Stories of Atlantic City Students Reunite with Community Members
Atlantic City, N.J. — Stories of Atlantic City completely changed Emily Montgomery’s life.
For as long as she can remember and especially during her time as a Communication Studies major at Stockton University, she wanted to be a broadcast journalist.
And after graduating in 2021, she did — working as an online content creator for Fox 29 in Philadelphia.
“But I just decided that through my work with Stories of AC that I wanted more from the news world,” said the Palmyra native.
She now works with Mighty Writers, a nonprofit that offers free reading and writing programs for children aged 7-17 years old in Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
Former Stockton student Madison McDaniel, left, and Atlantic City resident Valeria Marcus were part of a panel discussion about the Stories of Atlantic City Intergenerational Project.
“I did storytelling like this with Stories of Atlantic City in a more positive perspective rather than the gloom and doom you see on TV, and it just made me crave that restorative storytelling that focuses on community,” Montgomery said. “Every person has a story, and every community has a story. Those are the kinds of things that I want to share.”
Montgomery was one of the first groups of students involved with Stories of Atlantic City, a collaborative project with Stockton focused on telling untold stories about the city and its people. The students in the fall 2020 “Media, Civil Rights and Social Change” class taught by Christina Morus, an associate professor of Communications, interviewed older community members on Zoom about their life experiences and what it was like in Atlantic City during the Civil Rights movement.
But since most of those interviews were done online, many of the students had never actually met their interview subjects in person — until a Nov. 17 intergenerational reunion at the Noyes Museum Arts Garage in Atlantic City.
The reunion was organized by Morus, Teaching Specialist Toby Rosenthal and Christina Noble, the first project manager of Stories of Atlantic City. At least 20 of the interviewees and several prior students from the program gathered to talk, eat, win prizes playing trivia and reflect on how the project has affected them during a panel discussion.
“Our elders won’t be here forever. It’s so important to gather and to capture these stories while we still have all this living history here,” said Noble, who’s now the Atlantic City Youth Services Director. She added that the reunion was also a chance to pay tribute to one of the interviewees, Alfreda Mills, who died last year.
“Sometimes our elders are forgotten, so to just show them our appreciation for their involvement in something like this and getting them around each other, I think does a great deal for them, but it also makes us feel fulfilled,” Noble said.
That’s definitely the case for Montgomery, who was able to meet one of her interviewees, Ralph Hunter, for the first time.
“Seeing everyone in person, it makes it real,” Montgomery said. “It makes it feel like you really made some human connections besides just the screen.”
Sometimes our elders are forgotten, so to just show them our appreciation for their involvement in something like this and getting them around each other, I think does a great deal for them, but it also makes us feel fulfilled.”
Hunter is the founder and president of the Atlantic County African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, which is based at the Arts Garage. Many of the students at the reunion were able to tour it for the first time.
“I thought the intergenerational project was a great opportunity to work with Stockton students,” Hunter said. “It was great to see a host of young people really interested in what took place in Atlantic City and how people of color had an opportunity to own and operate their own businesses.”
Hunter added it was also great to learn from the students. “When an old head like me has an opportunity to sit back and listen to the young-ins, it’s fantastic,” he said.
Creating a unique connection between generations when everyone was feeling isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic was one of the goals of the project, Rosenthal said.
“A lot of our students did not have relationships before this with someone from another generation, unless it was with a family member,” she said. “This was an opportunity to network out and meet new people and challenge their assumptions about older community members and people that are connected to and love Atlantic City.
The project also tried to dispel some of the myths and assumptions that the students had about Atlantic City, and it worked for Madison McDaniel, one of the former Stockton students on the panel discussion along with Montgomery and Malikah Stafford, who is now a graduate student at New York University.
“I was very nervous starting out. I didn’t grow up here and didn’t go very often to the beach or the Boardwalk, so I didn’t know what to expect going into it,” McDaniel said. “But it was truly an invaluable experience. There was so much that I learned. The people of Atlantic City are strong. They are so friendly. I realized there’s really nothing to be nervous about (going to Atlantic City) whatsoever.”
Other residents on the panel included artist Valeria Marcus and Malikah’s father, Michael Stafford. They both talked about segregation and the challenges they faced growing up Black in Atlantic City. Their remarks sparked several comments from other community members at the reunion.
Belinda Manning thanked the students and emphasized how the project can play a positive role in improving society.
“Segregation exists in this country. It’s not going away. If you don’t believe it exists, look around at the house of worship you go to and observe if there’s a diversity in that. The isolation that we have in our communities really is de facto segregation,” she said. “That’s an issue that we have to continue to look at and look at ourselves to see how we change that. I think it’s gatherings like this that are both intergenerational and interracial and move across faiths.”
“These are the kinds of experiences we want for ourselves and our children.”
-- Story and photos by Mark Melhorn