CAPE MAY — Restoration is continuing at the Harriet Tubman Museum of Cape May, where future exhibits will celebrate the Underground Railroad leader and the role of abolitionists in the seaside resort.
Most of the exterior is finished, and the interior has been framed out at the old Macedonia Baptist Church parsonage, parts of which are more than 170 years old.
The plan is to open June 19, in commemoration of Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the freeing of the last slaves in America.
“It’s progressing really beautifully,” Executive Director Cynthia Mullock said.
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The museum is ready to begin work on plumbing, electrical infrastructure and HVAC. The project’s requirements have brought the community together. Swain’s Hardware, whose owners’ family were founding members of Cape May, donated the paint. Windows were donated, engineers and carpenters have volunteered their time, and money is being sent from both within and outside the community.
“Every dollar that’s donated goes directly to the museum because we’re an all-volunteer team,” Mullock said. “We don’t have a staff or the general overhead of a (typical) nonprofit.”
In addition to working on the museum’s structure, the team has been accumulating artifacts for exhibition.
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“We’re planning the curation of the museum right now,” Mullock said. “We have some very exciting exhibits coming. We have a number of artifacts from the Reverend Davis Foundation, but it’s also been astounding the number of donations that have come in, community members guiding us towards additional artifacts and art that has been designed as well.”
The Rev. Robert O. Davis was a pillar of the Cape May community and pastor at Macedonia Baptist Church for 48 years. He died in 2015, and the museum has worked with the church and his widow, Carolyn, to arrange for portions of his collection to be displayed.
Museum trustee Barbara Dreyfuss said the museum will not only honor Tubman but also the abolitionists who worked in Cape May to end slavery.
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“Cape May was a meeting place of North and South,” Dreyfuss said.
The corner of Lafayette and Franklin streets, where the museum will be located, was a center for abolitionist activity in the area. Across the street is Stephen Smith’s summer home. Smith was born into slavery, purchased his freedom, went on to become one of the wealthiest African Americans in the country in the mid-1800s and used his wealth to become a leading abolitionist.
Next door to Smith’s house sat the Banneker House.
The Banneker House was the only beach hotel catering to blacks in the country at the time, Dreyfuss said. It’s even possible this is where Tubman worked in Cape May.
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“There were four or five big white hotels whose staff were predominantly free blacks,” Dreyfuss said. “She could have worked at any of those or at the Banneker House.”
Tubman escaped from slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1849. She returned to Baltimore the next year to free her niece and niece’s child. Missing her friends and family, she went back to the Eastern Shore in 1851 and freed nearly a dozen people, taking them all the way to Canada, where they’d be safe from the Fugitive Slave Act.
In the summer of 1852, Tubman spent the season working in Cape May as a cook where she could earn $16 to $17 per month. She used this money to return to the Eastern Shore and free nine more people whom she brought back through Cape May on their journey north.
Some historians place Tubman in Cape May over several summers between 1850-53. According to Dreyfuss, there were two freed black settlements in Lower Township at the time.
“A number of the members of those communities were mariners, and it’s likely they would have helped her cross back and forth to the shore,” Dreyfuss said.
The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities gives a trolley tour designed by Dreyfuss several times per week from spring to fall that explores the Underground Railroad’s history in Cape May, including its connection to those early freedmen’s communities.
“The people who were here, black and white, were fighting together for the most important cause there was, freedom,” Dreyfuss said. “It’s very inspiring to bring back knowledge of that and to see people’s reactions as they learn that information. People are just really eager to be a part of this. They see it as something positive and uplifting.”