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Juneteenth Brings Joy, A New Tubman Museum And Questions Of The Future

Lynda Anderson-Towns, president of the Trustees of the Harriet Tubman Museum, stands outside the museum on Lafayette Street in Cape May, N.J.
Lynda Anderson-Towns, president of the Trustees of the Harriet Tubman Museum, stands outside the museum on Lafayette Street in Cape May, N.J.

A Juneteenth celebration in Cape May, N.J., yesterday doubled as the grand opening day of the new Harriet Tubman Museum.

About 200 people gathered in Rotary Park for the city's first significant Juneteenth celebration, organized by the museum. The event of African drumming and speeches by town leaders drew some for their first taste of Juneteenth as it becomes a national holiday.

"I thought the event was very inspirational," said Shirlene Darby, of nearby Whitesboro, who had never celebrated Juneteenth before. "Just knowing that we're going to be getting together every Juneteenth as a national holiday, I just think it's something good. It's a long time coming."

Some celebrants in other cities had a mixture of enthusiasm and challenging questions for the federal government.

"It's a day of excitement and exuberance, but we have to temper it," said the Juneteenth commissioner in San Antonio, Texas. Tempered, Byron E. Miller said, because full justice has yet to emerge.

In Denver, the long-established Juneteenth celebration in the Five Points neighborhood drew large and energetic crowds.

Butterfly White, who marched with members of the Colorado Democratic Party, summed it up this way:

"We need tangibles along with symbolic things. So I appreciate the effort," she said, "but we need more."

Karen Britt, who spearheaded Juneteenth Lehigh Valley, the first major Juneteenth celebration in the region around Allentown, Pa., said the future of the holiday is still to be determined.

"I hope it doesn't go into the commercialization of what we have with mattress sales and all that kind of thing all around the Fourth of July...but that we really keep it authentic."

Back in Cape May, N.J., many came to Rotary Park on Juneteenth specifically to celebrate the opening of the Harriet Tubman Museum. The Smithsonian magazine had listed it as one of the most anticipated museums of 2020, but its opening was delayed for a year because of the pandemic.

"I know a lot about Harriett Tubman, that history. That's what made me come here," said Gerald Brown, who came down from Pleasantville, N.J. "They talk about the Underground Railroad, but after that. What she did in the military, you know, she was a nurse. There's a lot of different things she's done."

Visitors tour the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May.
/ Emma Lee/WHYY
Visitors tour the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May.

Tubman's time in Cape May was short. It is known she spent a summer there – maybe two summers – working in the resort hotels to raise money to fund her work with the Underground Railroad. She later came back through Cape May to shepherd nine escaped former slaves up to Canada.

The small museum in a restored 19th century parson's house tells the story of Tubman, and also that of the once-vibrant African American community in Cape May. One wall is filled floor-to-ceiling with a list of all the Black-owned businesses in Cape May since the 1930s. The opposite wall features a timeline of Black activity in the town, from the founding of the first free Black community in the 1820s, to the first Black resort hotel – the Banneker House – in 1845, and up to today.

The museum board president Lynda Anderson-Towns said Cape May's Black community is now not nearly as large as it was 50 or 100 years ago.

"The African American community has almost disappeared," she said. "Many are not here anymore, and the world needs to know that story. We want to make sure it doesn't disappear."

A guide leads visitors through the newly opened Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May.
/ Emma Lee/WHYY
A guide leads visitors through the newly opened Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May.

Anderson-Towns sees the Harriet Tubman Museum as the first step toward building out a Black historic district in Cape May, by preserving the surrounding buildings that tell the story of the Black community.

"Our goal is to not just have the Harriet Tubman Museum to tour, but also the Stephen Smith house to tour, to talk about him as one of the wealthiest African Americans in 1800," she said. "The historic Franklin Street School, which will be turned into a library, and then also the historic AME [church]. We want that full corner to be eventually our Freedom's Corner."

Elaine Moore-Wright came with her mother, Betty Eugenia Dozier Moore, from Williamstown, N.J. Longtime visitors to Cape May, they say the history is there, if you look.

"There's always a piece of African American history," said Moore-Wright. "But then there are certain places where it's just all about African American history."

"It's been that way for a long time in Cape May, because they lived here every since there was a Cape May," said Dozier Moore. "I used to come down here when I was a kid, and I'm 84 years old, so Cape May's been having people of color here for a long time."

Copyright 2021 WHYY