The Islander: Stephanie Garrett
Like many who choose to settle in Cape May, Stephanie Garrett has a passion for the past. Her presentation of historic figures and events that have gone unrecognized sheds a new narrative on our island’s story. Whether in period costume giving visitors a glimpse of 19th-century life at Historic Cold Spring Village or bringing the African American experience to the stage of East Lynne Theater Company, Stephanie’s captivating and charismatic presentation of history is unique among other historians in this town.
From serving as vice president of the Cape May Beach Property Owners Association to leadership roles in some of our town’s most prominent organizations, Stephanie works toward a stronger and more knowledgeable community.
I’ll start by telling you how great you look. I know I don’t look my age. I’m told that all the time. In fact, some SOB carded me the other day! Someone behind me in line at the Acme, who knows me, was being a smart ass, said, “Are you sure you’re old enough to buy that?” I had some alcohol with my groceries. The cashier froze and asked for my ID. I asked her if she was kidding, and she said she needed to see it. When she saw it and realized I’m 76, she just said, “Oh, my God!”
When you were in your 60s, you played the wife of a character who was young enough to be your son. Yes! That was Lost on the Natchez Trace at East Lynne Theater.
Just a few years before that, you were in East Lynne’s Christmas in Black and White where you played a little boy! That was fun!
I don’t know what facet of your life to start with, so I’ll simply ask: What are you up to today? Researching the making of ice cream. It’s thought that it was invented by an African American in the Madison White House, but I found that it goes back to ancient Rome under the rule of Nero.
What is this research for? For Historic Cold Spring Village.
That’s right, you’ve been portraying a 19th-century character there for years. Tell me about that. At first, I volunteered at Historic Cold Spring. I had recently moved here and wanted to meet people. I went and told them I was interested in African American history—that’s like a code phrase to say, “Hey, I’m here.” This was about 1998. They thought I’d make a good storyteller. They helped me get a character together who was a real person. But I read about Black history in Cape May County and had to narrow it down somehow, so instead I made up and portrayed the character, Prissy.
Tell me about your character of Prissy. She is an educated Black woman who does figures and works at Congress Hall and writes letters for white people because she is more literate than most. I had fun with it.
Is Prissy a composite character of other real-life people? No, she is someone I made up to be knowledgeable enough to tell the stories of real-life people and various events. I made up the backstory that Prissy was raised by a Quaker family in Seaville.
There must have been a lot of research to compile all the knowledge that your character conveys to people. Well, you know that William J. Moore was a big deal here in Cape May. He came here in 1898 to be the principal of the black school. He was a very well-educated man and had the presence of mind to interview the last of the freed slaves. I was able to get ahold of those transcripts from the County Historical Museum and used that to put together the information and the first-hand stories. Then I had Prissy tell those stories in her own words. It’s great to be a storyteller because I can’t memorize exact lines.
But you were wonderful in East Lynne Theater’s production of Christmas in Black and White! You played that little boy and never missed a line! Only because Mama’s Missionary Money, which was the story I acted out, is a story that I had told so many times at Tales of the Victorians. I just knew it.
You also served as president of the Cape May Historical Society around the same time you created Prissy. I was president for one term. My friend Deanna Brown got me involved and I was the vice president first. When Deanna left, I became president.
Let’s talk about the current efforts in finally recognizing Cape May’s Black history. It seems to me that prior to recent efforts, the contributions of the Black community have been ignored throughout the years. Prior to Cape May MAC’s efforts, the Center for Community Arts had a tour of the African American history of Cape May. Most of Lafayette Street was Black-owned many years ago, that’s where all the Black businesses were. In the 1960s, urban renewal came along and all of a sudden there were certain places in that neighborhood which they said didn’t meet the health standard. They call it urban renewal, but we’ve always called it Negro removal.
