool except on Fridays, "and at the end of the day it was completely drained and cleaned."
The beaches were segregated and remained so through when his daughters were school age.
"I remember that in the late 1950s, when I was in fifth grade, you were told to get off if you went to other beaches," says Clarissa Grimes Price, who lives in Baltimore now and prefers the beaches in Rehoboth, Del.
Almost no evidence of that history remains.
"I would venture to say a lot of white people are not aware that there ever were black people in Ocean City," Price says. "The younger generation probably doesn't even know what we're talking about."
Henrietta Shelton was in fourth grade when her family moved from Florida to the north side of Atlantic City.
"Atlantic City was not like the South," Shelton says. "but we knew Missouri Avenue was our beach and we were not to go beyond there."
The stretch of sand near Missouri Avenue was quietly called Chicken Bone Beach because many groups from Philadelphia and beyond made the trip there carrying baskets of fried chicken. They had to bring their own food, Shelton says, because they knew they would not be served at restaurants on the Boardwalk, and chicken kept well.
"Picnicking was discouraged on all the other beaches," says Richlyn Goddard, who earned a Ph.D. from Howard University in 2001, documenting African American life in Atlantic City from the 1850s through the 1940s.
Black lifeguards, she says, were never assigned to white beaches. Black servants who accompanied vacationing white families to the Shore also went to Chicken Bone Beach - with their white charges in tow.
The mood at the beach was lively, Goddard recalls, bringing together returning college students, and sorority members. "Camaraderie was a big part of it," she says.
Goddard even found correspondence from the city of Santa Monica, Calif., asking Atlantic City officials how they kept the beach segregated.
Over time, the black community in Atlantic City turned the name into a source of pride, and in 1997, the Atlantic City Council declared Chicken Bone Beach a local historical landmark.
Another sign on the Boardwalk at Mississippi Avenue notes that Fannie Lou Hamer addressed the Democratic National Convention here in 1964, demanding recognition for herself and delegates of the beleaguered Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
These days, the Chicken Bone Beach Foundation devotes its efforts to an annual jazz festival and music education program.
Here, as in Cape May, the history of racial segregation is remembered out of necessity, says Shelton.
"It's not something to be proud of," she says. "But it existed. It shaped our history, and we do well to remember it."