For years, rumors swirled in Cape May that Harriet Tubman once worked as a cook on the island at the tip of New Jersey’s tide-washed peninsula, sauteing bacon at the storied Congress Hall hotel and stowing away money for her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
Longtime visitors knew to take such stories with a grain of sand. This is also the place where Captain Kidd’s treasure is apparently buried (no one’s turned up any gold), and where every other bed-and-breakfast proprietor has a ghost story that will give you goosebumps (if you believe in such things).
But research has confirmed that not only did Tubman spend time in Cape May, but this genteel seaside resort was also an epicenter of the abolitionist movement in the Northeast. Now, the community is busy raising funds and support for a Harriet Tubman museum that will pay homage to this story. In true Cape May fashion, a historic home will be preserved in the process.
“This isn’t just about reporting history,” said Bob Mullock, who conceived of the museum idea. “This is an opportunity to make history. It’s a chance to unite as a town and say, ‘This is important, and we can accomplish this together.’ It’s a barn-raising.”
Mullock owns the Chalfonte, the oldest continuously operating hotel in Cape May. It was built in 1876 by Henry Sawyer, a Civil War hero who survived four bullets, including one through the neck. Captured by Confederates, he was set to be executed, but President Abraham Lincoln coordinated a harrowing prisoner exchange that eventually inspired Sawyer’s Swap beer from Cape May Brewing Co., as well as a Civil War tour for guests of the Chalfonte.
In researching this tour, Mullock came across Tubman’s 1913 obituary in the Auburn (N.Y.) Daily Advertiser. The piece details her escape from slavery in Maryland, as well as her life’s work ushering other slaves to freedom via a network of safe houses and secret routes. In Cape May, it reads, “she established a headquarters.”
“We can’t know exactly what this means,” said Barbara Dreyfuss, whose research has inspired a Cape May history tour that’s part of the Network to Freedom program, a collection of sites nationwide with verifiable connections to the Underground Railroad. “But what we’ve discovered has been awesome.”
With a $52,000 bounty on her head, she led more than 300 people out of slavery. And she spent the summer of 1852 working to raise money for her operations in Cape May (which means it’s possible those cooking rumors are true). That fall, she made a clandestine trip to the Eastern Shore, where she led nine people out of slavery.
Many of the slaves Tubman saved can be identified. William Still, a leading black abolitionist who spent time in Cape May, recorded their names and final destinations in the mid-1800s. But these nine people remain anonymous. A 1909 article from the New York Sun claims Tubman engineered a settlement for freed slaves in Cape May, and that she did it the same year this rescue happened, suggesting this group — and potentially others — established new lives in town.
It’s a feasible narrative. Because Delaware was a slave state, fugitive blacks moving north had only to make it 18 miles across the Delaware Bay to freedom in New Jersey or, eventually, Philadelphia. According to Dreyfuss, 20 slaves who are known of (and likely more) fled for their lives in skiffs across the bay, encouraged by the beacon of the Cape May Lighthouse.
Two years ago, wanting to preserve this history, Mullock floated the idea of making a Harriet Tubman museum out of an unoccupied house on Lafayette Street. Owned by the predominantly African American Macedonia Baptist Church next door, the space once housed the church’s pastor, the Rev. Robert Davis, and his wife, Carolyn. A passionate educator, Davis frequently hosted lessons in his home or visited schools. Lynda Towns, trustee chairperson at the church, said Davis, now deceased, “saw into the soul of every person he met, regardless of race. He, like Tubman, exemplified perseverance.”
The house was partially constructed in 1799, meaning it’s among the oldest on the island and a rare example of pre-Victorian architecture in town, but it long ago fell into disrepair. Struggling with declining membership, the church has not been able to afford restoration. While other options — like selling the space to a developer — held practical appeal, in November 2018 church leaders officially partnered with the Mullock family, signing an 18-month lease agreement. The Mullocks set to work establishing a nonprofit now tasked with raising $500,000 and rehabbing the building. On July 14, construction began.
