Panel joins A.C. residents with Stockton students who told their stories

stories of ac panel
At top, from left to right: Michael Stafford, Malikah Stafford, Madison McDaniel, Valeria Marcus, Ralph Hunter, Emily Montgomery and Christina Morus. (Photos by Mark Melhorn/Stockton University)

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, Burlington County, native.

She now works with Mighty Writers, a nonprofit that offers free reading and writing programs for children ages 7 to 17 in Atlantic City and Philadelphia.

“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 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 Associate Professor Christina Morus’ “Media, Civil Rights and Social Change” class in fall 2020 interviewed older community members via Zoom about their life experiences and what it was like in Atlantic City during the Civil Rights movement.

Last week at the Noyes Museum Arts Garage in Atlantic City many were given the first chance to meet their interview subjects in person.

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 interview subjects 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.

Christina Noble

“Our elders won’t be here forever,” said Noble, now director of Atlantic City Youth Services. “It’s so important to gather and to capture these stories while we still have all this living history here.

The reunion was also a chance to pay tribute to Alfreda Mills, one of the interviewees who died earlier this 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.

Montgomery had interviewed Ralph Hunter, but only met him in person at the event.

“Seeing everyone in person, it makes it real,” she said. “It makes it feel like you really made some human connections besides just the screen.”

Hunter is the founder and president of the Atlantic County African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, 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.”

It was also great to learn from the students, he added.

“When an old head like me has an opportunity to sit back and listen to the young-ins, it’s fantastic,” Hunter 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.

It worked for Madison McDaniel, a former Stockton students on the panel discussion with Montgomery and Malikah Stafford, who is now a graduate student at New York University.

“I was very nervous starting out,” McDaniel said. “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. 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,” she added.

Other residents on the panel included artist Valeria Marcus and Malikah’s father, Michael Stafford. They 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,” Manning said. “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 added. “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.”