The African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey (AAHMSNJ) sprang from the passion of its founder, Ralph E. Hunter, Sr. After retiring from a long career in retail, Ralph began collecting cultural treasures that he stumbled on while traveling or just by being an astute observer of his surroundings. That’s a fancy way of saying he found some of his “treasures” on the curb on trash day.
Ralph’s apartment was affectionately referred to by his friends as “The Museum.” In 2002, his museum became a reality when he was offered a space by the mayor of Buena Vista Township. This allowed him to show off his treasures, put to use his talent for display, and share stories about the meaning behind the artifacts he collected — the first of which was a copy of “Little Black Sambo” by Helen Bannerman. Hunter had painful memories of that book growing up and bought it to take it off the market. That same book is now the centerpiece of a vast collection of paintings, ceramics and advertising and branding memorabilia that portrays African Americans in both a flattering and unflattering way. They may make some uncomfortable, but they also serve to start the larger conversation about the true African American experience.
Ralph’s reputation for preserving and showcasing unique and local culture spread. He became the go-to person when Atlantic City families discovered their own historical treasure that they wanted to share with the world. The extraordinary exhibit “Portraits of A People” was the result Ralph accepting an invitation to explore a discovery found tucked away beneath an AC home.
Before long, Stockton College began to notice the museum and the contribution it could make to the school’s growth. After years of searching for an Atlantic City location, in 2013, AAHMSNJ became the anchor for the Noyes Arts Garage in AC — a Stockton University facility. Now with two locations, the museum has over 12,000 pieces. The AAHMSNJ traveling museum visits schools throughout the region and the corporate and rotating exhibits are available for installation at other facilities.
The museum is also a show place for local African American artists who’s work deserves attention. For many artists, breaking into the gallery world was illusive until AAHMSNJ came along.
Because of his extensive knowledge of Atlantic City’s history, HBO featured him in their documentary promoting the launch of the critically acclaimed series “Boardwalk Empire.” Ralph’s passion for collecting memorabilia and sharing the story of African Americans on Atlantic City’s North Side also led to an extensive exhibit that chronicled then prosperous times.
The museum’s exhibits have been numerous and widely varied. From With These Hands: An Exhibit of 101 Quilts African American Quilts, to the exhibit Stealing Home: How Jackie Robinson Changed America that has traveled to several other locations, Ralph Hunter and the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey are cutting a unique path in the cultural landscape that will be felt for generations.
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