Black History Month – February 2022

February is Black History Month and Cape May is currently working hard to preserve the history and present it to the public for visitors and locals alike to witness.

Recent updates

Recent updates in the historic district include the Franklin Street School, which is soon to become the city’s public library. The Allen AME Church is in the process of being restored by Cape May City, and this includes the restoration of the wonderful stained glass windows. The stained glass windows were removed in May 2021 to be repaired and replaced. More about the stained glass windows can be read here.

On February 13, 2022, Mayor Zack Mullock officially declared Jarena Lee Day in Cape May. He recognized the remarkable accomplishments of this Cape May native who became the first recorded African American woman to publish an autobiography and the first female preacher of the Allen AME Church, born in Cape May on February 11, 1783! Watch the video proclamation here.

In addition to all these updates, the Cape May Firehouse is in the process of a complete rebuild, in the city’s efforts to continue to revitalize the district. The project’s estimated completion is in 2023.

Black History

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.

old photo of garage

An old photo of the garage.

Antoinette’s Apartments & Suites has its own piece of African American history on the property. The garage is a small part of history, a black mason bricklayer named Mr. Green, who had a business of making them and used it to build the 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.

An upclose look at the bricks.

After conducting some research, Deanna believes the garage was built in the 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.

Current day photo of Antoinette’s garage.

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

Allen AME church

1968 urban renewal photo taken of the Allen AME church, originally built in 1888. Photo courtesy of Dick Gibbs, Greater Cape May Historical Society.

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 afterward.

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.                         

Additional information can be found here:

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