Town’s land sale could raise money, but residents worry Black community will lose its history

A township in Cape May County said it has scheduled a property tax sale in October to help recoup losses from state-ordered, coronavirus shutdowns and restrictions.

Ten of the 15 properties up for sale in Middle Township are in the Whitesboro area of the township, a community established in 1901 for Black settlers to own homes, especially to escape the violence and racial oppression in Jim Crow America. The sale has some community members wondering if their historic shore community will retain its identity as an area established primarily for people of color.

“This was an African-American safe haven,” said Shirley Green, a longtime resident and local historian. “For them to be tax selling is pretty-much running us out of our quality of life.”

But Green said she understands both sides of the issue. She owns nearly two dozen properties in Whitesboro, many of which are residential rentals. She said she has tried to work with tenants but the township hasn’t worked with her as a property owner who is also experiencing shortfalls.

The parcels that will be auctioned up range in size from a mobile home lot in a campground to a nearly 3-acre lot on Gibbs Street in a wooded area with no structure on it in Whitesboro. Three of the 15 parcels for sale have residential structures on them but none are occupied, a local official said.

The properties will be sold at auction on October 28 with opening bids ranging from $7,600 for a parcel on Matthews Street in Whitesboro to $83,400 for a lot with no structure on it in the 1100 block of Golf Club Road on the east side of the Garden State Parkway. Most of the township, including Whitesboro, is west of the Garden State Parkway.

“We have been preparing for some tough decision-making, but the ability to have this land sale and generate these funds will go a long way toward helping us meet some of our needs for next year,” Middle Township Mayor Tim Donohue said at when a resolution was passed to approve the land sale two weeks ago.

Township Tax Assessor LeeAnn Russ said land sales have been infrequently lately. She said this was the first in the last several years and having one depends on the inventory of property for sale.

“The land auction process is an opportunity to build up neighborhoods through the development of affordable residential properties,” Donohue said in an email this week. “All of the properties included in the land sale have come to the township through tax liens. In some cases, the auction actually allows residents to enhance their own properties by adding on to them. Lots that are less than the minimum size in the zoning district will be offered to neighboring property owners for the same price offered by the highest bidder.”

Middle Township is bordered on the south by Lower Township which leads the historic shore community of Cape May. To the east are the beach communities of the Wildwoods.

Whitesboro is also known as the home of Stedman Graham, the longtime companion of Oprah Winfrey. They are both frequent visitors at Whitesboro’s annual family reunion and Graham is still listed as the chairman of the Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro, though he no longer lives in the area.

Donohue and the Middle Township Committee passed a resolution last year that sought to mark the historic significance of Whitesboro. They asked the federal government to name a post office that was under construction and opened this past summer for Whitesboro’s founder. George H. White a Black, Reconstruction-era congressman from North Carolina, who helped establish the community for his constituents and other Blacks after more than 100 African Americans were killed in a 1898 race riot by white supremacists in North Carolina.

“Middle Township is dedicated to preserving the history and unique character of the Whitesboro community,” Donohue said Wednesday.

The Concerned Citizens originally approached the township with the idea of naming the post office for White.

A Harriet Tubman museum was also recently dedicated in Cape May city where she once worked and lived before founding the Underground Railroad passage for freedom for escaped slaves that led through southern New Jersey.

“This is the only place in Cape May County that has a community of Black people,” Green said.

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Bill Duhart may be reached at [email protected].

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