Emily Dempsey doesn’t remember her first day at Franklin Street Elementary School. “But I do remember my mother holding my hand on my way to school and I remember that my (older) sister Florence took me to school shortly after that.”
Emily Dempsey doesn’t remember any one particular day at Franklin Street School but she remembers all the days there as being very special.
“I remember that the school was very clean and organized. I remember a brick building and wooden floors that sometimes creaked when you walked across them.”
“We didn’t feel deprived at all,” she remembers. “Our teachers never missed a day of school. They were all so dedicated.”
She remembers her teachers most of all– all three of them. There were only three classrooms in the segregated school. Mrs. Cordelia Howard taught grades K through 2nd grade. Mrs. Florence Porter taught grades 3 through 6th. And the principal, Mrs. Owens, taught grades 6, 7, and 8.
Mrs. Owens also taught Emily’s mother, Sarah, nee Bose who will be 89 Feb. 2nd. Sarah was in the first Franklin Street School graduating class – Franklin Street Elementary was built in 1927 as a segregated school. Emily’s older sister, Florence (by two years) was in the last graduating class in 1948. That was year the state of New Jersey outlawed segregation. Emily was in the sixth grade and ended up graduating with an integrated class.
When her class made the move to the integrated school, Emily said “I remember our teachers telling us ‘Put your best foot forward because you’ll have to do twice as well to succeed.’ ”
However, the subtleties and in some cases, not so subtle aspects of segregation were not lost on the small Afro-American community. Franklin Street Elementary, for example was a much newer building than Cape May High School, located around the corner on Washington Street. Franklin Street School was built with a beautiful gym. But that gym was meant for the white high school students next door. The kids at Franklin Street Elementary School were not permitted to use the gym except on rainy days at recess. Even then, they had to go outside to gain access to the gym.
In fact, according to Steve Bacher, executive director for the Center for Community Arts, which hopes to call the Franklin Street School home by 2008, the school was designed architecturally so that no door could be used to connect the school to the gym. The gym, he said is on the ground floor but the classrooms are on the upper floors. Any attempt to connect the two would result in a door leading to nowhere. And to drive home the point – the city had two separate grand openings in 1927. One for the segregated school and one for the gym.
And that’s how it was back then.
After 1948, Franklin Street School was relegated to what Bacher refers to as a “precursor to the vo-tech schools.” Subsequently, care of the school came under the city government’s jurisdiction. It has been used as a municipal storage area and has fallen into a steady state of disrepair ever since.
Advocacy efforts by the Center for Community Arts led to New Jersey designating the school an African-American Historic Site. In January 2002, the Center signed a 25-year lease of the school from the City of Cape May. Currently, the Center is working with the City to rehabilitate the school for community use. By 2008, the Center expects to completely rehabilitate the Franklin Street School and reopen it as a community cultural center.
The school will house the Center for Community Arts programs, including its Youth Arts Programs, Community History Program, Artist-in-Residence Program, programs for seniors, and a Community Media Technology Center.
It will also house the Center’s John and Janet Nash African-American History Archives and the archives of the Greater Cape May Historical Society; recreational programs of the City of Cape May’s Department of Civic Affairs; community meeting, classroom, exhibit and rehearsal spaces; and a permanent exhibit of the history of the School and Cape May’s African-American community.
The project is expected to cost $2 million.
In April, work began on Phase One of the project which included removal of all environmentally hazardous materials and stabilizing the building until repairs can begin.
John Nash is both a Franklin Street graduate and a collector of local African American history. While his health permitted, Nash kept a close eye on the progress being made at the school this summer. For example, contractors erected temporary gable vents to replace the plywood used to board up the windows for years. Later, the vents will be replaced by historically-correct windows. Some of Nash’s and Dempsey’s memorabilia is currently in display in the Carriage House Gallery, on the grounds of the Emlen Physick Estate.
The exhibition entitled “Two Women, Two Worlds” is a collaborative exhibit with the Center for Community Arts (CCA) and the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts. It examines the fashions, accessories, activities and lives of two classes of Victorian-era women in Cape May-the upper class and the working class. Photographs, artifacts and oral histories from Cape May residents are included. The exhibition runs through May 15th.
Similar exhibitions and memorabilia will be on display permanently when the Franklin Street Elementary School re-do is complete in 2008.
Susan Tischler is the former editor of CapeMay.com and Cape May Magazine.