Cape May is one of the go-to vacation spots in New Jersey, popular for its restaurants, hotels, activities, and beautiful beaches. Whether you’re taking a day trip or looking to stay in the neighborhood, make sure you take time to learn about the deep and diverse history of Cape May.
Cape May has a rich history correlating to the black community. Emily Dempsey, a sixth-generation resident of Cape May and 2022 Russ Berrie Making a Difference Honoree, has played a huge role in researching, preserving, and promoting this history. Her journey as a historian and community leader began with the founding of the Center for Community Arts in the 1990s.
Center for Community Arts in Cape May, New Jersey
Emily Dempsey was one of the 12 women co-founders of the Center for Community Arts (CCA) in 1995. The women were motivated to address racially charged discussions in the community, provide positive activities for local youth, and give a space for local artists to be supportive of and supported by the community. The organization’s goal is to encourage creativity, build the community, and show appreciation for the world’s diversity with arts and humanities programs that speak to minorities.
The Community History group, one of CCA’s first programs, is dedicated to discovering, preserving, and presenting the African American history of Cape May County. This group has helped to highlight the contributions of African Americans in the community through special exhibits, archives, and discussions.
The Center has been a big part of Emily’s life for the past 25 years. “To be a part of the Center for Community Arts was terrific,” Emily said. “ I’m the original one that’s still there. Since I was born and raised here I remember a lot of the history and I didn’t know who to pass the baton to.”
Harriet Tubman in Cape May
During the 1850s Harriet Tubman lived and worked in Cape May to fund the process of guiding enslaved people to freedom. She spent two summers in Cape May according to the New Jersey Historical Commission.
To honor Harriet Tubman and spread knowledge of Cape May’s impact in the fight to end slavery, the Harriet Tubman Museum was born. The museum is located on a block anti-slavery activists stayed while located in Cape May. It highlights how the community played a role in the fight for freedom, the heavy activism that took place in the area, and Tubman worked to fund her underground railroad voyages.
The Harriet Tubman Museum exists today with the support of the Center for Community Arts, and Emily has made her special contributions. “My sister and I…had an antique collectible shop. We were clearing out the house and…we found books. One of those books was the underground railroad journal from the 1800s by William Still.” The book was donated to the Harriet Tubman Museum and sits in the center of the exhibition.
Amplifying Black Voices of Cape May
The Harriet Tubman Museum is only the tip of the iceberg of Cape May’s Black history. Emily and the group members realized that the history they uncovered and preserved should be shared more widely. “We held so much history and… would like to share it more with the community and surrounding community,” she said.
The group worked for more than two decades, and in 2022, they published, “Black Voices of Cape May: A Feeling of Community.” The book is a collection of interviews and rare photographs that showcase the perspectives of African Americans in Cape May.
Fun facts about this special publication:
- It took 25 years for the creation of the book
- Started with oral interviews to save a historical building, the Franklin Street School
- A young lady in the group pushed the creation of the book
- Four African American women and three Caucasian women worked on the book
Honored as a Russ Berrie Making a Difference Honoree
In 2022, at 85 years old, Emily Dempsey was honored as a Russ Berrie Making a Difference Honoree. She shared a special moment at the Award Ceremony with a young African American man who thanked her, as an Elder, for “preserving our stories.” The cash award Emily received as an Honoree enabled her to secure lifetime membership with the NAACP.
Looking to the future, Emily shares what’s in store for her beloved organization. She states, “our Center for Community Arts office is moving in sometime this year,” referring to the historic Franklin Street School the organization was able to save in 2002.
She continues by giving more details about preserving the community’s rich history. “Our archives for history are moving in, they’ll be computer classes and all sorts of great things will be happening in the Franklin Street School.” This includes the Cape May Library moving into the school as well.
Emily Dempsey has made the presence of the black community in Cape May known and her impact there will continue inevitably.
To learn more, and purchase the book “Black Voices of Cape May: A Feeling of Community” click here.
By Alexis Jones
Ramapo College, ‘23 Student Assistant for Communications & Outreach, Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award