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Cumberland pot 250 years in the melting -
County celebrates the diversity of its peopl
Eileen Bennett
Staff Writer for The Press of Atlantic City

A potpourri of cultures made Cumberland County the unique region it is today, and that ethnic blend was celebrated in grand style as the county began its 250th anniversary with a gala birthday bash on Jan. 17.

The celebration started, appropriately enough, with a performance by the Lenni Lenape Dancers. According to co-narrator Thomas Lane, Lenni Lenape means "original people."

These Native Americans, who settled in Cumberland County prior to 1500, were "noble, peaceful, strong, courageous, and brave ... and had tremendous respect for each other," Lane said.

The dancers, in traditional feathered headdress and costume, performed several authentic dances for the captivated crowd of 500.

Next were the New Bethel A.M.E. Praise Dancers, representing the African-American community that settled in the county between 1700 and 1750.

According to Lane, "The African-American experience was very complex" in Cumberland County.

"Slavery was a real and active force in South Jersey," he said.

He credited not only the peace-loving Quakers in helping abolish the practice of slavery but "African Americans themselves."

The Praise dancers performed several lively, upbeat numbers, including the evocative "Nigerian Praise."

The Italians' contribution to Cumberland County was vital as well.

According to co-narrator Jane Galetto, it was the vision of Vineland founder Charles Landis to have Italian immigrants fill the need for farm labor in the area.

They did that -- and more -- from the 1870s onward.

"They went on to own their own farms and made them flourish," Galetto said.

The Italians were represented by members of the Sicilian-American Club, which performed several musical numbers, including the hauntingly beautiful "O Solo Mio."

The settlers came next, according to co-narrator Dr. Frank DeMaio, establishing settlements in Alliance, Norma, Rosenhayn, Brotmanville and Carmel.

"They sought an agrarian type of idealism .. a return to the soil," DeMaio said.

Next were the Greeks, who settled Cumberland County between 1900 and 1920.

"The Greeks saw opportunity and freedom here," Lane said.

The Hellenic Pride Dance Group, clad in brilliant authentic costumes, performed several dances of the Greek Islands.

The Ukrainians settled in Cumberland County between 1930 and 1936, eventually flourishing in Millville and Bridgeton.

The Ukrainian Choir of Millville sang several traditional folk tunes, including Christmas and Easter songs.

Between 1940 and 1945, thousands of Japanese Americans moved to Seabrook after the U.S. government interned them at relocation camps during World War II.

The Seabrook Minyo Dancers, using a delicate series of steps and hand motions, performed two graceful numbers for the crowd that gathered at Cumberland County College's Frank Guaracini's Fine and Performing Arts Center.

Dressed in brilliant turquoise kimonos, the dancers used bright orange fans in one dance and American and Japanese flags in another.

Members of the Hoh Daiko Drummers of Seabrook captivated the crowd with a stunning, intricately timed performance. They have performed throughout the East Coast.

Hispanics also have flourished in Cumberland County, settling here from 1945 to 1950. According to Lane, the 1990 Census shows some 20,000 Hispanics in Cumberland County.

That includes not only Puerto Ricans, but Dominicans, Columbians and Mexicans, he said.

The Raices Boricus dance club, with its colorful, flowing skirts, performed several animated numbers for the appreciative crowd at the performing arts center.

The years 1949 to 1950 featured immigrants from Estonia and Latvia; they were represented by the Seabrook Estonian Association. More than 800 Estonians fled to Seabrook in 1949 to escape Soviet occupation of eastern Europe.

They worked along with formerly interned Japanese Americans at Seabrook Farms and together built one of the most unique communities in southern New Jersey.

The celebration was planned by the Cumberland County 250th Anniversary Celebration Commission, co-chaired by Dave Price and Mel Brody along with county Tourism Director Kim Wood. Freeholder Charles Griffiths is the freeholder liaison.

Taken from The Press of Atlantic City;
Cumberland County 250th Anniversary Special - 6/28/98