Why was Black history in town always dismissed until the last few years? Racism. What do you think? The Black people were here from as far back as the white people were. I have to attribute it to racism for giving no credit to the contributions they made. Once again, the transition began among the Center for Community Arts over 25 years ago. They were concerned with the history of the Black community and in trying to get the Franklin Street School saved, which was the Black school years ago. They had all sorts of tours of the Black homes and the Black cemetery.
Do you think Cape May MAC knew it was racist to not have recognized that years ago? No. They were only thinking about their history and that other people don’t have anything significant to contribute. It’s like critical race theory. We always wanted to know why there is little to nothing about Black and Hispanic history in the school history books. In Florida the governor’s answer to those questions is that he doesn’t want the white kids to feel guilty about the past. And it’s not those kids’ fault; it’s just that they need to know it so it doesn’t happen all over again.
Tell me about your work with the government. For 10 years I was a civilian employee in the Department of the Navy. I was the human resource officer for a worldwide aviation command. That was one of my many jobs. When I graduated from school, I started out with the National Park Service. That was 1972, and I had written an environmental education program.
Did your degree in sociology play a part with your job with the National Park Service? Once I had a permanent job with them, I worked on the Alaskan Pipeline. It used to bother me that in Alaska you have a hospital with maybe 20 beds, then you’re bringing in thousands of workers. The infrastructure is not there to take care of this population surge. One of my mitigating suggestions was to have the oil companies prepay their taxes so that the counties would have the money to expand their schools and medical resources.
I’ll bet that went over like a lead balloon. Big time! The response from one oil company was, “We’re not a social service agency.” I was always getting myself in trouble because I was questioning things. For instance, the highest rate of alcoholism in Alaska was among the wives of the workers who were brought in. There wasn’t a damn thing to do. In the Bureau of Land Management, we had an office in Bethel and had an agreement that nobody would stay longer than two years or they’d go nuts.
What skills in your government work have you been applying to your leadership here in Cape May with places like the Historical Society and the Property Owners Association? It wasn’t so much what I learned from the government but what the government might have learned from me. I learned my leadership skills as a kid who went through the Philadelphia school system. I learned that everyone didn’t look like me. I learned a comprehensive history of our nation. I learned that you can’t judge a person by their color or their sexual orientation. My family was very open with people of different colors and sexual orientations. So, what I learned and what I apply goes back long before I worked for the government. In my denomination of Unitarian Universalist, we have to respect all people. Period. And we’re dead serious about that.
Can you give me a specific example of how the government learned or benefited from you? As a kid I went to a Christian camp where I learned how to ride a horse. I learned how to shoot a rifle. In fact, I was a member of the NRA and I still have my certificate in the garage to prove it. I could shoot a bow and arrow. Now, I went on to work for the Bureau of Land Management. And I was the first as a black woman to hold the position I did! I had skills and knowledge that suited working in a western-based area—cowboy land!
In all these highly respected job posts with the government, did you ever find yourself dealing with sexism? I came out of college during the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement. I was militant at both ends and was going into an all-white, male environment. At my very first interview I sat at a round table surrounded by 12 white men. They asked me the forbidden question, “What are your marital intentions?” I answered, “I don’t have to be married to get pregnant.” I got hired. I was told later that that answer along with my ability to maintain eye contact won me the job.
You mentioned your church. Tell me about it. The Unitarian Universalist Church is in Galloway Township. I was a founding member of it, a little over 20 years ago. Originally there were about six of us meeting in a classroom at Stockton College. Many Unitarian Universalists have retired down here to South Jersey but there was no actual church. We have our own building now that is 100% environmentally friendly. Being environmentally conscious is also part of our belief.
What role in town do you want to be most recognized for? My love of history. I love the history that most don’t pay attention to but yet it’s there. At East Lynne I was allowed to present not a stereotypical black person of an era but present the works of black writers, and there are so many of them. History is the common thread that connects me with all my passions.
How would you encourage others to view history when researching and presenting it? History is the knowledge of equality. It’s many different people realizing that we are all a part of the whole. One nation that is one with truth and justice for all. ■