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Cape May may receive $240,000 to repair fire damage to historic Black church
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Cape May may receive $240,000 to repair fire damage to historic Black church

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A tourist trolley rolls past the 133-year-old Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is set to be renovated and added to a collection of Black heritage sites that have been repurposed as community centers in Cape May.

CAPE MAY — Cape May County is set to provide Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church with $240,000 for the first phase of a project to restore the fire-damaged historic building, officials said Tuesday.

The church, which was completed in 1888, is listed among the 10 most endangered historic places of 2021 by Preservation New Jersey.

Part of the structure was badly damaged by a fire in 2018 after a vehicle driving on Osborne Street toward Franklin Street inadvertently caught a row of power lines and pulled down a utility pole with live wires. Those live wires landed on the church.

For three years, the building sat idle as the governing body of the church decided to sell the property instead of repair it. Parishioners lobbied for tarps and plywood bandages to address the gaping wounds, fending off the elements from soaking their cultural heirloom into submission.

In April, the city bought the structure for $350,000. The money from the grant will go toward the stabilization and weatherization of the building. Officials plan to restore the space and incorporate it into a downtown “museum row” clustered around the 700 block of Franklin Street, mostly consisting of repurposed Black heritage sites.

The row will include the Harriet Tubman Museum, built from the Macedonian Baptist Church’s old clergy house, and the Franklin Street School, opened as a segregated institute for Black children in 1928, which will house the county’s new public library as well as the Center for Community Arts.

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There are also plans to restore the vacation home of Stephen Smith, the church’s founder who was a former slave from Pennsylvania. Smith, who bought himself freedom from slavery before Pennsylvania abolished it, was instrumental in the Underground Railroad.

The row will be completed out by the existing Cape May Fire Museum and a new building for the Greater Cape May Historical Society.

“The $240,000 County Open Space grant is matched by $160,000 in city funds,” Mayor Zack Mullock said in a statement Tuesday. “This is tremendous news for Historic Preservation in Cape May and moves the city forward with its vision of restoring this historic church.”

Mullock estimated in August that the renovation costs would come in at around $600,000, which includes a historically accurate replica of the original bell tower. The original clapboard will be preserved, and the stained glass windows, which date to the 1920s and include names of some founding members, were repaired and will be reinstalled.

From the mid-19th century to well into the 20th century, the museum row area was home to the city’s Black workers, who then accounted for about 30% of the city’s population. It also included more than 50 businesses owned or operated by Black residents. Today, Black residents account for about 2% of the city’s population, according to Mullock.

The county Open Space Board has approved the application, and the Board of County Commissioners must approve the application to release the funds, which will be discussed during its December meeting.

The Philadelphia Inquirer contributed to this report.

Contact Molly Shelly:

609-272-7241

mshelly@pressofac.com

Twitter @mollycshelly

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