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Can Whitesboro remain a cohesive community in changing times?

MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Bernie Blanks points to his name on the blackboard in the small white schoolhouse on East Main Street.

The Whitesboro Grammar School operated from 1910 until 1967, teaching the children of this tight-knit community from kindergarten until they went on to Middle Township High School. Behind a layer of plexiglass in one room, the names of many who attended school there are written in chalk, along with the names of teachers.

“It was a very close community. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody went to school in Whitesboro until eighth grade,” he said. “You got a great education. The teachers knew it was very important that you be prepared when you went on to high school. Everybody was pushed to get an education.”

When he was a student there in the 1950s, all of the students were black. In fact, the entire community was black, he said, with strong black-owned businesses catering to their neighbors. Today, Whitesboro is far more diverse than when he was a kid.

“The town I grew up in was an all-black town. It’s no longer that, and that’s OK,” he said in a recent interview. “That’s what black people have fought for all this time, to be able to live where you want. It’s only reasonable that it would work the other way around.”

But how does a community founded as a haven for black people facing Jim Crow and racists discrimination continue in a new century?

Foundation as a planned community

Whitesboro carries the name of George Henry White, a lawyer and Republican Congressman from North Carolina. At times, White is described as the last black congressman of the Reconstruction era, when new laws enacted after the Civil War gave former slaves and other black men the vote and with it unprecedented political power. White was elected before Jim Crow laws began to destroy those inroads with legal codes of segregation, disenfranchisement and repression. It took generations of struggle to win back those gains.

But as Shirley Green of the Whitesboro Historical Foundation Museum points out, White was not alone in the founding of the community. He just put in the most money. In about 1901, a group of black investors launched the Equitable Industrial Association, including White, the Rev. J W Fishburn, Booker T. Washington and Paul Laurence Dunbar, a celebrated poet and novelist.

The idea was to build a planned, self-reliant community for blacks without the discrimination faced elsewhere. According to the website, potential purchasers had to apply, and for a down payment of $5 could purchase a 50-by-150-foot lot of good land. Many came from the South to start a new life in a new community.

At one time, Green said, Whitesboro had farms and poultry operations to grow food, a post office, stores and shops and other business, including its own sawmill. In her home, Green showed off numerous displays, including models of the sawmill and the old Wildwood Junction railroad station near Whitesboro, as well as posters outlining the history of community.

The museum at 2215 Route 9 South is not currently open. Green said she plans to have it back in operation this year, possibly by April, when she also hopes to reopen Tiffany’s as well. She said she originally opened the well-known soul food restaurant on Route 9, later passing the operation on to her daughter. The sign is still there, but the business is closed.

In the meantime, Green said, she continues to teach about the history of Whitesboro at schools and community events.

“We’ve been trying to preserve as much of the history as we can,” she said. Green feels that the sense of Whitesboro as a distinct community is at risk.

“No Question. Absolutely,” she said. “Whitesboro has a problem.”

Zip codes and community

Early this year, Whitesboro residents gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. center to hear plans for a new post office for their community. Postal Service representatives are looking for a spot to place a 12-by-40-foot trailer to operate as the new post office, including the possibility of placing it on the Whitesboro School property, owned by Middle Township and leased to the Concerned Citizens.

For now, the post office boxes are in a corner of the MLK center. Some residents complained that they were losing their Whitesboro ZIP code, 08252. As residents sign up for home delivery rather than a post office box, they are often listed in the Cape May Court House ZIP code, 08210. According to Green, that creates issues for deeds, insurance, even for emergency responders.

At the January meeting, residents spoke of missed deliveries from Amazon and other online retailers. Residents say new technology like Google Maps sometimes omit places like Whitesboro. But at the same meeting, others said the issue is not unique to Whitesboro. Even older communities like Mayville or Goshen, which predates the American Revolution, are seeing similar effects of new technology, and Blanks points out that both Goshen and Rio Grande also had schools of their own at one time, now long closed.

Community continues

Blanks is not certain that people moving to Whitesboro now will feel as deep a sense of connection and belonging as did his generation. Freed from the weight of discrimination, or at least from some of its most public and virulent expression, the unique history and importance of a black community may not seem as important to some, he said. As older residents die and families move away, he’s afraid the Whitesboro where he grew up could be little more than a spot between two signs on Route 9.

But the community continues. Each year over Labor Day weekend, the Whitesboro Reunion draws big crowds. The event began in 1988 as a way to keep those community connections strong as people moved far from the area for jobs.

Others see those connections continuing

Blanks points to a thriving homework club based at the MLK center and other activities. Plans call for new tennis courts at the center and on the same night as the post office meeting, residents crowded the gym for the activities underway. The Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro offers a scholarship program and events through the year.

“The community is as strong as it ever was,” said Cheryl Spaulding, the program administrator for the Concern Citizens of Whitesboro.

The 2010 census found just over 37 percent of Whitesboro residents identified themselves as black or African American, a much higher percentage than Cape May County as a whole. The census area included parts of Burleigh, another historic Middle Township community. The same data described 53 percent of the residents as white, with smaller percentages of people from other backgrounds.

A series of side streets cut off from Route 9, many bearing the names of Whitesboro founders, with a mix of new and historic construction. There are also stretches of undeveloped land, with a wide, deep forest between Whitesboro and the community of Green Creek, some of which is preserved land while some is in private hands.

On a February afternoon, a steady stream of traffic rolled along Route 9, with many vehicles heading toward or away from the busy retail areas of the Rio Grande section of the township. Route 9 is the most visible part of Whitesboro, and it is lined with several empty buildings, including Tiffany’s and the now-closed St. Stephen AME Church. But there is also extensive new construction and investment underway along the same route.

Middle Township Mayor Tim Donohue is sympathetic to those who worry about the sense of history in Whitesboro. As the township works on economic development, he said, officials try to keep in mind the character, identity and history of each of the communities that make up the township, he said. But he sees some loss of the sense of distinct, separate communities spread throughout Middle Township as inevitable.

“Whitesboro today is an integrated neighborhood of Middle Township. I think some people would look at that as progress. It’s an active, vibrant area with a lot of pride in the community,” he said. “What defines these areas is their history and that history is tied up in the families, tied up for literally hundreds of years in some cases.”

Blanks said he’s seen a lot of streets fill in with new homes and sees a different town than the one he remembers, where he knew the name of every business owner and most of the residents.

“We still try to preserve the history of how Whitesboro got started and the purpose of it,” Blanks said. “You always want to preserve that history.”

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