Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

African American Contributions to the History of New Jersey: Places of Interest

Dr. James Still Homestead and Office

Dr James Still, The Black Doctor of the Pines, served a large clientele of both black and white patients from his office in Medford, NJ.  He was also one of Burlington County's largest property owners.

Image result for dr. james still's office

Peter Mott Underground Railroad House

The Peter Mott House is the oldest known house in Lawnside. Built circa 1845, the house was residence to Peter Mott, an African-American preacher who was the first Sunday school superintendent at Mount Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lawnside, and his wife, Eliza.

Mott was a free Black man and an agent of the Underground Railroad. The size of his house in what was then called Snow Hill or Free Haven and its method of construction — two stories — reflect Mott's status as a respected member of the community.

Image result for peter mott house lawnside nj

From: petermotthouse.org

The African American Heritage Museum of Southern Jersey

Image result for The African American Heritage Museum Of Southern New Jersey

Embracing Diveristy through Cultural Education

The African American Heritage Museum Of Southern New Jersey brings to life the African American experience of the 20th Century as it documents the struggle of one group of Americans to carve their own place in the wider cultural landscape. With a permanent home in the heart of Southern New Jersey, and a traveling museum with access to over 3,000 historical and cultural artifacts, the museum offers a unique opportunity to open a window to the mindset of successive generations of African Americans and provides an understanding to its cultural evolution.

Bridging the Gaps in Our Collective American Experience

The African American Heritage Museum boasts an impressive collection of items, including graphics, drawings, paintings, advertisements, household and decorative items, all depicting blacks in a historical context. In a decade-by-decade account, from Aunt Jemima to Tiger Woods, the museum provides a visual and visceral understanding of how the African American culture has evolved and changed, each item providing the proverbial "thousand words." "...committed to bringing its resources directly to the community."

Read more at:  http://www.aahmsnj.org/

Lawnside, New Jersey

If you drive through the Camden County borough of Lawnside, you'd be excused for thinking it's no different from any other small town in New Jersey.  The typical appearance of its shops, school, and modest homes belie its history as the first independent self-governing African-American community north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

According to the Encyclopedia of New Jersey, people of African descent began settling in what's now Lawnside in the 1700s.  Both freedman and escaped slaves were drawn to the community, and as the anti-slavery movement grew, Philadelphia abolitionist Ralph Smith began purchasing land in the area.  To encourage further settlement in the place he called Free Haven, Smith divided the acreage into lots and sold it to blacks at reduced prices.  When a group of former slaves from Maryland joined the community, it became known as Snow Hill, after their former home.  The current name of Lawnside was coined in 1907 when the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroad built a station stop there.

All the while, the community was part of the larger Centre Township, with representation on the town council.  As it grew to have its own school, churches, shops, and distinct culture, it was clear that Lawnside should stand on its own.  Through an act of the New Jersey Legislature, Centre Township was disbanded and Lawnside officially became a Borough in 1926.  To this day, Lawnside's population continues to be predominantly African American and extremely proud of our heritage, as evidenced on our Borough seal.

Image result for lawnside nj borough seal

Considering its roots, it's not surprising that the community that became Lawnside made its own contributions to the freedom effort.  Nearly fifty men joined the Union Army during the Civil War, likely in the 22nd U.S. Colored Troops that mustered out of Philadelphia.  The hamlet was also a stop on the Underground Railroad, and its respected resident minister an agent.  Preacher Peter Mott's house was the station, and it's been restored by the Lawnside Historical Society.

From:
www.lawnside.net

AfroAmerican Historical Society Museum

The Afro-American Historical Society Museum was organized as a committee by Captain Thomas Taylor, President of the Jersey City Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He saw a need to develop an appreciation for the historic and cultural heritage of African Americans. Toward this end he contacted Theodore Brunson, a lay historian in Afro-American history; Mrs. Nora Fant, a long time and active resident of Jersey City; and Mrs. Virginia Dunnaway, a community worker and teacher. Together they formed the Historical and Cultural Committee setting as its purpose the research, collection, preservation and exhibition of Afro_american history and culture. The committee chose February, Black History Month, as the appropiate time to present a program and exhibition on its findings.

Image result for Greenville Branch of the Jersey City Free Public Library

In 1984, the Afro-American Historical Society Museum obtained a permanent location on the second floor of the Greenville Public Library. The spcace was granted by the trustees of the library. It gave rise to great optimism for the future. As an incorporated entity with a permannet location, it was then possible to qualify for grants and to solicit donations. It also encouraged the further development of the historical and cultural African American exhibitions and programs.

Image result for Captain Thomas Taylor, President of the Jersey City Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In the beginning the committee operated with very little financial help to obtain artifacts, set up exhibitions or educate itself in regards to preservation techniques and practices. Most of the funds obtained were provided by the NAACP and Monumental Baptist Church. In 1977, in an effort to increase its income, the committee was incorporated. It applied for and received exempt status from the Internal Rvenue Service. This made it possible for contributors to receive a tax deduction for their contributions.

Read more here.

Skunk Hollow

Detail of 1921 Palisades Park Map

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, a small community of free blacks existed along the New York/New Jersey state line about a mile south of Palisades. Known as Skunk Hollow, it was settled by former slaves and their descendents 60 years before slavery was abolished in New Jersey. The first known deed was to Jack Earnest, a former slave, who, on January 1, 1806, paid $87.50 for five acres and 30 square rods; in 1822 he purchased another six acres.

Read more about the history of Skunk Hollow here.

The Underground Railroad in NJ

A DESCRIPTION OF THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD ROUTES THROUGH NEW JERSEY

New Jersey was intimately associated with Philadelphia and the adjoining section in the underground system, and afforded at least three important outlets for runaways from the territory west of the Delaware River. Our knowledge of these outlets is derived solely from the testimony of the Rev. Thomas Clement Oliver, who, like his father, traveled the New Jersey routes many times as a guide and conductor.

