The below replaces an earlier version.
CAPE MAY – For those who live here, it’s been a puzzle through the years. Did Harriet Tubman ferry slaves via the Underground Railroad through Cape May? Some say yes, while others are skeptical.
Various history books allude to the fact she was here working at a hotel during the summer for at least two years. Others neglect to mention Cape May at all.
Sixteen miles from the Delaware shoreline, with the Cape May Lighthouse signaling the land to freedom, Tubman was in a strategic place.
An escaped slave with a national bounty on her head, secrecy was of utmost importance, hence very little was said or known of her particular whereabouts in Cape May.
Some historians believe she may have lived at Mount Zion or Union Bethel, African American settlements in Lower Township. In Jeffrey M. Dorwart’s book “Cape May County, New Jersey. The Making of an American Resort Community,” Dorwart writes about Edward Turner, an African-American farmer who employed members of the Union Bethel community and may have assisted Tubman in 1850.
Turner may have been part of Tubman’s Underground Railroad, aiding slaves escaping Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.
Through extensive research, the Mullock family may have found some definitive truth about Tubman’s time here. From their research, they believe Tubman worked and lived at the Banneker Hotel, which catered to middle-class, African-American families. The hotel stood next to the Stephen Smith House, 645 Lafayette St., which is a National Historic Landmark.
The Mullocks are leasing the George Howell House, the site of the future Harriet Tubman Museum. It once served as the parsonage to the Macedonia Baptist Church.
The parsonage was built by Howell in the 1850s. He donated the lot next door which formed the Macedonia Baptist Church.
A Quaker and strong abolitionist, he also sold the property behind his house to the City of Cape May, then Cape Island, to build the African-American Franklin Street School, currently closed but under consideration to become the city library.
Located just south of the Mason-Dixon line, Cape May was a town where wealthy families from the north and south alike had, for years, mingled in what’s been known as “the nation’s playground.”
Slavery in Cape May County had existed since at least 1688, but by the early 1800s, ties to the abolition movement became stronger. Cape May County was one of the last to declare allegiance to either side.
Abolitionists included Joseph Leach, editor of the Cape May Wave, who wrote, “We glory in the spunk of our ebony friends.”
According to Tubman’s obituary, which she dictated to The Auburn Citizen in Auburn, N.Y. before she died, dated March 11, 1913, “she (Tubman) established headquarters in Cape May, N.J.”
Through the years, many of the original African-American homes were destroyed and residents displaced due to the influx of bed and breakfast inns, but the true demise came during the 1960s and 70s. Cape May’s Urban Renewal project nearly sent the African-American community into demolition dust.
A group of artists approached the black community about reviving the Franklin Street School into an arts and community center. The Franklin Street School’s future is yet to be determined.
The Tubman Museum will be dedicated to the late Rev. Robert O. Davis. In Oct. 1961, Davis became the pastor of the Macedonia Baptist Church. During his tenure, he reorganized three groups: the Entertainment and Education committee, Progressive Workers, and directed the Macedonia Concert Choir for 45 years.
Davis was and is considered a “community treasure" involved with the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities, the Rotary Club, as well as appearing as a guest soloist with Richard M. Teitelman’s Choir.
One of his passions was to lecture on African culture and heritage in church, schools and everywhere he was welcome.
Architects Paul and Cassandra Farnan, owners of Fulcrum Design Group, were hired to design the interior of the museum. They are tentatively planning several display areas, large, second-floor exhibition rooms and meeting rooms.
There is also a state bill pending to officiate the museum as the “Official Harriet Tubman Museum in New Jersey.”
The museum plans to open in 2020, on the 200th anniversary of Tubman's birth. With the question of her age and date of birth, Tubman told the reporter writing her obituary, “I am somewhere’s about 90 to 96. I don’t know when I was born but I am pretty near 95.”
The Tubman Museum is supported by tax-deductible contributions, which may be sent to the Harriet Tubman Museum, P.O. Box 2385, Cape May, N.J. 08204. For more information, go to http://bit.ly/TubmanMuseum.
To contact Jennifer Kopp, email firstname.lastname@example.org.