When Judge Nelson Johnson wrote Boardwalk Empire, his history of corrupt Atlantic City, he certainly had no idea the Prohibition-era chapters would inspire the celebrated HBO series.
But he did know this: The chapter on the African American involvement in the creation of the resort – Chapter 3, titled “A Plantation by the Sea” – was destined to be the basis for another book.
“It became apparent if you remove the black experience from Atlantic City’s history, then the town never comes to be,” Johnson said in a phone interview from his chambers in the Atlantic County Civil Courthouse in Atlantic City.
“When you have two generations where 95 percent of the hotel workforce was African American, then how does this town ever develop as a regional, national resort unless you have the black experience?
“Intellectually this really bothered me,” he said. “I knew a single chapter wasn’t going to do it.”
The resulting book, The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City (Plexus Publishing, $24.95), appeared late last year and has sold about 2,500 copies. It is now in its second printing. Boardwalk Empire, published in 2002, has sold close to 100,000 copies, said Plexus publisher John Bryans.
As to Boardwalk Empire, Johnson said he was most gratified not by the HBO series, but by the fact that three colleges – Rutgers, Stockton, and Princeton – are using the book in urban history classes.
“I’m thrilled that these people who really helped me are still alive,” said Johnson, who plans no book tour but says he will never turn down a church, library, or school.
“When you have first-person accounts from people who experienced something, it’s like a piece of gold thread, you can tie together the story.”
Read the rest of By Amy S. Rosenberg’s Shoring up the Boardwalk Empire on the Philadelphia Inquirer website.