Cape May’s African American History is Highlighted with New Museum

June 17, 2021
By Maria Boyes
Cape May Beach Avenue
At the southernmost tip of the state lies Cape May, long identified as “America’s original seaside resort.” Not only does Cape May have the prerequisite beaches and charming retail district but what makes it stand out amongst other shore towns is its beautiful array of Victorian Bed & Breakfast inns. Cape May City was nationally designated as an historic landmark in 1976, and the Victorian history of the town has been promoted for decades. As a result, Cape May has an extended and robust tourist season highlighting the historic architecture through year-round themed tours, exhibits and events.

In addition to the well-known Victorian-era inns, another aspect of Cape May’s history has recently emerged and is quickly gaining attention. A few years ago, history enthusiast Bob Mullock, was researching documents for a Civil War tour he planned to give at his hotel in conjunction with Cape May MAC (Museum Arts Culture), a non-profit organization formed in the early 1970s specifically to save historic architecture from the wrecking ball.

The information he uncovered in a newspaper article from upstate New York proved that Cape May was not only a stop on the Underground Railroad, but that renowned activist and abolitionist Harriet Tubman had a strong presence in town during the 1850s. “It was just amazing – the story of the Civil War and Cape May’s role including Harriet Tubman,” said Mullock. Research showed that to escape the slave states, freedom seekers would cross the Delaware Bay guided by the Cape May Lighthouse to reach New Jersey. As a result, this area was a meeting ground for many abolitionists during that time and in an interview, Harriet Tubman confirmed that Cape May was used as her “headquarters.”

Harriet Tubman Museum

Cynthia Mullock, Executive Director of the Harriet Tubman Museum, is an attorney who spent her childhood in one of Cape May’s famed Bed & Breakfast inns. As Bob’s daughter she explains, “My family and I are strongly committed to historic preservation.” In 2018, when she learned about the significant African American history in her hometown, she created a non-profit to save and restore the dilapidated house and ultimately fund the museum. She credits many volunteers who gave their time and talent stating, “It became an incredible community project that just took on a life of its own.”

The Stephen Smith House

Listed as one of Preservation NJ’s Most Endangered Places in 2012, the former parsonage which now houses the Harriet Tubman Museum was part of the Macedonia Baptist Church dating back to the late 1700s. Once owned by Quaker abolitionists, it was threatened by a proposed redevelopment plan that would have razed the vacant building. Today, freshly renovated, the house stands squarely within the section of Cape May that includes: the former African American Franklin Street School, the home of prominent African American entrepreneur and abolitionist Stephen Smith, and the historic Macedonia Baptist and Allen AME Churches.

Since then, the museum’s opening (which became virtual during the pandemic) has garnered both local and national attention. Recognized by Smithsonian Magazine as one of the Top 10 Most Anticipated Museum Openings in 2020, last year Governor Murphy attended an in-person ribbon-cutting ceremony on Emancipation Day. Earlier this year, the Harriet Tubman Museum received additional accolades as one of USA Today’s 10 Best New Museums of 2021 and will be open to the public beginning Juneteenth this year.

Historic Trolley Tour

CCA (Center for Community Arts), is a multicultural educational organization which developed the Underground Railroad Trolley Tour and runs it in conjunction with Cape May MAC, which is responsible for the restoration and promotion of many of the city’s landmark buildings. Hope Gaines, a member of CCA’s Community History Committee, has been a volunteer for over 20 years. “Everyone thinks that Cape May is just this pretty Victorian town, which it is,” she says. “But there was this whole other area of Cape May that was primarily black-owned homes and businesses. The addition of the Harriet Tubman Museum will enhance the importance of black history to Cape May.”

Warren Coupland, Chair of the Historic Preservation Commission, is also devoted to preserving this history. A 24-year resident, Coupland credits Cape May’s success to the importance of having a group of volunteers who are committed to historic preservation. “There is quite a bit of time, energy and training that goes into being a Commission member,” he says. Members of the HPC are required to have at least 8 hours of training each year, sometimes more.

With a Certified Local Government status from the state, Coupland confirms they are a “strong” HPC. In addition to having devoted commission members, he states the importance of having a supportive mayor and council. “The entire city is a landmark designation and that encompasses over 600 sites,” he says and points out that the Design Standards are strictly followed and incorporated into the zoning ordinance to ensure they are being enforced.

“We have been very successful in proposing several changes to the existing ordinance,” says Coupland. For example, if there is an elevation to a structure to mitigate flood damage, the ordinance states that the historic integrity of the property must be maintained. In addition, the City of Cape May has put in place a Compliance Officer. Coupland explains that this officer not only reviews construction plans but will visit the site during construction to ensure the plans that were approved are the ones that are being implemented.

“In Cape May, the history of the African American community that was previously untold is now in the process of being told,” said Coupland. “The HPC has recently submitted an application for a grant to formally recognize the total African American contribution to our national historic landmark.” With a vigilant HPC, and the dedicated volunteers of Cape May MAC and Center for Community Arts, the residents of Cape May are committed to recognizing their African American history and make it as relevant and celebrated as their beautiful painted ladies.

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Maria Boyes is a journalist who has written for newspapers across the country and penned a column in the NJ Courier News for several years. As a member of Preservation New Jersey’s Marketing Committee and Chair of the Westfield Historic Preservation Commission, Maria values historic architecture.

She and her husband, Jim, live in a Victorian where they spend their free time, when not working on their home, volunteering for various organizations within their community.