Take a good look at a Monopoly board. The most expensive properties, Park Place and Boardwalk, are marked in dark blue. Maybe you’ve drawn a card inviting you to “take a walk on the Boardwalk.” But that invitation wasn’t open to everyone when the game first took on its current form. Even though Black citizens comprised roughly a quarter of Atlantic City’s overall population at the time, the famed Boardwalk and its adjacent beaches were segregated.
Jesse Raiford, a realtor in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the early 1930s and a fan of what players then called “the monopoly game,” affixed prices to the properties on his board to reflect the actual real-estate hierarchy at the time. And in Atlantic City, as in so much of the rest of the United States, that hierarchy reflects a bitter legacy of racism and residential segregation.
Cyril and Ruth Harvey, friends of Raiford’s who played a key role in popularizing the game, lived on Pennsylvania Avenue (a pricey $320 green property on the board); their friends, the Joneses, lived on Park Place. The Harveys had previously lived on Ventnor Avenue, one of the yellow properties that represented some of Atlantic City’s wealthier neighborhoods, with their high walls and fences and racial covenants that excluded Black citizens.
The Harveys employed a Black maid named Clara Watson. She lived on Baltic Avenue in a low-income, Black neighborhood, not far from Mediterranean Avenue. On the Monopoly board, those are priced cheapest, at $60.
Atlantic City served as a hub to some of the 6 million Black Americans who left the Jim Crow South seeking new opportunities in the North as part of the Great Migration. It was the “first mass antiracist movement of the twentieth century,” Ibram X. Kendi writes in Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. But, he added, “when migrants reached northern cities, they faced the same discrimination they thought they had left behind, and they heard the same racist ideas.”
For white Americans, “Atlantic City, like all mass resorts, manufactured and sold an easily consumed and widely shared fantasy,” Bryant Simon, a history professor at Temple University and the author of Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America, told me. “Southernness is used to sell that fantasy in the North,” he explained, pointing to marketing that focused on the stereotypically white, southern luxury of hiring Black laborers to shuttle visitors around in rolling chairs, wait on their tables, or otherwise serve them. Jim Crow, Simon said, existed everywhere. Around the time that Monopoly was taking hold in Atlantic City, ballots there were marked “W” for white voters and “C” for “colored” voters, Simon said. It would take countless demonstrations and protests and a long struggle by the city’s Black residents to secure their civil rights, but the Monopoly board records a world of ubiquitous racism.