 Rev. Oliver

Probably the most important of these routes was that leading from Philadelphia to Jersey City and New York. From Philadelphia the runaways were taken across the Delaware River to Camden, where Mr. Oliver lived, thence they were conveyed northeast following the course of the river to Burlington, and thence in the same direction to Bordentown. In Burlington, sometimes called Station A, a short stop was made for the purpose of changing horses after the rapid driver of twenty miles from Philadelphia. The Bordentown station was denominated Station B east. Here the road took a more northerly direction to Princeton, where horses were again changed and the journey continued to New Brunswick. 2

Just east of New Brunswick the conductors sometimes met with opposition in attempting to cross the Raritan River on their way to Jersey City. To avoid such interruption the conductors arranged with Cornelius Cornell, who lived on the outskirts of New Brunswick, and, presumably, near the river, to notify them when there were slave-catchers or spies at the regular crossing. On receiving such information they took a by-road leading to Perth Amboy, whence their protégés could be safely forwarded to New York City.

When the way was clear at the Raritan, the company pursued its course to Rahway; here another relay of horses was obtained and the journey continued to Jersey City, where, under the care of John Everett, a Quaker, or his servants, they were taken to the Forty-Second Street railroad station, now known as the Grand Central, provided with tickets, and placed on a through train for Syracuse, New York.

The second route had its origin on the Delaware River, forty miles below Philadelphia, at or near Salem. This line, like the others to be mentioned later, seems to have been tributary to the Philadelphia route traced above. Nevertheless, it had an independent course for sixty miles before it connected with the more northern route at Bordentown. This distance of sixty miles was ordinarily traveled in three stages, the first ending at Woodbury, twenty-five miles north of Salem, 3 although the trip by wagon is said to have added ten miles to the estimated distance between the two places; the second stage ended at Evesham Mount; and third, at Bordentown.

The third route was called, from its initial station, the Greenwich line. This station is vividly described as having been made up of a circle of Quaker residences enclosing a swampy place that swarmed with blacks. One may surmise that it made a model station. Slaves were transported at night across the Delaware River from the vicinity of Dover, in boats marked by a yellow light hung below a blue one, and were met some distance out from the Jersey shore by boats showing the same lights. Landed at Greenwich, the fugitives were conducted north twentyfive miles to Swedesboro, and thence about the same distance to Evesham Mount. From this point they were taken to Mount Holly, and so into the northern or Philadelphia route.

Still another branch of this Philadelphia line is known. It constitutes the fourth road, and is described by Mr. Robert Purvis as an extension of a route through Bucks County, Pennsylvania, that entered Trenton, New Jersey, from Newtown, and ran directly to New Brunswick and so on to New York.

From Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad (1898) on NJ History for Kids

 

ABOUT THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century slaves of African descent in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. The term is also applied to the abolitionists, both black and white, free and enslaved, who aided the fugitives. Various other routes led to Mexico or overseas. An "Underground Railroad" running south toward Florida, then a Spanish possession, existed from the late 17th century until shortly after the American Revolution. However, the network now generally known as the Underground Railroad was formed in the early 19th century, and reached its height between 1850 and 1860. One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the "Railroad".

The escape network was not literally underground nor a railroad. It was figuratively "underground" in the sense of being an underground resistance. It was known as a "railroad" by way of the use of rail terminology in the code. The Underground Railroad consisted of meeting points, secret routes, transportation, and safe houses, and personal assistance provided by abolitionist sympathizers. Participants generally organized in small, independent groups; this helped to maintain secrecy because individuals knew some connecting "stations" along the route but knew few details of their immediate area. Escaped slaves would move north along the route from one way station to the next. "Conductors" on the railroad came from various backgrounds and included free-born blacks, white abolitionists, former slaves (either escaped or manumitted), and Native Americans. Church clergy and congregations often played a role, especially the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Congregationalists,Wesleyans, and Reformed Presbyterians as well as certain sects of mainstream denominations such as branches of the Methodist church and American Baptists. Without the presence and support of free black residents, there would have been almost no chance for fugitive slaves to pass into freedom unmolested.

To reduce the risk of infiltration, many people associated with the Underground Railroad knew only their part of the operation and not of the whole scheme. "Conductors" led or transported the fugitives from station to station. A conductor sometimes pretended to be a slave in order to enter a plantation. Once a part of a plantation, the conductor would direct the runaways to the North. Slaves traveled at night, about 10–20 miles (15–30 km) to each station. They would stop at the so-called "stations" or "depots" during the day and rest. The stations were often located in barns, under church floors, or in hiding places in caves and hollowed-out riverbanks. While the fugitives rested at one station, a message was sent to the next station to let the station master know the runaways were on their way.

The resting spots where the runaways could sleep and eat were given the code names "stations" and "depots," which were held by "station masters". "Stockholders" gave money or supplies for assistance. Using biblical references, fugitives referred to Canada as the "Promised Land" and the Ohio River as the "River Jordan", which marked the boundary between slave states and free states

Read more from the article in Wikipedia.

To learn more:

Pathways to Freedom Podcasts 

The Underground Railroad in New Jersey 

7 Steps to Freedom Blog 

NJTV News: Touring the Underground Railroad in New Jersey

New Jersey's Underground Railroad Heritage : "Steal Away, Steal Away--" : A guide to the underground railroad in New Jersey 

City of Burlington Underground Railroad Tour  

National Parks Service Underground Railroad Stops (scroll down for NJ) 

The Underground Railroad in Jersey City