Oprah joins historic town

The Philadelphia Daily News talks about a special guest for this town’s reunion.

Oprah to speak at historic Shore town’s reunion

They came from the South, seeking a better life. They found it in Whitesboro in Cape May County.More than 100 years ago, African Americans settled this portion of Middle Township, their focus on family, church and education. They created a tightly knit enclave, one that eventually yielded such historic firsts as the first African American judge on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. They did more than survive; they thrived.

“Growing up, all you hear is negative things about yourself,” explained Whitesboro native Stedman Graham, a noted author and educator more famous for being Oprah Winfrey’s boyfriend. “Then you have this haven where you feel like you’re safe and you feel like you’re celebrated. That’s why we have so many successes coming out of Whitesboro.”

This weekend, Graham and so many others who love the town will return for the 20th annual Reunion Festival, a big, family-picnic style event that this year features Winfrey as a speaker. Her visit, which follows her Denver appearance at the Democratic National Convention last night, is expected to more than double the usual turnout of about 300 visitors. She speaks at 1 p.m. tomorrow.

But don’t let the big name be deceiving. This is still a very small-town event. Winfrey will address the crowd from a 24-by-24-foot wooden stage in deep center of Wilkie Williams Memorial Field, near the crafts sellers and barbecue grills.

“This is a weekend to get together and renew old friendships,” said Bernie Blanks, president of Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro, which organizes the annual gathering. “It’s just a little country town.”

Of course, Blanks was a bit scared how this little town would accommodate all the Oprah-lovers. When she came to Whitesboro 10 years ago, Winfrey spoke to a sold-out 1,000-seat auditorium – and that was after her visit was announced only a few days beforehand, he said.

Both branches of Whitesboro’s Main Street, intersected by Route 9, dead-end in tangles of bushes and woods. The roads have no sidewalks. Modest residential homes are widely, unevenly spaced. There are more churches (four) than businesses (two, including one that appeared permanently closed).

Almost 2,000 people live in this three-mile strip of Middle Township, according to census data. When Blanks, 65, drives along Whitesboro’s streets, he waves to people or turns when they call his name. He knows what kind of car they drive: Noticing one local minister’s vehicle parked at the trailer that serves as the post office, he walked over to say hello. He knows who their parents are, too – while talking about one local resident’s career as a dancer, he adds as an aside, “Father was a dentist. Mother was a teacher.”

Whitesboro is named after George Henry White, a former slave and North Carolina Republican who is considered the last African American congressman of the Reconstruction era. White moved to Philadelphia after his political career ended and founded this enclave for emancipated slaves.

Whitesboro was a “new settlement for the Colored Race,” as the Cape May Wave newspaper noted in the early 1900s, one that showed the “spirit of Progressivism is not confined entirely to the Caucasian race.”

“It was welcoming. A different life from the South,” said Vera Mabry Smith, 78, whose North Carolina-born grandmother was one of Whitesboro’s original property owners. “You did what you wanted to do. You lived where you wanted to live. You bought your own home. It was freedom.”

Smith never had a desire to leave her small town, raising her children and grandchildren here. Now her great-grandchildren live there, too.

“I am very proud of Whitesboro. It was a safe and happy place,” she said. “Everybody knew everybody.”

Smith said she looked forward to seeing both Winfrey and Graham, who she described as “a good boy, a handsome boy. He was like a son to me and played basketball in my backyard.”

Camden Schools Superintendent B. LaFra Young, the oldest of 12 children, calls the area “a treasure I keep close to my heart.”

“If it weren’t for that town, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” said Young, who drives across the state each Sunday to attend her Whitesboro church. “It means everything to me.”

Even though Whitesboro was small, “there was a high standard and an expectation to succeed,” Young said. Most residents older than 50 attended Whitesboro Grammar School, which is now being rehabilitated. A plaque outside the building bears a quote from George Washington Carver: “Education is the key to unlock the golden door to freedom.”

Whitesboro residents truly believed that and pushed their children, Blanks said.

“It was, ‘You will go to school, and you will do well. You will behave,’ ” Blanks said. “It was such a close-knit, family community. If you misbehaved in school, your parents knew about it by the time you got home.”

That same family who pushed you to do your best also keeps you grounded, Graham said.

“You can’t walk into Whitesboro talking about how you’re this or you’re that because you grew up with all these people,” he said. “They know you. They know your mother. They know your father. They pretty much can call it the way they see it.”

Whitesboro has changed in recent years. It is integrated. Houses and roads are popping up where the cornfields used to be. Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro works to bring youth programs to the area. Blanks hopes today’s younger generation is inspired by the successful folks who will converge here this weekend.

“There was a time when we felt we were viewed as a town that wasn’t going anywhere. There was a need for us to prove we could do well,” Blanks said.

They have done well, counting judges, police chiefs, authors, doctors, lawyers and educators among them.

Still, when they talk about each other and their successes, the word longtime Whitesboro residents most commonly use is family.

“I look forward to seeing the children,” Smith said, referring to people as old as 55. “It’s so good to have everybody home again.”

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