September 4, 2021.
Dubbed the oldest seaside resort in the country, Cape May lies at the southern tip of the New Jersey peninsula. Vacationers from Philadelphia began visiting Cape May in the mid-1700s, relishing the ocean and sea air. The Jersey peninsula juts out into the waters between the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay. This unique geography played a role in a pre-Civil War phenomenon – the Underground Railroad.
Escaped slaves from Maryland and further south made their way to the southern shore of the Delaware Bay, in the state of Delaware, often with the help of the Underground Railroad, and were then ferried 16 miles across the bay to Cape May. Most escapees made their way to Philadelphia, and eventually Canada, where slavery was abolished in 1834.
Harriet Tubman was born circa 1820 and raised on a plantation on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She fled in 1849, made it the 90 miles to Philadelphia, and devoted her life to helping her enslaved family and others escape.
I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land. – Harriet Tubman
Tubman worked at least two summers in Cape May, raising funds for her clandestine trips to Maryland. She led dozens to freedom. With the outbreak of the Civil War, she joined the Union forces and served as a nurse and insurgent leader.
The Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May, opened June 2021, recounts Tubman’s story. The museum is housed in the parsonage of what was, in the 1800s, the Baptist Church next door. The area was at the center of a free black community, as well as the location of summer residences for leaders of Philadelphia’s abolitionist movement.
The museum is small but packed with items narrating the story of the slave trade, the local black community, and Harriet Tubman’s forays leading folks to freedom. Reservations are recommended. A guide leads visitors through the place and narrates Tubman’s tale. Visitors can spend additional time examining the museum’s artifacts.
My education, as far as I can recall, ignored the story of the Underground Railroad, the plight of slaves, the slave trade, the heroic efforts of individuals like Harriet Tubman, and the abolitionist movement. Until recently there were few places to learn about these aspects of American history. It is about time sites like the Harriet Tubman Museum rectify the void.
If you are in the south Jersey area and interested in black history, you should also check out the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, in Atlantic City.
And if interested in Cape May:
In 1976, the entire city was officially designated a National Historic Landmark as the Cape May Historic District. Cape May is the only city in the United States entirely with this designation, intended to safeguard the architectural preservation of the Victorian buildings throughout the city.
Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. – Harriet Tubman