“We were faced with tearing it down, but who wants to demolish a piece of history?” said the Rev. Harold Harris, the church’s current pastor. “My hope is that people will leave this place inspired to share the love for their fellow human beings and make a positive change in someone else’s life.”
Coincidentally, the house sits on a corner that was a nexus of abolitionist activity and discussion. Across the street is the 1846 home of Stephen Smith, a freed slave who amassed wealth as a Philadelphia industrialist. He contributed much of it to the abolitionist movement, ferrying slaves to freedom in secret compartments in the cars of his (legal, aboveground) railroad line. At the same intersection, he founded the local A.M.E. church, currently being rebuilt after a fire. And next to Smith’s home is an empty lot where the Banneker House Hotel, one of the only resorts for blacks in the country at the time, housed members of the Vigilante Committee of Philadelphia, responsible for the coordination of the Underground Railroad.
In the meantime, the museum board is busy curating the content, which will pay tribute to local African American artists as well as Davis and his artifact collection. Emily Dempsey, an African American owner of a local antiques shop who represents at least the fourth generation of her family in Cape May, will also donate a first-edition copy of Still’s book, The Underground Railroad: A Record, in which the author documented the hardships relayed to him during interviews with escaped slaves who came through Cape May. She found it at an estate sale, tucked into the eaves of a house owned by a custodian of the historic Franklin Street School for African American children, which sits adjacent to the future museum.
“It’s like a light’s been switched on in Cape May,” Dempsey said. “I know my grandmother had stories of Harriet Tubman, but you don’t talk too openly about a person who had a bounty on her head. We thought this history was lost. Now, we’re learning about our ancestors.”
One of the museum’s missions will be shedding light on the contributions of the wider African American community, which in the 1920s represented 30% of the island’s population. Residing largely in the Lafayette Street area, this demographic ran a number of stores, restaurants, a pool hall, and one opera house that served as the black USO during WWII. Near the future museum space operated the Dale Hotel, which hosted W.E.B. Du Bois, founder of the NAACP. In 1958, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech on racial justice to a Quaker conference on the island.
But in the 1960s, when much of Cape May had fallen into disrepair, Urban Renewal money was used to raze many of the buildings belonging to the African American community. Coupled with rising real estate prices, the black population has never recovered.
“We’ve done a great deal showing how rich Victorians enjoyed life in Cape May, and yet an awful lot of this community was developed by black residents,” said Tom Carroll, a friend of the museum and president of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities.
The museum is slated for a 2020 opening, which will coincide with Tubman’s 200th birthday, or at least the one reflected on her gravestone; she wasn’t positive when she was born. Because the museum property is owned by a church, many of the traditional grant-raising avenues are not available, which means the project is dependent on private donations. Out of the $500,000 needed, $150,000 has been raised in cash — much of it at a recent fund-raiser hosted by local preservationists Dave and Chris Clemans — and $100,000 has come in the form of pro bono and in-kind donations. (For those who’d like to contribute, donations can be made by visiting harriettubmanmuseum.org.)
The local Swain’s Hardware store has offered $20,000 worth of interior and exterior paint. Cape May Lumber is offering all windows at cost. Fulcrum Design Group is charging nothing but small expenses for architectural drawings. Michael Mohr of Mohr Masonry was recently laying concrete for what Mullock calls “a super deal.” (Unsurprising for Cape May, he was also wearing flip-flops on the job site because “my son is laying block next to me and it keeps getting in my boots.”) Mullock’s son, Zack, a Cape May City Council member, is serving, for free, as construction manager. Other residents honk or wave as they drive by, encouraging workers as they reinforce hand-hewn timber beams or pull away asbestos siding.
“The goodness of the town is reflected in this project,” Mullock said. “I don’t want to say it restores your faith in humanity, because people always have this in them. But it does reinforce that, boy, people are all right.”