Perry Mays & The Chicken Bone Beach

By Diamond Pilgrim

African American Atlantic City residents relaxing on Chicken Bone Beach c. 1940s. (Photo: John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA)

I had the privilege of interviewing my Grandfather. Well, before mentioning what I questioned him on, let me introduce him. Born in the early 1950s, my grandfather, Perry Mays, experienced the Civil Rights Movement in Southern New Jersey as a young, African American man. As the only one in my family to attend college, he graduated in 1975 from University of Maryland Eastern Shore. He retired from Atlantic Care in the year 2012 after working there for 32 years as a director. He was the only African American to do a Fellowship at Atlantic Care. The fellowship focused on “Chemical Dependency and why Youth take Drugs.” Now, he has his own business called Faith at Work, where he assists people in getting into drug rehabs. He also educates people in drug court on job training, interviewing skills, and resume writing. He’s the President of a group called Atlantic County Coalition for a Safe Community. I chose to interview him because as you can see, he loves to help people, wants to see everyone do great, motivates me to be a better person, and has always been my role model. My grandfather is the perfect person to interview because even though he had a rough time growing up because of his race, he still kept himself motivated to become the ideal person he is today.

Question: What was Chicken Bone Beach like when you grew up?
Answer: It was nice. To us, it was. We have our beach. Even though it was only two blocks long, we had our own beach. To us, African Americans didn’t own many businesses in the country at that time, or you didn’t see the positive business owners nationwide.

Question: Did Chicken Bone Beach have another name? And if so, why did they change it?
Answer: Yes, Chicken Bone Beach had another name. It was called Missouri Ave Beach. One of the reasons they changed it, was because they didn’t want African Americans intermingling with the white hotel customers on the boardwalk. Business owners thought it would be bad for their trade and customers. So, to please all, they gave the African Americans at that time, their own beach, and called it Chicken Bone Beach. That’s my recollection.

Question: How did you feel about the name Chicken Bone Beach?

Perry Mays, who grew up spending time on Chicken Bone Beach and now acts as president of the Atlantic County Coalition for a Safe Community.

Answer: It didn’t bother me at all. I don’t think at that time I truly understood the impact of the name. I was aware that church, food, and fun, were synonymous; however, I didn’t fully understand the impact until later in my life. Many of the other cultures, sometimes use it as a negative connotation as it relates to African Americans. Such as watermelons, etc.

Question: Did your white friends go to Chicken Bone Beach with you? And if so, how did it make them feel?
Answer: Yes and no. Yes, they went sometimes, however, many of them stayed on the Southside or the Chelsea side of town. Many of us were forbidden to go there, and some were forbidden to come on our side of town. However, some of my friends did come there, mostly to see what it was like, or out of curiosity.

Question: Did you have lifeguards and if so, what color were they?
Answer: Yes, we had lifeguards and they were all black. However, it was softly stated or as we often say, through the “grapevine,” if there was a white lifeguard, it was because he was being punished by being assigned to Chicken Bone Beach.

Question: What famous people came to Chicken Bone Beach? And did you see any of them?
Answer: Famous celebrities as Sam Davis Jr., many jazz artists, as well as famous sports players. No, unfortunately, I didn’t get to see any of them. At least not knowing if I did. It was more important that I had the opportunity to go to the boardwalk and then to Chicken Bone Beach at that time.

Question: What is the impact of Chicken Bone Beach on the local society today?
Answer: Jazz is popular now, as well as outdoor concerts. Many jazz concerts are rendered now near the famous location. Example, Kennedy Plaza is next door to the famous beach, and many concerts, as well as demonstrations, are holding their today. However, I don’t think many of our youth will get the full impact until years to come. Mr. Ralph Hunter, a local curator at The Noyes Arts Garage of Stockton University, has many artifacts from the famous Chicken Bone Beach. It’s a well-worth site to see.

Question: How was the connection between Chicken Bone Beach and the famous Kentucky Ave businesses?
Answer: Many of the clubs, such as Club Harlem, the Wonder Gardens and Grace Little Belmont were attracted to the beach. Many of the singers and guests would go to the beach as a part of the weekend entertainment. Little did I know at the time, this was an added feature to the many talents that appeared at the Kentucky Ave nightclubs.

Question: What are your memories of Chicken Bone Beach?
Answer: Just the fact that it was ours. Even not knowing the full impact at that time, it was ours. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 really played an important part of desegregation. However, the stain was still there. White business owners didn’t want us in their stores, or even near their customers. Even though I was very young at the time, I knew not to go near their businesses. Therefore, we quietly walked down to Chicken Bone Beach and had so much fun. To the point, sometimes I forgot about the hatred that lied a block or so from me. Just to see and feel for a few hours of enjoyment, we had the right to be free of fear. As I look back now, sometimes it’s hard to see Atlantic City as a city like that. However, I’m truly glad I had the opportunity to see and experience it, so I can tell my kids, grandkids, and great grandkids, how to respect ours as we tried to live in peace in our country.