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Bizarre History of Cape May > African Americans made important contributions to Cape May

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Although the world did not treat them kindly or fairly, some African Americans in Cape May managed to survive the indignities with history-making contributions to the world around them.

Among the most famous who brought their cause here, either directly or indirectly before and after the city was to be renamed Cape May, were Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Booker Washington.

Bur while the actions of the trio and others were to make an impact nationally as well as locally on the future of race relations and, unbelievably then, on the eventual election of an African American president, there were two men on the local scene who were to make history in Cape May City.

Their names were Edgar Draper, who was to become the first African American doctor in Cape May County, and Adrian Capehart, who was to be the first and to this day only African American councilman in Cape May’s long history.

Draper was born in Philadelphia in 1886. In 1912 he was to receive his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania, finishing second in his class.

Lured by the seashore he moved to Cape May where he started a practice in 1914, but when the United States entered World War I in 1916 so did Draper as a lieutenant. He moved up the ranks to colonel while serving in France before he was discharged in 1919.

Safely returned from the wars to Cape May, Draper resumed his medical practice and became active in the community. So well received was he that he was invited to be the toastmaster at a dinner for Dr. William Edward Burghardt DuBois, co-founder of the NAACP and one of the most influential African Americans before the Civil War.

DuBois, who was to live into his 90s, was honored in 1915 at Cape May’s Hotel Dale, located at the corner of Lafayette and Jefferson streets. It was considered an important hotel then, especially for the African American community, at a time when segregation still prevailed.

A newspaper identified as the Washington Bee described the DuBois event as an “occasion that will long be remembered.” Then it gave a plug for the place where it was held.

“Hotel Dale is one of the best resorts on the Atlantic and when guests come here they are royally treated.”

Draper was to live until November 1956 when he succumbed at the age of 70 at Burdette Tomlin Memorial Hospital in Cape May Court House. Fifteen years later on Aug. 12, 1971 he was honored posthumously when an extension of the Washington Street walking mall was dedicated in his name at a ceremony presided over by the then Cape May Councilman Arthur “Mickey” Blomkvest. A plaque commemorating his service to the community still stands there.

Two other war heroes, Henry Washington Sawyer of the Civil War and Congressional Medal of Honor winner Edwin J. Hill of World War II, also were honored at ceremonies on that day. Mayor Frank A. Gauvry, a prime mover in the development of the mall, presided at the Sawyer ceremony and Deputy Mayor Bernard A. Berk at the Hill event.

While Draper was the first African American doctor of Cape May County, he was far from the first in the United States. That honor went 85 years earlier to Dr. James McCune Smith who had to go to Europe for his medical degree when no college in the United States would accept him. He received his degree at the University of Scotland in Glasgow.

Generally acknowledged as the first African American woman to become a doctor in the USA was Rebecca J. Cole, who attended the New England Female Medical College and graduated in 1864 after completing her thesis on “The Eye and Its Appendages.” She received her second medical degree in 1867 when she was graduated from the Woman’s College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, 40 years after Smith made his mark in the medical world. It was the same college that the Wildwoods’ famous Margaret Mace earned her medical degree in 1905.

Adrian Capehart was not a doctor, but in his time on the council in the 1970s and 1980s there were many who claimed he administered to the health of the community without the need for stethoscopes or thermometers. He was also a sports enthusiast, once a baseball player and when his legs gave out and his throwing arm didn’t throw as well he kept in the sport by umpiring Little League baseball games.

At the age of 74 he was celebrating his 25th year as an umpire, more than 700 games since he started calling balls and strikes.

“Every year I say I am finished, but as soon as I hear the sound of bat against ball I bring out my mask and uniform and go right back at it,” said Capehart.

Capehart, who was to die in 1989 at the age of 81, ejected from the game only three coaches during his long years behind the plate.

“They came out of the dugout and did a lot of hooting and hollering and tried to start a rhubarb,” recalled Capehart. “I told them to get back to the dugout, and when they didn’t I sent them to the showers early.”

Being an avid baseball fan, Capehart also talked often of the days that he visited games at the old major league stadiums, especially the World Series of 1929 when the Philadelphia Athletics beat the Chicago Cubs in five games. His eyes sparkled when he talked of such bygone stars as Jimmy Foxx, Mickey Cochrane, George Earnshaw, Jimmy Dykes, Charles Root and Al Simons.

But while Capehart enjoyed baseball as well as the Penn Relays, which he attended every year with fellow councilman Fred Coldren, his main playing field was Cape May City Hall where he called the plays in city government for several years. His biggest victory, although some may not call it that, was joining Coldren and Blomkvest, then mayor, in voting for beach tag fees.

Cape May was just the second municipality in the state to charge fees for use of the beach, following Ocean City. Today, most seashore resorts assess fees and some, like Wildwood, that don’t are reassessing whether they should.

Like Draper, Sawyer and Hill, Capehart had a street named after him. When the announcement appeared on the city’s meeting agenda, Capehart broke into laughter.

“I thought you guys were kidding all the time,” he said.


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