Usry, James L. 1922–
James L. Usry 1922–
Former mayor of Atlantic City
In 1984 James L. Usry became Atlantic City, New Jersey’s first African American mayor, and pledged to reform the city’s notoriously corrupt government. Usry was a native of Atlantic City, a onetime Harlem Globetrotter, and a teacher, principal, and school administrator for several years prior to his political career. He enjoyed enthusiastic support from the state’s Republican leadership, but fell out of favor with them when he publicly endorsed the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Democratic presidential bid in 1988. Unfortunately, Usry’s second term in office was marred by an arrest a year later for allegedly accepting bribe money from a federal informant, and he was indicted along with several other city officials and business leaders.
James Leroy Usry was born in 1922 in Athens, Georgia. When he was just an infant, his family moved to Atlantic City. This resort hub for East Coast residents was already a world-famous travel destination, with its long wooden boardwalk and annual Miss America pageant. However, it was also a segregated city. African American housing was confined to a specific inland area, and African Americans were only allowed to use one beach. Usry graduated from Atlantic City High School in 1939, and then went on to Lincoln University, an African American college in Pennsylvania. He earned a bachelor’s degree in social education in 1946, even though his studies had been interrupted by military service as a result of World War II. Usry also earned a master’s degree from Glassboro State College. From 1946 to 1951, he played center on a basketball team that was known as the New York Renaissance. This team eventually became the Harlem Globetrotters.
Usry began his career in the Atlantic City school system in 1952 as a teacher. He eventually rose through the ranks to become principal and then school administrator, serving as assistant school superintendent in the Atlantic County school system by the time of his first mayoral campaign. This occurred in 1982, when announced his candidacy as a Republican. The party affiliation was necessary, Usry later said, because of the long-entrenched political machine that ran city politics. “You had no jobs or anything here unless you were a Republican,” he told New York Times writer Steven Erlanger.
In 1982 Atlantic City, with a population of 37,000, was
Born 1922, in Athens, GA; married (widowed, 1980); married Laverne Young, March 31, 1984, Education: Lincoln University, B.A., 1946; earned M.A, from Glassboro State College.
Career: Member of the New York Renaissance, the precursor to the Harlem Globetrotters, 1946-53; be-came school teacher in Atlantic City, NJ, 1952, became principal, then promoted to assistant superintendent by early 1980s; first African American mayor of Atlantic City, NJ, 1984-90, Military service: Served in World War II.
Member: National Council of Black Mayors, former president.
Addresses: Home —1256 N. Indiana Ave, Atlantic City, NJ 08401-2133.
widely known for its corrupt city politics. Six years earlier, the state had approved petitions from Atlantic City residents to allow legalized casino gambling in the city. Atlantic City’s first casinos opened in 1978. It was hoped that the influx of more tourists, new jobs and increased tax revenues would revitalize the city, and help eradicate some of its terrible urban blight. However, the failure of the casinos to improve the lives of the city’s poorest residents became a rallying cry during the 1982 mayoral election.
In the national media, Atlantic City had become a catchphrase for the empty promises of legalized gambling. Sparkling, high-rise casinos towered over some of the worst urban blight in the country. The casinos took in around $5 million daily, and a percentage of that was earmarked for urban development, but the various city wards failed to come to a consensus on how that money should be spent. Moreover, the thousands of jobs created by the gaming industry paid little more than minimum wage.
As Usry campaigned door to door across the city, adults remembered him as a tough, no-nonsense school principal. He lost the election by only 359 votes to a white candidate, Michael J. Matthews. Usry and his supporters initiated a court battle over the election results, charging the Matthews camp with vote fraud. However, the suit was dismissed. A recall movement was set in motion the following year, and Matthews fought both the petition drive and the scheduled recall election that resulted from it in both the press and the courts.
Matthews was also devoting his energies to fighting a federal indictment for accepting a $12,000 bribe. Leading the recall election candidates, Usry campaigned on a platform that pledged reform inside city hall. “Today, six years after the advent of casino gambling and two years after the incumbent mayor assumed office, Atlantic City is headed in the wrong direction,” Usry declared during the campaign, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Obviously, Atlantic City is like a ship without a rudder. Obviously, there is no leadership.”
On March 13, 1984, Atlantic City voters recalled Matthews—by a vote of 7,021 to 4,086—and, in answer to a second ballot question, selected Usry as his replacement by a 62 percent majority. Matthews bitterly contested the results. The ousted mayor, who would eventually spend time in federal prison, claimed the Usry camp had been short 87 signatures on their recall petition. This made the entire recall election invalid. However, the New Jersey Republican Party had thrown their support behind Usry. They considered him a forceful personality, a man free of ties to the entrenched city bureaucracy.
