That is the conclusion of historian Nelson Johnson, the author of “Boardwalk Empire” and its companion book about Atlantic City’s vibrant black neighborhood, “The Northside.”
His reasoning is simple: Starved for labor, hotel owners turned to black employees to fill the vital slots that kept the resort running. They recruited heavily in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, wooing black workers northward with salaries that dwarfed those of the South.
“When Atlantic City and Cape May were trying to establish themselves as resorts, they really didn’t have another source of labor. If they were going to function at all, they had to hire black workers,” Johnson said. “That bond of dependence of the owners on their workers was very real.”
As a result, African-Americans held 95 percent of hotel staff jobs during the resort’s Victorian heyday,
Hotel work could be far more lucrative than the two alternatives then available to black workers: farming or private domestic work.
“Once you got above the really menial tasks of dishwashing, cooking and food service, for everybody above that — bellmen, busboys and even elevator operators — there was the opportunity for tips,” Johnson said. “And tips were a big deal.”
For anyone whose job involved interaction with guests, those tips — untaxed and uncounted by management — could quickly add up.
The overwhelmingly black staff created little discomfort among white guests; many appeared to enjoy it.
Far from finding black maids or bellhops unappealing, “the psychology was the opposite,” Johnson said. “Middle-class factory workers would come to visit, and it would make them feel good there was a service class in uniforms that was waiting on them.”
One former maid told Johnson guests would look at her “like she wasn’t even good enough to breathe the same air,” yet tip her well.
The work was hard, and seasonal.
Ralph Hunter, who runs the African-American Heritage Museum of Southern Jersey, recalls that many on the hotel cleaning staff worked a split shift. Chambermaids would walk to the big hotels from the Northside each morning to clean rooms for a few hours, then return home. In the late afternoon, they would repeat the trip to turn down the beds.
“Up and back, up and back, four times a day,” he said.
But it had this advantage over working in a private home: At a hotel, the job was done once the work…