ATLANTIC CITY -- Since 2002, the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey -- the first such museum of its kind in South Jersey -- has been expanding the public's knowledge about black history through permanent exhibits and temporary installations here and at its original location in the Newtonville section of Buena Vista Township.

To commemorate its own history-making existence, the nonprofit museum will host a 15th anniversary celebration on Feb. 27. It will begin at 5:30 p.m. at the museum's Atlantic City location at the Noyes Arts Garage, 2200 Fairmount Ave. Tickets are $80 a person for the "business casual" event and include parking, cocktails, food, live entertainment, and a silent auction. Proceeds from the event support the continued free admission to the museum and its Traveling Museum education program.

About 20,000 people a year visit the two sites. And that the museum exists -- with about 15,000 artifacts and pieces of memorabilia that depict the culturally rich history of African Americans from slavery through the Civil Rights movement and beyond -- is a credit to its founder, Ralph Hunter Sr., 79.

The museum began with about 3,000 antiques and pieces of memorabilia from Hunter's own collection -- artifacts of African American history that had lined his Atlantic City apartment for years, prompting his friends to refer to his home as "the Museum."

Others began donating their own unique finds pertaining to African American history. Among the most treasured donations was a series of nine portraits of black men and women unearthed in the crawlspace of an old house in Atlantic City in 2004. Researchers believe the  portraits, drawn with conté crayons, are of four generations of the Pettijohn family, a middle-class African American family who lived in the resort's Northside neighborhood around 1900.

Hunter discusses the museum's origins and its plans for the future.

Tell us about how and why you began collecting African American artifacts and how that obsession evolved into the museum. 

I took a road trip and ended up in an antiques store in North Carolina and tucked away in the back, the lady had an original edition of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman. I hated that book as a child, and I bought it to take it off the market.

When I grew up in West Philadelphia, there were only four African Americans in my classroom, and my teacher would constantly read Little Black Sambo and I would put my hands on my ears and refuse to listen to the words. When I would go outside at recess, the kids would call me "Little Black Sambo" and I was very offended by it. When I bought the antique book, it brought back so many bad memories and I decided then and there that I would buy up every copy of it in the country and burn them up in a big bonfire.

But then I took the book out to the car and started reading it and found it to be fascinating. From then on, I just began collecting anything I could get my hands on that has to do with African American history. At some point, I just realized that my collection needed to be shared with the public. We began by going out to schools and then the mayor of Buena Vista Township offered us public exhibit space in a community center in Newtonville.

In these racially turbulent times, how important is a museum such as yours to tell the story of African Americans in the region?

We've been blessed with the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and it is great to see that so many non-African Americans have become interested in the cultural role that African Americans have played in this nation's history by visiting that museum and ours. But it's important that people realize they don't have to make the trip to Washington to learn about our history. ... We have the information right here. I think that our museum can help build a bridge of understanding between people.

Tell us about your alliance with Stockton University and some of your hopes and dreams for the museum's future.

Working with Stockton since 2002 has been a significant partnership that has expanded our reach as a museum. With the satellite museum at the Noyes Arts Garage, we have been able to reach more people visiting the resort who may not have otherwise made it out to Newtonville to see that location. We've been able to work with graduate students on internships at the museum that have benefited us and the students. My hope is that the museum continues to partner with Stockton to integrate curriculum and other educational aspects, perhaps the way the college has with its Holocaust Resource Center.

What can you tell us about the significance of this 15-year anniversary milestone?

Getting from the first day until now has been somewhat of a struggle. We don't charge admission. The bulk of our funding has come from our traveling museum series, which we've taken to hundreds of schools and colleges throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. We also have had sponsors and donations and fund-raisers.

That we have been here for 15 years allows us to reflect on where we've been as a museum organization and where we want to go in the future. Our mission is, and always has been, to not just be a repository for artifacts, but to also be a showcase for established and up-and-coming African American artists. And I think our exhibit schedule for the coming year certainly reflects that.