Violet Summer's Underground Railroad History and Harriet Tubman
“Where are you from?” This is the question I am asked most frequently since college. Going to school in New York presented my first real opportunity to forge an identity, which I had no choice but to navigate. I often answered, “I’m black American.” But my response wasn’t enough for a lot of people. As if being black isn’t enough. I needed to provide them with more. Later in life, I would learn how to articulate my heritage, being a fifth-generation American - descending from people who were conductors of the Underground Railroad, American Indians, as well as Quakers from the 1600s. I aim to tell this story as a different narrative: one that may not be all wrought with pain and suffering. Here’s the story of my connection to Harriet Tubman.
I always knew I was an outspoken beach bum. From my childhoods spent on the beaches of Cape May to my 20s spent island hopping as a freelance writer. Yet, unpacking my family tree and its deep history of freeing people from their oppressors was something I was unprepared to face on Ancestry. Sure, I heard a few huge anecdotes about how people on my mom’s side are related to John Wilkes Booth. I fondly remember my great-grandma telling us about Betsy Ross sewing the flag. “Grandma, you mean the American flag!?” we reacted in surprise because we knew she was old... but not that old! Of course, I knew my other grandmother was involved with the NAACP, but I didn’t know she held an executive position until I was able to read a newspaper clipping from the 60s on Ancestry. But people on my paternal side have been estranged from my life and to this day, I still don’t understand why everyone is so distant.
So I started my search on my dad’s side of the family. I wanted to know more about my grandmom and her Cape May roots. On Ancestry, I typed in a few names and a bunch of “leaves” which are hints popped up on my grandmother’s side. As I started to make these connections, the story was clear as day: my ancestors have been occupying this town since the late 1700s.
According to some family documents, my grandmother’s family (on the maternal side) can be traced from gravemarkers and early census reports of 1830. Her great grandfather was a Reverend Edward C Turner who started a church in the 1800s in Cape May. Today, there is even a document archived in the town’s real estate office that details the selling of land to my grandfather who used it to start the Union Bethel Settlement. This same church would go on to be a stop in the Underground Railroad highly frequented by Harriet Tubman. An excerpt from Emma Marie Trusty’s The Underground Railroad marks that “some members of the Union Bethel community functioned as station masters. Others were said to have hidden slaves in a cave near Cape May Point and on Edward Turner’s farm. Family ties and friendships transcended church denominations. Black church communities functioned as one soil on the Underground Railroad when the need arose” (From Cape May Magazine Sept 2009. Union Bethel is now owned by Cape May country, apparently, but in the 1800s because of its remote location, it was the perfect location for blacks escaping slavery in the south.
When I made my way back to Cape May in the summer of 2019 to see what was left of Union Bethel, the location was not located on google maps. I had to drive down a dirt paved road to find these dilapidated gravestones and signage. Hardly able to read, I could feel the ancestors’ presence around me. Strangely enough, on the drive to this place, I knew exactly where I was going. On the census, my grandfather was a fisherman who had 9 children. But in reality, he was this highly revered man across the black community in the 1800s who was heavily involved in the anti-slavery movements in the north. He and Harriet Tubman probably held secret meetings and I’m sure he helped get her a job in Cape May so she could save up for her 19 missions back to Dorchester Maryland to get her people. Thanks to my great-grandfather’s fisherman’s expertise, he was able to guide fugitive slaves across the Delaware Bay. In a blog post published in 2001, “A boat operated between Cape May and Lewes, Delaware then, as it does currently. At night, local mariners operated a route across the Delaware Bay, ferrying slaves across.” But they don’t want us to know this story because they don’t want us to believe that we are smarter than we think and stronger than we could ever imagine. Our ancestors weren’t just helpless slaves.
Moreover, I’m not going to dismiss the fact that Cape May went through its own patch of slavery but, as my relatives have told me and what I grew up knowing, it was just for a brief time. The region’s legal system was moral-leaning and believed that the Bill of Rights made all men equal and free.
At one point during the 1860s blacks were 30% of the population in Cape May. The Ancestry genealogist suggested that my ancestors were probably abolitionists since our roots in Philadelphia run deep, like 1690 deep. Furthermore, because Cape May was founded by Dutch settlers, frequented by the Quakers from Philadelphia, it’s probably highly likely that black people also shared this identity.
Still, it was developing into today’s overpopulated town on the Peninsula. A port for cruise ships and exotic seafood deliveries is still there but back then it was much simpler. When I went back to Cape May with a different set of eyes than the previous visit, I was eager to rediscover and look at places I grew up riding my bike past. What was known as Poverty Beach in the 1900s, is now an extension of the main beach on Ocean Drive. Back when photos were only black and white, this was the beach poorer people went to in Cape May. When we talk about land ownership, I think of the many blacks who have lost their property to the tourism and real estate boom. Even my grandfather’s church is owned by Cape May historical society and there are nearby new housing developments around the Underground Railroad passageway. At one point, we owned a whole row of homes in the center of Cape May. Now it has been taken over by a shopping mart featuring a cool Acme. ( This is sarcasm.) My family didn’t have fancy lawyers or people on our side back then to fight for the land’s value. They died off or settled for a lump sum of money they never had access to due to old age. When we talk about reparations, I think of their houses and what my family has done for the black population. I could go on about how Harriet Tubman probably came over for family dinners after her shifts at a local Cape May restaurant. She became the black female Moses, using the north star to guide her, and the people who were brave enough, to freedom. Of course, she made friends along the way. Some in Cape May, as demonstrated by the historic Underground Railroad landmark and reenactments which STILL take place every year. Church leaders like my grandfather Edward Turner and other pre-descendants of Violet Summer were her allies on these missions taking in the dead of night. It was said that Tubman made Cape May her home during her rest periods, where she could work and save up energy for the next fugitive missions. This is why Violet Summer loves Cape May. Moreover, there is a museum currently being built in Cape May and is set to open in 2020. Visit with your friends and family to keep her spirit alive.
I started this journey curious about my grandmother’s connection to Cape May, family documents, amidst a seriously long writing hiatus. After restless nights of thinking about who these people were on Ancestry and having these now-concrete historical figures to lean on, my toughest days ahead will be my greatest weapons for business in 2020. I create with not only these people’s stories in mind but a deep connection of culture and the many ways urban narratives should be told.
Issue 7 on Dignity & Style drops December 4.