On Sept. 17, 1849, Harriet Tubman made her first attempt to free herself from slavery. More than 170 years later in Cape May, N.J. on what is known as Harriet Tubman Emancipation Day, the ribbon was cut on a museum dedicated to the conductor of the Underground Railroad who helped scores of people find freedom.
Tubman lived in Cape May in the early 1850s, working to help fund her missions to guide enslaved people north. Many people fleeing slavery in Delaware and Maryland would escape across the Delaware Bay and land in Cape May.
Gov. Phil Murphy was on hand for the ceremony, where he announced that he signed legislation designating the Howell House on Lafayette Street as the official New Jersey Harriet Tubman Museum. He urged people to think of Tubman’s legacy today as society takes on systemic racism.
“My hope, and I suspect the hope that is shared by each and every one of us, is that this museum becomes a new North Star for us to engage with all the strength in our limbs in this worthy and long-overdue endeavor,” he said.
The Howell House is in an area once home to anti-slavery activists. It’s owner, Philadelphia Quaker George Howell, willed the property to the Macedonia Baptist Church. It became the longtime home of the church’s pastor, the Rev. Robert Davis. The church gave permission in 2018 to the Mullock family to renovate the house into a permanent monument to Tubman.
During the ribbon-cutting ceremony, developer Bob Mullock credited Cape May residents for coming together and singing a petition spearheaded by his son, Zach to save the historic site.
“This whole location was up for redevelopment,” he said. “This property would not be here; this 1790s house would not be here. It would be a parking lot and loading zone.”
The museum opened virtually on Juneteenth 2020; the holiday that celebrates the end of slavery in the U.S. and is now open for in-person visitors. New Jersey recently made Juneteenth a state holiday.
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