A Prompt for Restoration

A year ago, Ron Goldstein, then president of Cape May’s Chamber of Commerce, knew little about Stephen Smith and the summer home he built on Lafayette Street in 1846. And whenever Goldstein passed it on his way downtown, he could barely see the building behind the shrubs and trees that obscured it. But last year when he read in this magazine about Smith’s role in the Underground Railroad and his leadership in the fight to end slavery, Goldstein was inspired. He knew he needed to do something to make Smith’s contributions more visible to the Cape May community. As head of the Chamber, he found a way to do just that.

Goldstein thought the Chamber could help beautify the house as part of its community outreach program. He proposed that the Chamber landscape the large area around the house, and the Chamber’s Board enthusiastically endorsed the plan. Goldstein asked Bernadette Matthews, now the Chamber’s First Vice President, to coordinate the effort. “Stephen Smith’s contributions to the country made it a worthwhile project,” explains Matthews. “We wanted to do our part in beautifying the site and building a sense of community doing that.”

Smith’s home is one of the few remaining buildings of what was once a vibrant and large African American community, comprising close to 30 percent of Cape May’s population in the early 20th century. By bringing the home to the community’s attention—both local and visiting—it “makes for a more comprehensive history…It is in a visible place, but it was obscure,” says Matthews.

In addition to making the house more noticeable, the Chamber has also made Stephen Smith and his place in history more visible when they included a full page about Stephen Smith in the latest edition of The Visitors Guide of Cape May.

As detailed in the Fall 2015 issue of Cape May Magazine, Smith was one of the richest black men in America before the Civil War, operating a coal and lumber business in Columbia, Pennsylvania and investing in real estate in Philadelphia and Cape May. In an era of intense hostility against free blacks in the north, when they struggled merely to find jobs, his ability to operate one of the most successful businesses was particularly remarkable.

He could have been content with that achievement. But with a flood of people fleeing slavery, Smith felt it his sacred duty to help them, at great risk to himself. He and his business partner and relative, William Whipper, built a false end to their rail cars to hide people. Along with their coal and lumber, they ferried hundreds of people further north on their way to freedom in Canada.

Smith was also a founder of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, an affiliate of William Lloyd Garrison’s national organization, and was involved with many protests and activities demanding an end to slavery. He also played a key part in coalescing free blacks in northern states to demand their civil rights, especially the right to vote.

The Cape May Magazine article also detailed the efforts underway to restore the house by the four siblings who presently own it. They want to use it to retell Smith’s story through tours and presentations. In 1932 the Hampton family bought the house for $1 from their close friend, Smith’s grandniece. In the late 1960s, when the house was slated for demolition under the town’s controversial urban renewal plan, Amelia Hampton, mother of the current owners, saved it by sending an emergency telegram directly to President Lyndon Johnson.

Jo-Anne Hampton is leading the family effort to restore the house, but she lives in California and at times she feels far removed from life here. Although she gets back from time to time to Cape May, where she spent most of her early summers, she says the Chamber’s activity has inspired her own efforts.

“Sometimes I feel that I am doing things alone and I have a vision but no one else shares it,” she says. “But then I realize I am not alone. I have people I haven’t even met—people like Ron Goldstein—taking care of day-to-day things to help me continue what I am doing. The community benefits, the city benefits. It brings new life, brings somebody back from the 1800s, their philanthropy and work.”

The work is being authorized through the Chamber’s outreach program, created to convey the business community’s commitment to the city as a whole. In addition to providing scholarships to high school students, the Chamber selects nonprofit organizations each year to support. In 2015, the Chamber organized fundraisers and donated money to both Animal Outreach and the Cape May Food Closet.

The timing was auspicious for Goldstein’s proposal to begin to beautify the grounds of the Stephen Smith house. This year the city has grant money to significantly upgrade the parks along Lafayette Street, and a nonprofit helped the city to build a new gazebo and fountain, along with benches and plantings, at Rotary Park. The Stephen Smith house is one of the few private residences between the two park areas on Lafayette Street. Everyone on the Chamber’s Board agreed that landscaping it and drawing attention to such an important historical figure enhances the gateway to the city.

To that end, Good Neighbor Detail Management owner Annie Lentz is donating her professional landscaping services to the project. Her staff spent several days this past spring removing shrubs, trees, and lots of weeds that had overtaken the large yard on the side of the house. Lentz designed the plantings to be in keeping with the Victorian era of the house, putting in lavender plants, a favorite of the period, as well as daisies, along the front porch. To soften the box-like appearance of the simple structure, she has planted hydrangeas on one side of the building. She plans a kitchen garden with basic herbs, including parsley and rosemary, and will add other bushes and shrubs.

