CAPE MAY — Long before civil rights and desegregation, this seaside resort was full of African-American fraternal, social and civic organizations.
The organizations gave out college scholarships, made sure the hungry got fed, pushed for social changes, taught blacks how to run a business, provided a venue for networking and sometimes just supplied a place to have a good time.
The role of such groups — which included Cape May’s African-American Mason Lodge, the GEMS, Order of the Eastern Star, the local NAACP chapter, a black Elks Club, a black USO, and many others — is the feature of a new exhibit at the Emlen Physick Estate on Washington Street. The exhibit opens Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
“Most of the organizations at that time were white organizations because of segregation and racism, so African-Americans formed their own chapters,” said Wanda Evelyn, chair of the History Committee at the Center for Community Arts.
The CCA, an organization dedicated to the rich African-American history in the resort, is sponsoring the exhibit along with the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities, or MAC.
The exhibit details the different organizations that served the city’s black population, but within a larger historical perspective. It shows how a free black man, who owned property and his own soap company, began it all in Boston in 1776. While American revolutionaries were arguing that all men were created equal, Prince Hall opened African Lodge No. 1 in Boston to make sure blacks were at least fighting to be at the table of this new American dream.
Hall then established lodges in Philadelphia and Rhode Island. Before long, what were known as Prince Hall Masons started appearing in most areas with large black communities. The lodge in Cape May was created in 1888, and in the early 1900s the women’s version of the Masons, called Order of the Eastern Star, opened in the city. The Cape May lodge later merged with the Meridian Lodge in Cape May Court House.
“Prince Hall was sanctioned by the Masons in England. They said, ‘Yes, you can do the same work we do, just form your own chapter,’” Evelyn said.
While England may have welcomed them, many white Masons refused to recognize the Prince Hall Masons in their communities.
Bernadette Matthews, of the CCA, said such organizations were a place to network.
“It’s a place people could go and make connections and just feel good about themselves,” Matthews said.
The city’s black USO organization that formed in 1944 was one such place. A large black-and-white picture in the exhibit features what Evelyn said is pretty much the entire black community of Cape May at a USO event in which singer Paul Robeson performed. Evelyn pointed to a number of her relatives sitting in the old opera house on Jackson Street waiting for Robeson to arrive. President Harry Truman didn’t desegregate the military until 1948 and many separate USO organizations were created around the country just for blacks.
Evelyn said leaders in the black community usually created the organizations. One such group was the GEMS (Gracious Enthusiastic Matron Service) of Cape May County. It was formed by a group of professional black women who owned their own businesses or worked as teachers after several of them noticed at high school graduations that most of the scholarships went to white students. The GEMS’ purpose was to raise money for scholarships for minority students.
A few groups were desegregated from the beginning, such as the Kiwanis Club of Cape May.
“Blacks joined that from the beginning,” Matthews said.
“Most international organizations didn’t have a problem with it,” added Evelyn.
Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were also integrated, though sometimes troops were divided by color because of where they lived. Evelyn recalled a troop from Cape May being blacks and whites but the West Cape May troop was all blacks.
“If the neighborhood was black, it was black. If the neighborhood was white, it was white,” Matthews said.
If blacks were allowed in, there usually was no reason to form a separate chapter. When they were not allowed in, chapters modeled after the white organizations formed.
“Black service organizations were formed to provide a unified voice on civic, economic, political, cultural and social matters that were of unique interest and importance to African-Americans,” states a placard at the exhibit.
Another placard notes that some of the organizations in New Jersey were linked to the Underground Railroad, which helped protect blacks fleeing slavery, so these were far from just being social clubs.
Churches were often linked to the organizations, which Matthews noted went through the same painful process as the evolution of the fraternal organizations. She said the African Methodist Episcopal Church was formed after blacks joined the Methodist Church but kept getting shunned to the balconies.
“They were banned to seating in the rafters so they started their own church,” Matthews said.
Most of the city’s black organizations have disappeared with desegregation. The exhibit looks back to a time when the city had segregated schools and blacks mostly lived in one section of town.
Contact Richard Degener: