Bernie Blanks Leads Effort to Keep Whitesboro’s Legacy Alive

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

WHITESBORO – For Bernie Blanks, the history of Whitesboro as one of the nation’s few planned African-American communities when it was established in the early 1900s and its legacy is worth remembering and embracing.

Blanks, 76, who has lived all of his life in Whitesboro, which is part of Middle Township in Cape May County, serves as president of the nonprofit Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro Inc. He said he is proud to help lead the way in capturing the significant past, centered around historic Whitesboro Grammar School.

The school, which operated from 1910 to 1967 and is now part of a community center, continued to be a beacon for many residents and those returning. The school was where all of the area’s children were taught before moving on to Middle Township High School.

“I grew up in Whitesboro and attended the Whitesboro Grammar School from kindergarten to eight grade and then on to Middle Township High School in Cape May Court House,” Blanks told Front Runner New Jersey.com. “Those of us who attended grade school in Whitesboro received a solid educational foundation as the teachers pushed us to perform and be better prepared before attending high school.

“My parents also felt strongly about getting a good education, being a good person and preparing yourself for a future,” continued Blanks, who went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from HBCU Morgan State University and master’s degree from Central Michigan University.

“Whitesboro was a close-knit community back in the day where everyone knew each other and helped each other in times of need. It had the traditional community issues, but there was a lot of pride and determination to make the community better and to prepare the youth to have a productive future,” he added.

Maintaining Whitesboro History

Blanks said while many changes has happened in Whitesboro over the years, he said its rich history needs to be maintained. According to the latest Census figures, whites now make up most of the residents, 53 percent, and blacks make up 37 percent with Latinos another eight percent.

“Whitesboro is no longer an all-black town and probably never will be again, but the purpose of starting this community by former North Carolina Congressman, George H. White and a group of investors in 1901 and the successes of their mission should never be lost,” Blanks said.

“Whitesboro Grammar School is a major part of the town’s history as all residents up to the mid-sixties received their grade school education there. We currently use the building for some CCWI, Inc. programs and hope to expand on the use in the near future,” he added.

Historic Past

Whitesboro was established in 1902 as a community for African-Americans in response to being rejected in many other areas of Cape May County. The town was named after George H. White, a black Congressman from North Carolina whose company purchased 2,000 acres of land to help start the community.

According to BlackPast.org, the African-American Equitable Industrial Association, founded by Reverend J.W. Fishburn and four other members of Cape May City’s AME Zion Church, purchased land in an effort inspired by the self-help philosophy of Booker T. Washington.

Map of Whitesboro, New Jersey.

Seven years after its founding, residents built two churches, and industrial school for children, a railroad station, a post office and a hotel. It was served by three railroad lines and continued to expand until the Great Depression.

Today, there are about 2,000 residents living in Whitesboro, which has continued to be a focus point for African-American cultural, spirit and determination in New Jersey.

Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro forms

To help preserve that history and to promote current among its residents, the Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro was founded in 1988. Blanks said several members of two organizations in the Whitesboro community incorporated it the following year.

“CCW, Inc. was formed to address concerns regarding the healthy development of the youth and the socio-economic growth of the community,” Blanks said. “I got involved with CCW, Inc. around 1994. My mother was a member and she kept pushing me to get involved. I was nominated to the vice-president position shortly after joining and president approximately a year later.”

Some of the group’s ongoing programs include the Vera Smith Community Food Pantry, Rainbow Homework Club, Rainbow Summer Camp Program, Annual “Skip Cares & Bethel Commandment Church Thanksgiving Dinner Program,” annual John Roberson Scholarship Golf Tournament and annual Whitesboro Reunion Festival.

The organization also participates in voter registration drives, meet the candidate events, programs for senior citizens, support services for needy families, and collaborates with local nonprofits.  

​”Central to our mission is the healthy development of youth and improved quality of life for the residents of the community,” a message on the organization’s website said. “CCWI is committed to fostering a unified framework for development that every stakeholder can embrace. We believe that this objective is best achieved through structured interventions focused on education and recreation as well as a network of strategic alliances with like-minded community and civic organizations.”

The Stedman-Oprah Connection

Arguably the most famous executive member of CCWI, is Stedman Graham, international businessman, author and longtime boyfriend of world famous media mogul and talk show host Oprah Winfrey. Graham and Winfrey attended the Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro 30th anniversary Sept. 1, 2018 that delighted the crowd.

It was actually Winfrey’s third trip to Whitesboro in 10 years. She helped campaign for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. in 2013 and attended the group’s 20th anniversary celebration in 2008, giving $1 million to the CCWI’s scholarship fund.

Graham serves as executive director for the Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro. Cheryl Spaulding serves as the Concern Citizens of Whitesboro program administrator. Robert Matthews, Jr. is vice president; Ruth Harper treasurer, Becki Wilson secretary and Sandra Jensen recording secretary.

Committee members include William Cottman, Natasha Flanders, Burgess Hammer, Christopher Hines, Jacqueline Hogan, Larry Hogan, Virgie Jones, Ana Moore, John Roberson, Edgar Robinson, Wanda Shepard, Anita Shelton and Gerald Watkins.

Blanks praised Graham, who was a star athlete at Middle Township high school before getting a basketball scholarship at Hardin-Simmons University in Texas, and Winfrey for their support.

“Stedman, who was one of the founding members of CCW, Inc., has and continues to be dedicated supporter of Whitesboro and our organization,” Blanks said. “His leadership and ongoing support have greatly assisted our growth and accomplishments.

“Our growth and development to our current level is directly related to the support of Oprah and Stedman. I, also, would want to give kudos to the Township of Middle, local businesses and residences who have been ongoing supporters over the years. We could not do it without them,” he added.

Blanks has been married to Faye Harmon Blanks since 1965 and has two children and four grandsons. He said he wants to continue to keep the Whitesboro’s legacy alive for future generations.

“Hopefully, in the next five years, we will be able to continue to improve our current staple programs and, hopefully, expand with some additional needed services to assistance residents of the area,” Blanks said. “We would also hope to get more participation of volunteers in our organization.”

Front Photo Courtesy of Bernie Blanks.

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