Here’s my question, if a segment of a community’s history is demolished because of a well-intentioned government program called, ironically enough, Urban Renewal – does said history still exist?
Cape May’s Afro-American history nearly faded into the haze of demolition dust, but when a group of mostly white local artists got together in 1994 and went looking for a good arts center, they took a second look at the Franklin Street School. The school was built as a segregated school for the city’s black elementary students. It continued as such from 1928-1948, the year the State of New Jersey outlawed segregation.
The summer of ’91 also brought some tension between Afro-American youths and Cape May’s summer police. When the artists approached the black community about restoring the school and turning it into a community arts center, the two groups merged and began working in tandem to renovate the school and gather more information about the graduates who went there. By learning about the graduates, historians began to learn more about the way things were in the Afro-American community before the impact of Urban Renewal began in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Twelve years later the Center for Community Arts (CCA) is in the midst of an extensive renovation of the Franklin Street School and has developed an African American Walking Tour of Cape May, retracing the steps of those who once worked, lived and thrived in Cape May. The tour begins in front of CCA headquarters at 712 Lafayette Street, moves over to the Franklin Street School on Franklin Street and then proceeds west to the Irish Shop at Lafayette and Jackson streets.
In the 1920s Afro-Americans comprised about 30 percent of Cape May’s population. Nearly 60 of the businesses in the district were owned by African Americans.
So picture this – if you’re standing in the parking lot of the Irish Shop (which used to be the English Shop back in the day) on the corner of Lafayette and Jackson streets looking across the street to Rotary Park, you are in the heart of the Afro-American business district. The location of the Irish Shop was the Douglas Hotel – locals remember the segregated hotel by its nickname, “The Bedbug Inn.” Not exactly your upscale accommodations spot, I’m guessing.
Around the corner on Jackson Street at Perry Street, where Mariah’s, Guardian Angel and the Bamboo Shack are located, was another blacks-only hotel called the New Cape May Hotel, owned by a man by the name of Richardson.
Next door, where Cape Savings Bank stands today, was the site of the Opera House, owned by prominent Afro-American businessman Edward Dale, described by those who remember him as being an elegant man who owned several businesses in town, including the Dale Hotel at the corner of Lafayette and Jefferson streets (the brick building is all that is left of the hotel).
People came there to see movies the Opera House, to attend boxing matches and to see concerts which showcased local as well as nationally famous artists. Because blacks were not permitted inside the white USO, located on the second floor of the four-story Focer-Mecray Building on Washington Street – now the site of the Victorian Towers – another Urban Renewal inspired project – during WWII, the Opera House served as USO for black servicemen. Paul Robeson entertained to a full house there in 1943 when he appeared by special invitation to dedicate the building as the black USO.
Colliers Liquor Store was a speakeasy run by the current owner’s uncle. Then it became Charlie’s Bar and then Collier’s Liquor Store. There was no Rotary Park. Lafayette and Mansion and Chestnut streets were filled with boarding houses, private residences and black-owned businesses. Many blacks came to Cape May at the turn of the century to help build the railroad. Empty lots in town at that time were cheap and they bought them with the money earned by working on the railroad.
Bill Allison and Edward Dale, were among those men who worked hard, saved their money and invested it wisely. Allison was one of the wealthiest businessmen in Cape May and owned quite a number of properties. He ran a pool hall located where the Rotary Park gazebo is now. Often, according to the recollection of folks who grew up during that era, Allison welcomed local teenagers to play pool to keep them off the streets and out of mischief. His daughter Elizabeth still lives in West Cape May and his other daughter Kitty owned a beauty parlor on Jackson Street.
Allison also owned a guesthouse for resort workers and tradespeople. Someone walking along Lafayette or Mansion Street in the heydays from the turn of the century to the late fifties would have found strong community of black-owned or managed businesses. Along with Allison’s Pool Hall and boarding house, was an auto mechanic, a carpenter, a plasterer, a blacksmith and a wallpaper hanger. There was an employment agency on Mansion Street for African Americans looking for summer employment. There were also four drugstores in town, one of them at the corner of Washington and Decatur streets – all with soda fountains – and several small grocery stores. These establishments catered to both a white and black clientele.
Broad Street was another neighborhood of black-owned businesses, according the late Jack Vasser who died in 2003 and was the mayor of West Cape May for more than 30 years .He was the third generation of a family that owned several pieces of property and a trash pick up business in both communities.
Stephen Smith, one of the richest black men east of the Mississippi in pre-Civil War Cape May, summered on 645 Lafayette Street. A Philadelphia industrialist, he founded the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church also located on Franklin Street.
Smith’s house was targeted, along with everything else standing between Franklin and Mansion streets, for demolition, when Amelia Hampton, who owns the house and still summers there, appealed to then President Lyndon B. Johnson to save the historic home. LBJ responded immediately, via Western Union telegram, forbidding its destruction.
By the 1960s much of the area that once thrived had become, like Cape May in general, dilapidated and vulnerable to the wrecking crane. In place of bustling businesses patronized by both white and black patrons, Rotary Park and Lyle Lane (which basically serves as a parking lot for the Washington Street Mall) were built instead. In addition to the Stephen Smith House, only three structures are left from those Victorian, two-story clapboard buildings – the building housing Mariah, et al; Island Grill, formerly the Mansion House and prior to that still owned by descendents of an African American family; and Colliers Liquor Store.
Even the churches have morphed in this day of condo-mania. The Franklin Street Methodist Church was built in 1879 as a Baptist church and is a key building contributing to Cape May’s status as a National Historic Landmark. This church had a tower that enhances its classic Victorian Gothic Revival architecture, but it was destroyed by lightening. Around town it is simply known as the “Yellow Church.” It was sold and converted to condominiums two years ago as part of a Designer House project.
Although it started out as a Baptist Church, the Baptist congregation moved to its present location on Gurney and Columbia in 1913 because the white congregation wanted to leave the increasingly black neighborhood. A black Methodist congregation moved in and was active until the sale of the building.
Work continues on the Franklin Street School in preparation for a grand reopening slated for next year, and while many work on the façade the other building, others diligently are working to recreate the oral and physical history of this once vibrant African American business district. According to Community History Committee chair and CCA board member Harry Bellengy, the hope is that from a segregated past, an integrated future will result.
The African American Heritage Walking Tour of Cape May, sponsored by CC, will resume in April, weather permitting and will be offered on Thursdays and Saturdays at 11 a.m. leaving from CCA at 712 Lafayette Street.
Ed. Note: Our thanks to the CCA for allowing us the use of their photos and to Mr. Bellengy, and CCA history committee member Hope Gaines for their input. Much of the information in the article came from the African American Heritage Walking Tour script.