As you walked through Cape May Rotary Park on Saturday, you couldn’t be faulted for thinking it was the 1800s.
Muskets were brandished by civil war reenactors. Residents preferred chatting to scrolling on their phones. And the name that was on everyone’s mind was Harriet Tubman.
After a year of delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, residents gathered on June 17 to celebrate the official opening of the State Museum in honor of Tubman, the legendary abolitionist.
Brian Daniels, 66, of Manchester Township in Ocean County, dressed in a naval corporal uniform in honor of his great-great-grandfather, Cyrus Wesley, who served in the 22nd Regiment of United States Colored Infantry.
Wesley was injured in the Siege of Petersburg, which lasted from 1864 to 1865, said Daniels.
“Harriet Tubman was a slave herself, but she still helped a lot of people in the south,” Daniels told NJ Advance Media.
The museum will serve as a reminder of his work, he said.
“If you know the past it will help you know the future,” Daniels said, turning to take an order from his captain, Robert Bowell, 75, of Browns Mills, in preparation for the ceremonial march.
Called the “Moses of his people,” Tubman helped others gain freedom as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. According to records, Tubman also worked in Cape May in the early 1850s to fund his mission to rescue slaves.
the Harriet Tubman Museum at 632 Lafayette Street opened a day after New Jersey’s Juneteenth Day – the first time the New State Day was celebrated – and the federal holiday.
Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States.
Specifically, this marks June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger announced the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 to the slaves of Galveston, Texas. As Texas was a remote state, they were the last slaves to learn their freedom.
The museum’s founding trustees saved the existing structure from demolition in 2018 – leasing the pre-1800 building and starting its restoration.
Construction began in early 2019. The pandemic suspended plans to allow the public to enter last year, but since then the museum has gained national attention. Smithsonian Magazine called it one of the most anticipated museums in the world and USA Today ranked it # 5 on its list of the ten best new museums.
“It is an exhilarating feeling to be able to open up,” said Lynda Anderson-Towns, administrator of the Harriet Tubman Museum and liaison with the Macedonian Baptist Church in Cape May.
Anderson-Towns said she was shocked by the response to the museum and Saturday’s ceremony, which drew more than 400 people.
“We also feel a strong sense of responsibility to make sure that we can graciously provide visitors with a great visit so that they can truly appreciate the work we have done,” she said.
Anderson-Towns helped Governor Phil Murphy on his own tour after a dedication ceremony for the museum last September. At the time, the governor called the 1,600 square foot building a place where visitors can contemplate the country’s “unfinished struggle for civil rights.”
the two hour event Saturday included reflections on the origins of Juneteenth and performances by the Pan African Rhythm Cooperative.
Carolyn Davis, who was married to the late Reverend Robert O. Davis, and who served as pastor of the Macedonian Baptist Church for 47 years, loaned the museum’s artifacts from her collection, including chains that date back to the 1800s .
They were the last family to live in the Howell House, now the museum, as a rectory until the mid-1980s.
“He was very passionate about his collection,” Davis said of her husband, died in 2015, “and would have loved to see him be (posted) in this community he loved.”
Those who visit the museum will walk through the story itself – planks of wood salvaged from a Cape May house that was on the Underground Railroad.
Cynthia Mullock, executive director of the museum, said the space is made up of three rooms that address different themes.
The story of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade is told. Another, a gallery, tells about Tubman’s stay in Cape May, on the Underground Railroad and during the Civil War. And a third room depicts the history of African Americans from the 1800s to the present day.
The museum will have a few centerpieces, but other exhibits that will rotate, Mullock said.
“We’re also planning to have some promising artists on the road… and we’re expanding our lineup,” Mullock said.
Plans are also in place to launch a virtual tours application in partnership with Friday is tie day.
“We consider this to be an educational institution, so we plan to work with many schools to organize outreach programs and amplify the museum, social justice and black community messages,” said Mullock.
Among the most remarkable works of the museum:
- “Harriet Tubman – The Journey to Freedom”, an Emmy Award and Oscar traveling sculpture sculptor Wesley Wofford. The 9-foot, 2,400-pound statue – the first piece installed in the museum – shows Tubman leading a slave girl to freedom
- philadelphia artist Kate brockmanTubman’s bust about the same age she would have been in Cape May
- Pictures and a timeline cover the walls and provide information on important people and developments in the history of the African American community in Cape May
- Historical artifacts, a record of the Underground Railroad and a map showing where black families lived from Cape May to West Cape May in the 1920s
The museum will be open to visitors from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.
You can donate to the Harriet Tubman Museum by visiting www.harriettubmanmuseum.org.
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Steven Rodas can be reached at [email protected].