CAPE MAY, N.J. — A year and a half ago, the old parsonage house of the Macedonia Baptist Church on Lafayette Street in Cape May, vacant for decades, was in danger of being torn down.
Recently, that danger was declared officially over at Lafayette near Franklin Streets, a corner with deep historic resonance for the city’s Black families and for the country’s abolitionist movement.
The old Howell House, newly renovated and expanded, was now filled with artifacts of slavery and abolitionist history, and with an African art and history collection from the Rev. Robert Davis, Macedonia’s longtime pastor who lived in the parsonage.
On Sept. 17, it was officially christened the Harriet Tubman Museum with a ribbon cutting that brought New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and other dignitaries to the museum’s front porch. Smithsonian Magazine declared it one of 2020’s most-anticipated museums in the country.
Tubman’s connection to Cape May is mentioned in several newspaper articles on display at the museum. It boils down to this: In the summer of 1852, and possibly other summers, Tubman came to Cape May to work in hotels and with families as a cook, raising money to fund her Underground Railroad missions bringing enslaved people to freedom from Maryland.
But Cape May’s place in the abolitionist movement and its rich Black history are also on display at the museum, located on a main entryway to the resort, which is known for its meticulous obsession with its Victorian-era architecture.
For residents such as Lynda Anderson-Towns, Lois Smith and Emily Dempsey, whose families have lived in Cape May for generations, the Harriet Tubman Museum was a long-awaited recognition of the area’s Black history.
“It is very rich,” said Smith, who has spent nearly a century in Cape May and whose father, a railroad man, moved to Cape May, bought property, and operated a bed and breakfast for Black tourists. It was history, she said, that was “never recognized.”
“I feel extremely blessed and fortunate to see this happening where I lived and grew up,” she said. The deep-voiced jazz singer and member of the Macedonia Baptist Church sang stirring renditions of “Go Down Moses (Let My People Go)” and “Amazing Grace” for the ribbon cutting.
Anderson-Towns, president of the museum’s board of trustees, said the project was a collaboration between her church, which is leasing the parsonage to the museum, many donors and volunteers who worked on the museum, and businessman Bob Mullock, the owner of the Cape May National Golf Club and the Chalfont Hotel, and his family.
“It’s awesome to see it,” Anderson-Towns said, wearing a Harriet Tubman mask as she stood in the museum’s cathedrallike back room, a soaring renovation designed by architects Cassandra and Paul Farnan.
“It gives us a chance to highlight Harriet Tubman being in Cape May and also gives us a chance to celebrate the many African American families that contributed to Cape May as well.”
The location is historically significant: It was the heart of a thriving and activist Black community in the mid-19th century and beyond, a community that over time owned as many as 90 businesses.
In 1846, the abolitionist Stephen Smith, founder of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, built a summer house still located across the street from the museum, next door to the Banneker House, at the time one of the only resorts for free Black people in the country.
The corner of Lafayette and Franklin was known as a center of abolitionist activity. The Baptist church issued a condemnation of slavery, and Smith, who was born into slavery and purchased his own freedom, became one of the wealthiest Black men in the country. He used secret compartments inside his firm’s railroad cars to transport enslaved people to freedom.
The museum has the text of a proclamation issued from the Banneker House in 1855, at a gathering to celebrate the anniversary of the emancipation of 800,000 enslaved people in the British West Indies: “Resolved that we lament that the United States, although boasting of her liberty and republicanism, still hold in slavery 3½ million of our brethren thus demonstrating to the world its great inconsistency and injustice.”
Historian Barbara Dreyfus assembled many of the exhibits that trace the history of slavery, and the role of New Jersey in the Underground Railroad network, in addition to the legacy of Tubman and the city’s Black abolitionists.
“This corner had many African American(s) who lived here,” Anderson-Towns said. “I lived two houses away. Our family has been really grounded here in Cape May for many, many years.”
“We’re feeling very special about this moment,” she said. “We’ve been able to save the parsonage and also share this city for the many visitors who come to town.”
Many of the speakers, including Gov. Murphy, noted the urgency of the lessons of the museum, of its cooperative founders and donors, Black and white, Republican and Democrat, and of pulling into the spotlight both the more-familiar history of Harriet Tubman and the more-overlooked Black history of places such as Cape May.
Murphy noted the significance of the museum in teaching of Tubman’s time in Cape May, her work to lead enslaved people to freedom, of the city’s historic black community, of the efforts of abolitionists and allies who lived, operated businesses and prayed around the historic corner of Lafayette and Franklin, and of the clashes in town with visiting slave owners and their sympathizers.
But Murphy said his hope was that the museum would also be a call to action.
“Yes, this is a place for us to learn from Cape May’s role in the long and unfinished fight for civil rights,” Murphy said. “This is a place where each of us will be faced with the question: Will I be a part of the fight for equality and equity or will I sit idly on the sidelines of history? I think we know which side the legacy of Harriet Tubman will lead us to.”