Cape May has a rich history full of significant visitors and very notably, Victorian architecture. Cape May also has a large African American heritage. The town is currently working hard to preserve the history and present it to the public for visitors and locals alike to witness.
The historical significance was not generally told about Cape May’s African American neighborhood. Currently, Cape May City’s ongoing plan is to create an African American District around the Harriet Tubman Museum, Stephen Smith House, Franklin Street School and Allen African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.
Antoinette’s Apartments & Suites has its own piece of African American history on the property. The garage is a small part of history, black mason brick layer named Mr. Green, who had a business of making them and used it to build garage. He used unique molds that created the outward facing part of the block, Cape May Historical Society president Harry Bellangy said. There are other locations around town that have the same or similar design block.
After conducting some research, Deanna believes the garage was built in 1910s. The two doors to the left might have been horse stables since they were smaller. When cars came into popularity, the far-right door was probably used for a Model T car, since it was the widest.
Decorative concrete blocks were commonly used for the foundation and for garages. The concrete blocks were hollow, to add to the comfort of the building – making it cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. The automobile was thought to be a fire hazard, so people felt safer with their automobiles in a fireproof, concrete block garage.
Additional history around Cape May
Just around the corner from Antoinette’s is the AME church (built by Stephen Smith in 1888). The church is an important African American landmark in the historic district of Cape May. An accidental fire happened in the entrance tower in 2018 when a truck brought power lines down on the building. The AME church is in the top 10 of New Jersey’s “Most Endangered Historic Property” list.
The City of Cape May has taken stewardship of the AME Church, and it will be restored for community use. It’s expected the land around the building may provide parking for the new library at the Franklin Street School.
Soon to become the new Cape May Branch of the County Library, is the Franklin Street School. The building was preserved as a historic site and saved demolition, now allowing it to be restored and used as the new public library. The school was built in 1927 and opened for black students from kindergarten to eighth grade, until 1948 when segregated schools were prohibited. The city used the building as a warehouse afterwards.
Bellangy also said the school was used by Carolyn Pitts and her team when she was doing research that led up to Cape May becoming a National Historic Landmark. It was a fallout shelter during the Cold War as was the post office basement. The Cape May Vocational Tech school started there.
Stephen Smith is the original owner and builder of his summer home, dubbed “The Stephen Smith House” at 645 Lafayette Street. He was known as one of the wealthiest black Americans in the nation, as well as one of the leaders in the Underground Railroad. Smith was an abolitionist and founded the AME church, which is just around the corner from the home. It has been saved from demolition in the 1960s.
The town is home to the recently opened Harriet Tubman museum, which details the role Cape May played in the Underground Railroad as well as Harriet Tubman’s presence in town during the early 1850s. The museum is the parsonage of the Macedonian Baptist Church. The importance of the primarily black-owned homes and businesses will be enhanced in the museum as it is a crucial part of Cape May’s history.
While there is much hype about Cape May’s role in the Underground Railroad, Bellangy said some of the activity took place in the Salem County area. “Just look at the expanse of the Delaware Bay, that is not a safe body of water to cross. That would greatly limit the possibility of Cape May being any kind of an active part of the Underground Railroad. The Delaware River in the Salem is relatively narrow and New Castle Delaware is right across the river. Much safer than the Delaware Bay.”
Cape May MAC and the Center For Community Arts work in conjunction to offer an informative tour providing information on the African American Heritage found in Cape May. Sites include the Franklin Street School, the Steven Smith House, and the newly opened Harriet Tubman Museum in the former Macedonia church.
Antoinette’s Apartments and Suites is only a block away from these up and coming African American treasures. We’re very excited to see all of these historic properties being preserved. We are especially happy that we will only be a block away from our relocated library. We are looking forward to these positive changes in the neighborhood.
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