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Wall St. and Business Wednesday: Black Towns Becoming History by Richard Degener

An expert on southern New Jersey's black communities, speaking as an exhibit on his work opened on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the Emlen Physick Estate, said economics and a better racial climate are making such towns disappear.

Black communities were originally created along racial lines to avoid discrimination. Wendel A. White, a professor at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, said the blacks wanted to live their lives free of fear and danger and built their own communities to do this.

White, speaking as his exhibit, “Small Towns, Black Lives: African American Communities in New Jersey” opened at the Carriage House Gallery, said blacks no longer face such limitations on where they can live.

“That's gone now,” White said.

In that respect, King's dream has somewhat been realized, but it has also meant the loss of the black communities.

A second factor is economics and the state's property-tax system. White noted that historically the black communities contained all classes of people, from laborers to professionals such as teachers and doctors. White said such a “vertical community” is much better.

“Vertical gives better life and experience. Now we make all communities horizontal. You earn the most money, you go to this community. You earn the least, and you go to this one. I think it's a very detrimental thing,” White said.

White spent 13 years photographing and collecting personal histories in communities including: Whitesboro and Cape May in Cape May County; Port Republic, Morris Beach, Newtownville, and Beyt Mosheh in Atlantic County; Gouldtown and Springtown in Cumberland County; and others in Camden and Gloucester counties.

He noted white people now live in most of the homes in Morris Beach, an Atlantic County community in Egg Harbor Township settled as a black resort by an African-American woman who couldn't buy a house in Ocean City.

But White, whose next project is to study and photograph black communities as far west as the Mississippi River, said he is also seeing such changes in white neighborhoods. In some cases, white ethnic neighborhoods are disappearing.

“There is changing in white communities, too. Small middle-class communities in rural settings are changing. They're being gentrified. It's bad whether it's a white community or a black community,” White said.

The exhibit includes some of White's black-and-white photographs he began taking in the black communities of the region in the 1980s. Many are featured in his book that has the same name as the exhibit.

White said the exhibit has been on tour for four years but only appeared once in the region where the photographs were taken. That was when the exhibit was at The Noyes Museum of Art in Oceanville. White won a Guggenheim Fellowship for the project. After Cape May, a Kansas City firm is bringing the exhibit to that region of the country for an extended period.

“Hopefully the rest of the country will learn about southern New Jersey,” White said.

The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and the Center for Community Arts brought the exhibit here. Shirley “Becki” Wilson, the board chairman for the Center for Community Arts, also spoke. Wilson, who serves on a state legislative commission that honored King, said it was a special day to celebrate diversity, King's birthday, the center's 10 year anniversary and White's work. She was also pleased the center and MAC joined to bring the exhibit, which runs until May 13, to the public.

Every year the Carriage House Gallery opens an exhibit on King's birthday relating to black history. It runs through Black History Month and to May, when MAC has its Spring Festival.

You can e-mail Richard Degener at:

Note: This article first appeared in The Press Of Atlantic City

Richard Degener

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

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