Cape Island Home and Garden is providing the plants at a discount. “We want to preserve the history of Cape May; that’s what this is all about,” says Judi Bernard, co-owner with Cindy Franklin, of the garden center. “I’m kind of a history freak.” Bernard adds that she owns a home not far from the Stephen Smith house, which dates back to his time. A long-time Cape May family had owned it, and she thinks it’s likely that they knew him. “We should continue the connection,” she says.

Lentz planned a garden area around a Victorian style metal bench, donated by TreeHouse Antiques, which is owned by Susan DeMaio and Wayne Stewart. When Lentz asked if they wanted to be involved with the project, they readily agreed. “We all need to work together,” Susan said, “and this is a small way my husband and I can contribute to that.” In addition, a birdbath was recently donated by the Eldredge House in West Cape May.

Jo-Anne Hampton also sees Stephen Smith as a unifying force. “We as a community are more connected by him (Smith) than I ever would have imagined,” she says. And she is thankful that the restoration will “recognize someone so important. It reminds me that one person in a community can do great things. Even now he’s a connecting factor.”

While many of the pieces have fallen into place to improve the appearance of the Steven Smith House, Ron Goldstein said that the project is certainly not yet completed. He indicated that plans for additional landscaping have been drawn up that include a driveway and possible hedge to be added by Spring 2017.

The Tale of William Coachman: Kidnapped In Cape May and Sold Into Slavery

Many people have seen the movie Twelve Years a Slave, the true story of a free black man from New York, lured to Washington, D.C. by slave traders and sold into bondage in 1841. But few people know that such things happened right here in Cape May.

In the years before the Civil War, no person of color was truly safe anywhere in the country. Enslavers and bounty hunters tracked those fleeing from slavery in the south across state borders into the north. And even people born free in northern  states had little protection from kidnappers who sold them into slavery.

In New Jersey, as elsewhere in the north, sentiment against slavery built with the start of the American Revolution. This was especially the case in the southern part of the state, with its large Quaker population. And for many of the area’s small farmers, it made more sense to hire help rather than hold slaves. So by 1804 there was enough opposition to slavery that the state legislature enacted a gradual emancipation law. It didn’t free people then enslaved, but those born after the law passed would be indentured to their mother’s enslaver and freed when they reached their twenties. New Jersey eventually freed all slaves and ended slavery in 1846.

William Coachman was born a slave in Middle Township, Cape May County around 1775. Elijah Godfrey bought him when he was four years old. When Coachman was about 18 years old, he was sold to George Hand, who wanted him to work his farm.

After several years Hand decided he would be better off hiring someone to do the farm work. So, as the century came to a close, Hand made Coachman a deal. Coachman, then legally a slave-for-life, could instead become an indentured servant. If he agreed to work hard for a nearby farmer for a fixed period of time, the indenture would end and Hand would free Coachman.

The deal was struck and Coachman was sent off to work for Jonathan Leaming. By all accounts Coachman worked diligently, knowing the precise day the arrangement would end and he would be a free man.

A copy of the indenture / bill of sale for William Coachman Photo credit: Pennsylvania Abolition Society papers [Coll. 490], Historical Society of Pennsylvania

All seemed to go well. Leaming later testified that Hand did free Coachman, who stayed in the area, not 10 miles from Hand’s farm, earning money by working for various farmers. A county official later testified that for two years, from 1802 to 1804, William Coachman paid taxes to Middle Township as a free man.

But then everything took a turn for the worse for Coachman. One night in the summer of 1804, as he was sleeping in his bed next to his wife in a cabin close to the Delaware Bay, several men broke down the door. They strode purposefully toward Coachman, clearly knowing where his bed was, and pulled him outside.

It all happened so suddenly and swiftly that his wife didn’t have time to look carefully at the men. She told friends that she had no idea who kidnapped her husband or where they had taken him. Nobody in the area knew what had happened to Coachman. But there was speculation that, in the words of his friend Amos Tommar, someone “took Bill away to the Southward.”

Some of Coachman’s friends in the free black community sought help to find him. They went to Philadelphia to speak with members of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS), the country’s first anti-slavery organization.

Statement from tax assessor for Cape May County that Bill Coachman has been assessed for the last two years as a free man. Photo credit: Pennsylvania Abolition Society papers [Coll. 490], Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Its official name was the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. Its goal was to stop the slave trade and enact state laws gradually ending slavery. PAS also provided legal aid to those fleeing slavery, as well as free people unlawfully kidnapped by enslavers.

