"Akwaaba" rolls out welcome mat in West Cape May
WEST CAPE MAY - Monique Greenwood likes all things Victorian. This is what sent the New Yorker down the Garden State Parkway on numerous weekend getaways to the area's 19th century bed-and-breakfast inns.
Greenwood also likes all things African. She collects African art and furniture while posting folksy sayings from the continent on her walls.
You may be able to guess what happened when Greenwood became the first black person to open a bed-and-breakfast in the area.
It works. She has brought together this unusual combination of things Victorian and things African at her Akwaaba by the Sea Bed and Breakfast here on Broadway. There are real African spears on the walls alongside beds with Victorian canopies surrounding them.
"We furnished with antiques true to the Victorian period but we incorporated a lot of African-American touches," I think they mix nicely," Greenwood said.
The first touch is the name. 'Akwaaba' means 'welcome' in the language spoken by the Akan people of Ghana in West Africa. The welcome brings one into a 19th century house that normally would not sport lamps made of animal hide and tablecloths made from the bark of trees. The old Victorian picture frames on the wall are what one would expect from a bed and breakfast - but Greenwood has managed to find vintage photographs of African Americans to display in them.
Since poor people could not afford to have photographs taken of themselves in the early days of photography, Greenwood searches far and wide for such pictures. She sometimes doesn't even know who the people are.
"They're real collectibles now," Greenwood noted.
The decor is big on earth tones, and it's awfully relaxing in an age when bright colors seem to be everywhere, assaulting the senses. Handmade African art decorates the walls.
Greenwood does more than just collect. She knows the significance of African objects and symbols.
"These are cowrie shells. They are a symbol of fertility and a form of money exchange in Mali," Greenwood said.
The inn includes some real conversation pieces, such as the antique chicken coup - more like a maximum security prison for chickens - turned into a home entertainment center.
Greenwood, the former editor-in-chief of Essence magazine, the country's leading publication for black women, also offers guests a southern-style breakfast and afternoon tea out on the front porch. Sunset massages also are offered during the season.
Greenwood and her husband, Glenn Pogue, say they didn't really plan to get into the accommodations industry. She came here originally as a tourist and stayed at a bed and breakfast during a Christmastime visit. She ended up taking a course sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts on how to own and operate a bed and breakfast.
The couple was so inspired they opened the Akwaaba Mansion Bed and Breakfast in an abandoned Victorian mansion in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. They eventually opened a café and coffee house nearby, helping revive the depressed neighborhood.
Greenwood and Pogue continued visits to Cape May. In fact, it was one such visit that convinced them to open Akwaaba by the Sea.
Greenwood was under pressure at the time. Besides being editor of Essence, she was running the Bedford-Stuyvesant businesses and struggling with her book "Having What Matters: The Black Woman's Guide To Creating the Life You Really Want." She also was trying to organize her own 40th birthday party, where she would have to entertain hundreds of guests.
"It became overwhelming for me," Greenwood recalled.
She said she started to become jealous of the guests staying at her bed and breakfast, so she left Brooklyn and headed down to Cape May for her own stay at a B&B. She brought her laptop to work on what has now become a best-selling book.
"It was like everything started to flow. I was writing my book on what really matters and I realized it has to start with you, then your cup can overflow to others. I decided to leave my job and my steady paycheck," Greenwood said.
She also decided she wanted to retire in Cape May, so she started looking for a bed and breakfast to open here that eventually could be her home. The ones a real estate agent showed her in Cape May were selling for close to $1 million, so she settled on a bed and breakfast in West Cape May that is still only four blocks from the ocean.
Greenwood and Pogue opened the doors Memorial Day weekend and had a 90 percent occupancy rate over the summer. They are just getting around to naming the rooms, a bed and breakfast tradition, and they will be dedicated at a special ceremony today. The rooms are named after prominent African Americans from the area. Greenwood said she picked a mix of male and female, living and dead, to name the rooms. They include:
William J. Moore, a local tennis instructor who during segregation became the first principal for West Cape May's school for black children.
Stephen Smith, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cape May.
Woody Woodland, co-founder of the famed Cape May Jazz Festival who now, at the age of 72, is training to be a boxer.
Dolly Nash, former owner of Cape May's Planter Motel, granddaughter of Civil War General Robert Small and wife of local historian John Nash.
Helen Dickerson, the celebrated cook at the Chalfonte Hotel, noted for her southern cuisine.
Jack Vasser and Robert Jackson share a room. Vasser was Cape May County's first black mayor. Jackson is West Cape May's current mayor.
And the carriage house will be named for Dr. Edgar Arthur Draper, Cape May's first black doctor.