Moderator Robert Jackson, of Del Haven, far right, looks on as Lois Smith, of Cape May, far left, and Shirley Becki Wilson, of Seaville, spoke about what life was like as children growing up in Cape May and West Cape May. This was a panel discussion of Cape May County black history at the Carriage House Gallery..

Dorothy Sheehan

CAPE MAY — A panel of black community leaders gathered in Cape May on Sunday afternoon to discuss the importance community organizations play in creating tomorrow’s leaders.

In recognition of Black History Month, the panel representing black fraternal, social and civic organizations in Cape May County met Sunday afternoon at the Emlen Physick Estate, where an exhibit outlining the contributions of the organizations will remain on display through April 14.

“It’s funny because these are the organizations I looked up to when I was growing up. From afar, a lot of kids see,” said panel moderator Robert Jackson, a former mayor of West Cape May. “Having civic organizations in your community is a huge plus.

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Robert Matthews, of Rio Grande, Middle Township, and Shirley “Becki” Wilson, of Seaville, Upper Township, said they could both attest to the truth of that statement, having grown up looking up to Dorothy Mack, known as one of the county’s most influential civil rights leaders through her work with the NAACP.

Wilson knew Mack better as her local Girl Scout leader who always encouraged the girls to “go do” good in the community. That sentiment made a difference to Wilson, now involved in several community organizations and a founding mother of the Center for Community Arts.

Lois Smith, a lifetime resident of Cape May, spoke on behalf of the black business community and recounted the history of several local black businesses. Smith grew up in Cape May where her parents owned a rooming house, now commonly referred to as a bed and breakfast for which the city is known.

“You were here, but you weren’t here. ... You didn’t talk a lot about what you heard,” Smith said. “Unless there’s a past, there’s not much of a history or a future.”

Representatives of Free and Accepted Masons Keystone Lodge No. 39, the Center for Community Arts, the Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro, the Kiwanis Club and other local leaders took part in the discussion and encouraged those in attendance to pass on word of their organizations’ activities to others in the community.

Keystone Lodge No. 39 offers scholarships each year to deserving students, but it has had difficulty garnering interest, said David Durham, the organization’s worshipful master.

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