Members of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society came to Cape May to investigate the Coachman case and deposed his friends and neighbors, both white and black. Everyone testified that William Coachman was free when he was kidnapped.

Elijah Godfrey recounted his regret at selling Coachman to Hand as a slave-for-life, but stated he was gratified to learn that Hand had made Coachman an indentured servant. Bill knew “the time to a day” when he would be freed, testified Godfrey, and when that happened, “the aforesaid Bill came to me and said that he had served his time out and was free. And I set him to work.”

Another white neighbor confirmed Coachman’s determination to work for himself. She too said he knew exactly when the agreement to free him would go into effect. Peter Humphries, a free black man, testified that Hand wanted to hire him to work his farm. Hand had told Humphries he was going to free Coachman in the spring and would need someone else.

But none of these people knew what had happened to Coachman. Some suspected that George Hand had a part in his disappearance. Hand had acted strangely before freeing Coachman. One woman told the PAS that Hand tried hard to get Coachman to go with him to Philadelphia the day before he was to be freed. Hand wouldn’t say why. Coachman refused and not even Hand’s threats could persuade him to leave Cape May.

A free black man also testified that Hand tried to lure Coachman away from the farmer he had been hired out to and return to his farm. Hand promised him a new suit of clothes. But Coachman knew that if he left Leaming’s farm before his contract was up, it would abrogate the indenture agreement to free him.

Despite the best efforts of the PAS lawyers, the investigation yielded no firm clues as to Coachman’s whereabouts. About all anyone knew was that Coachman was a free man when he was kidnapped and probably sold into slavery down south. It seemed possible that William Coachman’s quest for freedom had ended.

But, many months later, a knock on the door of noted Philadelphia abolitionist Isaac Hopper changed everything. Hopper, an early member of the PAS, was known in the city as a public advocate for kidnap victims. Many also knew that his home was a safe haven for people fleeing slavery.

The man at his door was a free black sailor named Tate who worked aboard a ship that had just docked in Philadelphia harbor. As soon as it tied up, Tate had made his way to Hopper and related a harrowing tale.

Henry Course captained Tate’s ship, which carried cargo between Savannah and Philadelphia. Two years before Coachman disappeared, Hand illegally sold him to Course for $180. Although Course knew Coachman was already a free man, the bill of sale labeled him a “slave for life.” Course intended to take him south and sell him. But it took Hand and Course two years to seal the arrangement.

Course abducted Coachman in the middle of the night on his way to Savannah. Coachman was kept tied up until the boat was clear of the Delaware Bay and any chance he would jump overboard and swim back.

Course brought his captive to Georgia, where he sold him to a Captain Spencer for $320. Then he returned to Philadelphia. It took another round trip between the two cities before Tate was able to reach Hopper and tell his story.

Enraged, Hopper went with Tate to the mayor and demanded the arrest of Captain Course for illegal kidnapping. A warrant for Course’s arrest was issued, but Hopper had a hard time getting anyone to serve it because yellow fever raged in the streets near where the ship was anchored. Finally Hopper got a constable and two free blacks to row out to the boat; they soon found Course.

Course admitted buying Coachman, but denied knowing he was a free man. Course and the ship’s owner, Savage Stillwell, were formally arrested, bail was set at the hefty sum of $1500, and they were ordered to appear at the Mayor’s Court.

Course quickly struck a deal for his release. He agreed to return to Savannah and bring back Coachman. In exchange he would get back his hefty bail and would not be jailed.

Course set out for Georgia and found Captain Spencer. He explained that Coachman was a free man and needed to be brought back to Philadelphia. Spencer agreed, but demanded back the money he had paid Course for Coachman. Course told Spencer he would pay the money when he picked up Coachman and was ready to sail for Philadelphia. In a day or two, Course arrived at Spencer’s place and announced he was ready to pay for Coachman. But when they called for Coachman to board the ship, he was nowhere to be found.

Course acted distressed, saying he couldn’t go back to Philadelphia without the man. He printed up flyers, offering a large reward for him. And when Spencer acted dubious about Coachman’s disappearance, Course opened his ship’s hatches and offered to let it be searched. Reluctantly Spencer accepted that Coachman had somehow fled. So Course set sail for Philadelphia ostensibly without Coachman.

But the truth was that Coachman had been secreted on board Course’s ship. And soon he was returned to Cape May. Course managed to bring back Coachman and keep the money Spencer had paid him for Coachman.

But that is not the end of the story.

