Uncovering the Overlooked: How the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May is Reviving and Reframing Black Local History

To wrap up 2020, we are looking back on some of this year’s public humanities happenings in the Greater Philadelphia region. Throughout the week MARCH will feature Public History Year in Review essays written by students in the “Issues in Public History” course at Rutgers-Camden. 

Portrait of Harriet Tubman. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

By Tia Antonelli

Cape May, a calm yet popular shore town at the very southern point of New Jersey, is filled to the brim with history,  such as the Lighthouse, the World War II Lookout Tower, and the wreck of the SS Atlantus off of Sunset Beach – but the magnitude of Black and abolitionist history has rarely been recognized, let alone popularized, until the creation and opening of the Harriet Tubman Museum. Though it’s called the Harriet Tubman Museum, and it does highlight her life and achievements, it is more of a testament to Black history in the town as a whole during the era of slavery and into present day.

Harriet Tubman, an enslaved woman born in the 1820’s, escaped in the 1840’s. With a bounty on her head, she travelled roughly 90 miles from Maryland to Pennsylvania, and made similar trips an abundance of times to help other enslaved people escape to freedom through a system known as The Underground Railroad. Although unknown by many until recently, Cape May was a key area in the Underground Railroad and in the abolitionist movement. According to one of her obituaries, which she dictated, she had used Cape May as her “headquarters” for a period of time. Being the most southern point of New Jersey, just sixteen miles from the Delaware shoreline (slavery was still prevalent in Delaware, whereas New Jersey was primarily abolitionist), Cape May signified freedom that was close enough to taste. As someone who travelled between the North and South frequently, Cape May was the perfect in-between resting spot; it kept her close enough to slave states to help those in need while also remaining in an area where she was technically free and could work to raise money for her endeavors.

The museum is situated in the restored parsonage facility of the Macedonia Baptist Church, which is next-door, located at 630 Lafayette Street. Originally built in the late 1700’s, the building became worn-down when the church, whose membership had fallen in recent years, was unable to financially handle its upkeep. In a state of absolute dishevelment, the house risked being torn down to accommodate a loading area and a parking lot for the ACME shopping center that stood beside it. 

Bob Mullock, a longtime Cape May resident who owns The Chalfonte Hotel, compared the ramifications of destroying the house to that of a melting iceberg; it would greatly affect the Macedonia Baptist Church, the local Black community, and the preservation of local history itself.

“Once it’s gone, once it’s a parking lot – people don’t take tours of parking lots even though the history was still there, because they don’t remember it now; they don’t have anything to reflect that history,” says Mullock. To him, the house and the church it’s associated with have inherent historical value that made it worthy of preservation. He later became familiar with Harriet Tubman’s historical relevance to the area through one of her obituaries; this added another layer of necessity to this historical preservation project, which Mullock and his family initiated towards the end of 2018.

The first section of the museum pays tribute to the late Reverend Robert O. Davis, who was the last to live in the church’s parsonage facility, and his beliefs. Rev. David opposed the imperialist ideas that African people were not civilized and that they lacked culture, and he worked to teach others about the beauty of indigenous African civilizations. The opening room displays African masks and art that were from his collection. They aid in giving more context to Black history, as well as perpetuating Rev. David’s message that Black people were not inherently uncivilized prior to European intervention.

In addition to the renovated house is a gallery room. During the building process of the museum in Cape May, Mullock visited an art museum in Florida and saw a gallery room. He became absolutely enamored with the concept; he recalls stepping foot into the space and immediately thinking “This is what the museum needs,” and so the additional space became the heart of the museum. It is in the Tubman Museum’s gallery room – an open space with numerous windows, information lining the walls, and chairs from the neighboring church in the center of the room – that the local abolitionist story is further explored. In this room, we meet numerous historical figures such as William Still (a Black abolitionist who spent time in Cape May, and who also wrote The Underground Railroad, two copies of which are on display), Charles Sumner (a Senator with anti-slavery ideals, who spent time recovering in Cape May after being attacked on the Senate floor), and Harriet Tubman herself. 

When the Mullock family approached the Macedonia Baptist Church in 2018 with their proposal to create this museum, the members of the church were skeptical, as were many people in the town. For starters, many were unaware of Tubman’s affiliation with Cape May, and so they initially believed it to be a myth. Soon after, the members took a trip to Cambridge, Maryland to visit the Harriet Tubman Museum there. It was through this experience that they learned the truth regarding her activities in Cape May. They arranged for Mullock to rent the parsonage property for 18 months, and within that timeframe he worked (with the help of his family, curators, and local contractors) to create the museum. 

Once the plan was confirmed, people in the town were wondering why Mullock and his team were willing to put so much time, money, and effort into a building that was ready to collapse at any given moment – surely, it would be easier for everyone to simply let it be turned into a parking lot. But Mullock, insistent on preserving the history of the town by both keeping a historic building intact and giving it a new purpose, paid no mind to the initial pushback of the public. They first redid the exterior of the home to make it more aesthetically pleasing. Without anything even being done to the interior, public opinion was turning around; everyone was curious as to what they were doing, and people were lining up to help.

The museum would have never been accomplished without the great team of volunteers who formed the Trustee Board. Lynda Towns, both the President of the board and head of the Church, brought in the great support of the Black community and developed the final room of the museum, called the “Legacy Room.” Barbara Dreyfuss, an accomplished historian, helped with the necessary research and the writing for many of the exhibits. Zack Mullock was the general contractor who attracted all the subcontractors and coordinated the exhaustive preservation and restoration. Cynthia Mullock was the overall Executive Director and headed up fundraising. All worked without pay.

“People came out and they made major contributions,” Mullock recalls. “Carpenters, artists, craftsmen, they did such an outrageous job. It became a barn-raising for the whole town.” 

The final piece of the museum showcases the legacies of Black history. On the wall is a timeline, beginning in the era of slavery and making its way up to present day, that outlines key events in Black history in Cape May, such as Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to Quakers at the Friends General Conference in June 1958, to the first Black valedictorian of a local high school. 

In its creation, the Harriet Tubman Museum unified a town in ways that were pleasantly shocking; in its presentation, it gives more insight into a collective history that has long been unacknowledged. 

The museum was set to open on June 19th, 2020 – otherwise known as Juneteenth, which is meant to commemorate the effective end of slavery in the United States – but was postponed due to COVID-19. A ribbon-cutting ceremony on September 17th, 2020, in which Governor Phil Murphy was present, signified the official opening of the museum. At the moment it is open for private tours. For more information, visit https://www.harriettubmanmuseum.org/.

Tia Antonelli is a history student enrolled in the BA/MA Dual Program at Rutgers University-Camden.