CAPE MAY — Next to a white church with bright red doors decorated with Christmas wreaths sits a large, shabby brown house with boards covering up what used to be windows and surrounded by a chain-link fence.
Though the structure hasn’t had tenants for a number of years, members of the Macedonia Baptist Church, community businesses and historical groups hope to change that by honoring one of America’s most known abolitionists and champions of freedom, Harriet Tubman.
Cape May developers and business owners Robert Mullock and his son, Zack, signed an agreement with the church Sunday to lease the parsonage property while they renovate the building and turn it into a museum about Tubman and the work she did helping slaves escape through the Underground Railroad.
“People are really excited about this,” Zack Mullock said. “When Cape May puts its mind to something ... when that happens, there’s success. There’s a lot of support for this.”
Lynda Towns, church trustee chairperson, said they hope the project will be completed in 2020 to coincide with the expected release of the new $20 bill, which federal officials announced in 2016 would have Tubman’s face on the front and move President Andrew Jackson to the back.
Developers and church trustees said the museum will showcase Tubman’s significant role as a civil rights hero, as well as the time she spent in Cape May, which was recorded in biographies and manuscripts written about Harriet Tubman’s life.
“We know that she spent time here in the 1850s and worked here to make money so that she could bring more people to freedom,” said Robert Mullock, who owns The Chalfonte Hotel. “We don’t know exactly where she worked, but historians say she was probably here at other times as well.”
The area around the church and parsonage is filled with structures and houses built before and after the Civil War.
The AME Church, or Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church, just several hundred feet from Macedonia Baptist was founded in the 1800s by Stephen Smith, a former slave from Pennsylvania.
Smith, who bought himself freedom from slavery before Pennsylvania abolished it, was instrumental in the Underground Railroad. His summer home, almost directly across the street from Macedonia Baptist, has been preserved.
The parsonage project coordinators hope to add to the historical significance of the area as well as honor one of their own. The museum will be dedicated to Rev. Robert Davis, the longtime pastor of Macedonia Baptist who died Dec. 26, 2015.
Zack Mullock said while the house looks rundown from the outside, it has a fairly new roof and has been gutted inside, making it easier for renovations. He said the building also has good historical features that they will be able to preserve.
The parsonage building, part of which dates back to 1799, was willed to the church by its owner, Philadelphia Quaker Joseph Howell.
It was occupied by church ministers until about 35 years ago, and fell into disrepair. There have been attempts in the past to restore the building for community activity, but any projects have failed to be realized.
Robert Mullock said the church and community members will raise money to support this renovation project so that the parsonage can once again become a place for discussion, debate, presentations and historical education.