About a year later, Spencer heard that Coachman had returned home. Spencer went to Isaac Hopper’s house in Philadelphia, demanding to know if that were true. When he learned it was, he hired a carriage and set out for Cape May. Meanwhile Coachman heard that Spencer was after him and left Cape May for Philadelphia and Isaac Hopper’s house.

Spencer retraced his steps to Philadelphia. He had Coachman arrested at Hopper’s house. But Hopper went to court and presented documents proving Coachman was a free man. Coachman was released from jail.

Unable to lay claim to Coachman, Spencer offered a huge reward for Captain Course. In his mind Course had stolen his property. But it was now Course who was missing. Finally Spencer gave up and went back to Georgia.

In 1814 William Coachman bought an acre of land in Middle Township, and lived there until his death in 1825.

Coachman had a role in fighting slavery even after his death. In the 1840s, Isaac Hopper wrote a series of articles about free blacks kidnapped in northern cities such as Philadelphia. They were published in the leading abolitionist newspaper, the National Anti-Slavery Standard. The stories shocked many northerners who had considered slavery a southern problem. The articles confronted them with the fact that its horrors reached their doorstep. One of Hopper’s stories was the tale of
William Coachman.

To Worship & Preserve

“In August of 1892, the religious society and congregation of Colored Baptist[s] living in the City of Cape May met for the purpose of organizing a Colored Baptist Church. These assemblies of believers were recognized by the West New Jersey Association, and on Dec. 23, 1895, the Macedonia Baptist Church was duly named, certified and recorded.”

-Excerpt from the church’s original incorporation papers

The Macedonia Baptist Church congregation still meets today, in its church built at the beginning of the 20th century on the corner of Lafayette and Franklin Streets. This neighborhood of a few square blocks contains most of Cape May’s civic institutions, and was the core of the city’s African-American society for much of the 20th century. The Franklin Street School, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, as well as the former Franklin Street Methodist Church—all traditional African-American institutions—are within a block of Macedonia’s building.

The church sold a rear parcel of its land to the city of Cape May, which built the Franklin Street School, opened in 1928 for African-American elementary children. It is now preserved and under restoration by the Center for Community Arts.

Next to the church, on Lafayette Street, stands one of Cape May’s oldest houses, predating the Great Fire of 1878 that destroyed so much property that rebuilding resulted in the city’s unique collection of late Victorian structures. Howell House was built in 1850; its current Gothic Revival appearance is the result of later additions, according to a written report by architect Hugh J. McCauley of Preservation New Jersey, who has researched the building’s history and presented justification for its preservation and restoration.

The house has belonged to the Macedonia congregation since 1909, when its owner, Philadelphia merchant George Howell, donated it and the adjacent lot to the congregation. “The congregation constructed a new church building on the adjacent lot and the Howell House became their parish house,” says McCauley’s documentation. “This wood frame vernacular house is a contributing resource to the Cape May National Historic Landmark district.” Cape May’s Historic Preservation Commission defines contributing structures as “those whose architecture enhances the neighborhood where they are located but the style is not unique.”

Ministers lived in Howell House until about 30 years ago; since then the building has been neglected and fallen into serious disrepair. Many residents of Cape May remember when the asphalt siding was removed a few years ago, revealing strong structural bones, despite the faded clapboards and sagging porch. At one time the congregation considered selling the building to a developer. The deal was not approved, but the developer “entered the building and gutted the interior,” anyway, according to McCauley’s report. That prompted the congregation’s decision to consult an architect and eventually secure the property and repair the porch. Now the house is surrounded by a protective fence while the Macedonia congregation raises the funds necessary to restore it.

Lois Smith, a lifelong member of the congregation, remembers sprucing up the house in the 1940s when Reverend Richard Jones was about to move in. “My godfather, Archie Robinson, cleaned the outside and the grounds, and the ladies worked inside—my mother and I and another lady,” and at her mother’s suggestion, the three of them painted the interior.

Reverend Kathleen Smallwood Johnson, called Pastor Kathy by congregants, became Macedonia’s pastor in 2012. She shares a vision for the building: a Victorian style tea room, Christian reading room and gift shop; a place for meetings and study; and living quarters upstairs. Yes, Pastor Kathy plans to move in, once she has retired from her other job with the Trenton Board of Education.

Reverend Johnson is the 13th pastor to serve the Macedonia congregation. The first was Reverend B.S. Ryland, in 1911; the longest serving was Reverend Robert O. Davis, who ministered from 1963 to 2009. His retirement coincided with the church’s 100th anniversary celebration, attended by hundreds of local residents at Cape May’s Grand Hotel ballroom. He was the last minister to live in Howell House, having spent 20 years there with his family.

