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Historian Nelson C. Johnson, author of “Boardwalk Empire,” has a new book called “The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City”, which is a well-received history about the predominately black neighborhoods of Atlantic City. He spoke with Star-Ledger columnist Mark Di Ionno this past week about why the National Museum of African American History and Culture is important to all Americans.
Q: Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the museum, wants exhibits that shows African-American history in keeping with the overall American experience, from the founding of the nation until today. Do you agree with that approach?
A: Yes. Without free, forced labor, the infrastructure, population and economy of colonial America would have developed at a crawl. If the slave experience were removed from our nation’s history … would the critical mass required to contemplate separation from England have existed? I think not. … Without free labor, the 13 colonies would have been very different.
Q: The history of the African-American middle class in the decades before the civil rights movement is somewhat of a lost story, overshadowed by the more dramatic events of the late 1950s and 1960s. Why is this era important?
A: This era is important because it was an age of “uplift,” critical to moving past the slave experience. The children and grandchildren of freed slaves had a sense of purpose to their lives like few people in our history. From circa 1880 through 1960, by and large, African-Americans had a “civic mind,” which understood the connectedness of their existence and a “sense of urgency” that propelled their advancement through education.