The Republicans were also deeply interested in capturing the minority vote during the 1984 presidential election. It was thought that an African American mayor wielded a great deal of influence over his constituency in their choice of presidential candidates. At the time of the election, Atlantic City demographics revealed an African American population of 55 percent. “I feel very humble standing before you this evening,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Usry as saying in his victory speech that night in March of 1984. “I stand before you not as Jim Usry, mayor for some of the people; I stand before you as Jim Usry, mayor of all of the people. I say there is a new awakening and a new awareness in Atlantic City.”
During the two years of his first term, Usry attempted to put in place a program of internal reform and civic improvement. However, he encountered numerous road-blocks. A 1985 Philadelphia Inquirer report by George Anastasia described Usry as “perceived as an honest, if somewhat inexperienced, elected official. But his administration has struggled to come to grips with many of the city’s lingering problems. And it has frequently become enmeshed in the same petty politics that have saddled this city’s government with a longstanding reputation for, at best, incompetence.” Anastasia wrote of Usry’s attempt to reform city hiring practices that stalled in City Council for over a year.
In his next mayoral bid for a full four-year term, Usry again received the approval of Atlantic City voters. That year, he ran against Dolores G. Cooper, a white assemblywoman and Republican, who had disobeyed the state Republican committee’s wish that she stay out of the 1986 race. Even the New Jersey’s Republican governor, Thomas Kean, campaigned on Usry’s behalf. “In the two years that Usry has headed his administration, he lists such achievements as capital improvements—$6 million for beach protection and $2.7 million for Board-walk repairs,” wrote Doreen Carvajal in the Philadelphia Inquirer. A brief two-year stint in the mayor’s office had not provided Usry with enough time to completely reform City Hall. Therefore, the numerous problems that had plagued other mayoral administrations were still present. Usry would eventually cooperate with an official audit, paid for by the casinos, which concluded that Newark was plagued by poor city services, an overstaffed city hall, inflated salaries, and rampant absenteeism.
During his terms as Atlantic City mayor, Usry was elected president of the National Council of Black Mayors. In 1988, he became a delegate to the Republican National Convention. He also publicly endorsed Rev. Jesse Jackson’s bid for the Democratic nomination that same year. “Some people found that strange,” Usry told Erlanger in the New York Times. “But they failed to understand that I can change parties, but I can’t change being black and I don’t want to.” As a result of the endorsement, Usry’s good standing with the Republican Party came to an end. In July of 1989, he was arrested on charges of influence peddling, corruption, and official misconduct. He was accused, with thirteen other city officials and local businesspeople, of accepting over $60,000 in bribes. Usry was indicted along with the Atlantic City council president, the zoning board chairperson, and two council members.
Of the last six Atlantic City mayors, Usry was one of four leaders to face such charges. After an eight-month state investigation, he was charged with accepting $6,000 in cash from an informant, in exchange for allowing a motor-cart franchise to operate on the city’s famous Boardwalk. A Philadelphia Inquirer investigative piece revealed that a local businessperson named Albert Black, whom the mayor had known for decades, wore a hidden microphone when he visited Usry as he was recovering from shoulder surgery. Black left behind a $500 check, for two tickets to Usry’s planned campaign fund-raiser, and $6,000 in cash.
Usry left the hospital the following Wednesday, and was arrested at his home the next day—“before he would have had an opportunity to list, or fail to list, the contribution as a campaign donation,” explained Philadelphia Inquirer reporters Mike Schurman and David Johnston. Usry faced a maximum sentence of 36 years in prison, but pleaded not guilty and vowed to clear his name. He refused to leave office, and ran unsuccessfully in the 1990 mayoral election against a white candidate.
In 1991, Usry pled guilty to a single charge of accepting a cash contribution for his mayoral campaign without immediately reporting it, and was cleared of the other, more serious charges of official misconduct. He remained in Atlantic City, and was still an active member of the community. He also appeared at a ceremony to commemorate “Chicken Bone Beach,” the only beach that African Americans were allowed to use prior to the 1950s. The beach was a favorite gathering spot for African American residents, and many African American performers who were in Atlantic City to perform or vacation also enjoyed the atmosphere. “When you would walk down the beach you might see Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, any of those people,” Usry told Brendan Schurr in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “That was really a very, very famous and historic site and place to be during those days.”
Economist, August 19, 1989, p. 18.
New York Times, August 29, 1988; August 30, 1988; July 28, 1989, p. B3; July 29, 1989, p. 28; June 9, 1990, p. 28; December 11, 1991, p. B9.
Philadelphia Inquirer, March 14, 1984, p. A1; June 17, 1985, p. A11; JuneS, 1986, p. B1; February 9, 1990, p. A1; August 16, 1997, p. B2.
Wall Street Journal, July 28, 1989, p. A2E; July 31, 1989, p. B6A.
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