Reverend Johnson came to Macedonia in March of 2012, after a few years of interim ministers following the retirement of Reverend Davis. She met long-time Macedonia congregant Daniel Money at a conference, and when he learned she’s a preacher, invited her to speak at Palm Sunday services in 2011. She added the Easter service that year, came back several times, and was formally installed the following spring.

“God has a sense of humor,” she says. “I came from a church with 7,000 members and three services every Sunday” to this congregation, that varies from 30 or 40 members in winter to about 125 in summer, except for “special occasions” that bring in 150 to 200.

She points to the opposite experience:  Reverend Jones, who served in the 1940s, moved to a church in Burlington County and built a congregation of 2,000 to 3,000 people. ”I didn’t feel led to do that. On the other hand, if Reverend Jones could do it in Burlington, maybe I can do it in Cape May.”

The congregation has appointed a Historical Coalition Committee that has taken responsibility for collecting, resurrecting, and preserving the history of the church. Members Lois Smith; Dr. Mary Jane Lupton; Mrs. Jacqueline Hotan and her husband Lawrence; Peggy Ose; Kathleen Matthews; and Diane Mitchell are delving into documents about baptisms and other ceremonies; history of the buildings; various clubs and activities over the years, and the progress and contributions that families have made over the years, says Lois Smith, chair of the committee and lifelong member of the Macedonia congregation. They won’t be ready to reveal their findings for some time, she says, because everything they learn will be confirmed. They hope to have a book completed by the end of the year.

Howell House, as all can see, needs work, but so does the church—a 100-year-old building is going to have a few issues. The church roof was in worse shape than the one on the old parsonage, says Reverend Johnson, so it’s been fixed. The embossed and decorated ceiling needs restoring, and there are cracks in the foundation. When Reverend Johnson first took a good look at the church building three years ago, she said, she was reminded of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, with vines overrunning everywhere. “Can we just put a coat of paint on it?” she asked. They did—the vines are down, and their ghosts have disappeared under fresh white paint. Soon after, flower boxes appeared on the fence, and planters decorated the front lawn—all supervised by congregant Kathleen Matthews, who loves to garden and is now the church’s designated “master gardener.” Weekly breakfasts, and occasional barbecues and dinners, several other fundraising events, and partnerships with community businesses and organizations have raised a building fund that stands at $25,000 and growing. Anonymous donations and regular contributions from friends everywhere continue to build the financing required to turn Howell House around.

Reverend Johnson says they expect Howell House to be completed in 24 to 36 months.

In the meantime, she and the congregants will continue leading the programs that have distinguished the church for years. They include the popular Sunday breakfasts, “a ministry unto itself,” says Reverend Johnson. Friday night JAM (Jesus and Me) is a favorite recreation time that welcomes people of all ages and is especially popular with teens. They eat a meal together, then choose among several activities as diverse as writing poetry or just playing games. They go home with a backpack loaded with healthy food, “so it feeds mind, body, and soul.” Those programs and others like them meet in Fellowship Hall, otherwise known as the basement, which holds a magnificent kitchen and a cozy corner with couches, books, and a TV-video player. The choir, long known for singing Negro spiritual, is now being revived to reflect the 21st century as well. “We want to honor our historic traditions,” says Reverend Johnson, “but with new generations coming up, we want to acknowledge the music of today—not everyone wants to hear spirituals every week all year long.” The fourth Sunday of the month is Youth Sunday, open to young people to study scripture and speak of “whatever’s in their heart.” The  church has held Easter sunrise services when the weather permits, and last year 10 people were baptized in the ocean.

The Macedonia Baptist congregation, many of whose members count several generations in Cape May and in church membership, are looking forward. They see new life in their story as their energy and devotion enriches tale of African-Americans on Cape Island.

Harriet Tubman’s Cape May Connection

harriet-2

The Treasury Department’s recent announcement that freedom fighter Harriet Tubman will replace President and slaveholder Andrew Jackson on the face of the $20 bill finally acknowledges Tubman’s place in the pantheon of American heroes.

Most school children learn that Tubman, born a slave, freed herself and then risked her life time and again to return to the South to emancipate family and friends. But few people know the role that Cape May played in her efforts. It was here in Cape May that Tubman earned some of the money critical to carry out her rescues.

Tubman was enslaved on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which sits across the Delaware Bay from Cape May. At the time, the Eastern Shore was an agricultural area and a source of prized lumber for the Baltimore and New England shipyards. These goods were transported on the numerous waterways and canals in the region.