Inclusive Story – SNJ Today
It’s what you don’t know about the story that might surprise you. Bounty hunters who rode through Bridgeton looking for escaped slaves. The first African American woman to run for President, Shirley Chisholm, and her ties to a home in Newtonville, Buena Vista Township. A piece of land owned by the King of England that established a community in Cumberland County that thrives today. A Cumberland County church documented as an Underground Railroad stop.
Local historian Ralph Hunter and other members of a special state committee have more than a few stories to tell. When they’re done, you can drive across the state and take in the full picture of New Jersey’s African American history.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation this month creating a statewide Black Heritage Trail. The bipartisan bill is the brainchild of District 1 Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, the district’s first African-American legislator in the General Assembly.
McClellan’s project is a way to boost tourism and piece together the fragments of a story that begins in Cape May and spreads north to counties Atlantic, Cumberland and Salem, and attractions in counties Bergen and Sussex.
“This trail will highlight Black abolitionists, veterans, artists, entertainers and other leaders who have left their indelible mark on New Jersey history and deserve to be recognized and celebrated, not just one month out of the year…” said McClellan in a prepared publication.
Big story, but that’s where historians like Hunter and others come in. For the past 20 years, Hunter has been the founder and president of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey and is dedicated to adding to the trail of South Jersey’s rich black history. The $1 million provided by the legislature will help pay for the historical markers placed at each site.
“The trail is extremely important, especially in times like these,” said Hunter, curator at the museum’s two locations — 661 Jackson Road in Newtonville and 2200 Fairmount Avenue in Atlantic City. Hunter is one of the experts whose name has been submitted but not finalized to join the committee tasked with putting the trail together.
Hunter said his passion is incorporating the major landmarks of South Jersey, where he has served to educate people for a generation.
“It’s important for people to know these places exist as they travel through southern New Jersey,” he said.
Hunter feels it’s high time black history in South Jersey was told the way his museums do. “Honestly, I feel like [South Jersey] was ignored and I’m glad they put this package together,” Hunter said.
With one of his two museums in Atlantic City, he said he would place a historical marker on Missouri Avenue Beach, better known by a name Hunter won’t use because of his racially insensitive nature.
“Beaches in Atlantic City weren’t separated, they were separated in 1927 when hotel owners met with city officials,” he said. At that meeting, the beach hotel owners told city officials that they could not tolerate black residents enjoying the beaches in front of their properties.
“Blacks on the beach and in the sand. If you don’t fix this problem, the tourists won’t come back,” they told the city. The only place where black residents could enjoy the beach was in front of the Atlantic City Convention Center, which was in front of Missouri Avenue. Martin Luther King Jr., Sammy Davis Jr., Count Basie, world boxing champion Joe Lewis and musician Louis Armstrong used to frequent the beach when they were in town. This situation lasted until the 1930s – and until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Trinity AME Church: Churches are at the heart of Cumberland County’s black history. That includes Trinity AME Church in Gouldtown, Hunter said.
“Gouldtown is a very historic town,” Hunter noted, naming Trinity and a nearby cemetery where Black Civil War veterans are buried. In fact, some of the men in town tried to raise a regiment of black soldiers, but the proposal was rejected by the government. Undaunted, some of Gouldtown’s fair-skinned residents enlisted as white soldiers.
Gouldtown is one of the nation’s first multiracial communities, dating back hundreds of years. And it all started with an interracial marriage, he said.
The town’s history began when an English nobleman, John Fenwick, bought the land from the King of England. But the town got its name when a black man surnamed Gould married a white woman, Elizabeth Fenwick, the nobleman’s granddaughter. It was her son Benjamin who married a Finn and founded Gouldtown. All of their children were born light-skinned, which became a requirement for life in the city.
“Be residents [of Gouldtown], you had to be fair-skinned, not dark-skinned,” he said. The city grew, but the skin color rule remained. Sometime around the turn of the century, a resident of the town outside of the parish married a person of darker complexion. Her children’s skin color would be darker, forcing her to move outside of Gouldtown, just off the Millville road.
“Those were the rules of Gouldtown. It happened to a friend of mine’s grandmother,” Hunter said. One of the oldest black settlements in the country, Gouldtown was founded by free, land-owning African Americans.
Trinity AME Church in Gouldtown was founded in 1818 when a disused schoolhouse was converted into a church. A second school building was later moved to the current location. The current church dates from 1860 and was built on the eve of the Civil War. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.
Bridgeton and Newtonville: Hunter tells the story of a local resident, surnamed Buck, who ran a shelter for escaped slaves in Bridgeton. The slave stayed in what is now known as the Buck House in hopes of avoiding bounty hunters roaming the town. The escaped slave stayed in the house for some time and then escaped with the help of the Buck family, who helped them evade the bounty hunters by dressing him in Buck’s own clothes and taking him to safety.
Another important South Jersey location for black history is Newtonville, the location of the other of Hunter’s museums. Newtonville has been an established black community for approximately 125 years. Residents from Camden and Philadelphia moved there to buy land outside of the city.
“It was the precursor to suburbs for African Americans. When whites moved to Bucks County or the greater Northeast, this is the case [Black residents] did, they relocated to buy real estate in Newtonville,” he said.
They founded churches, many of which still exist today. Newtonville still has nine active churches, he said. Philadelphia’s industrial revolution caused many people of color to move to the city. Some would work at nearby charcoal fields in the Buena Vista community, which were used as fuel for the smelter mills, Hunter said.
City residents may have worked at places like Camden Shipyard or the Campbell Soup Co., saving their wages to buy a few acres of land. “They were done with townhouses. And if you own land, you’re king,” he said.
Years later, Newtonville would be the site of some famous Negro League baseball games, as well as a home for Shirley Chisholm, who became the first black woman to run for President of the United States in 1972. She bought a home in Newtonville in the 1960s, but it doesn’t remain, he said.
Springtown Legacy: In Greenwich, Cumberland County, there is a part of the city known as Springtown. Residents built a church there, now known as Bethel Othello AME Church, which historians and experts say is a documented Underground Railroad stop. The Underground Railroad was a network of safe houses and buildings that slaves followed to freedom in the North. The city was founded by freed or escaped slaves.
Some documents indicate that the church was used by Moses himself, Harriet Tubman, during her travels to rescue enslaved people. Today church membership is tiny, but the history behind the church is big. Efforts are underway by existing church members to make much-needed repairs, according to Robin Winrow Henry, a member of Bethel Othello and organizer of the upcoming Springtown Homecoming Festival.
“When I talk to different people in this area, a lot of people don’t know that this church is out there,” Henry said. She hopes to change that by introducing visitors to its place in history.
The original church was burned down by arsonists, she said, adding that the current church dates from 1838. The current church is rumored to have a trapdoor hidden under the altar that was used by escaped slaves, but that is not known for certain until repairs can be made, Henry said.
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A Freedom Tour exploring the Underground Railroad heritage of western Cumberland County will be held on Saturday, November 5 from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. The bus departs from locations in Bridgeton and Vineland.
The tour is dedicated to promoting community inquiry, interracial dialogue, emotional learning and historical preservation of sites associated with Underground Railroad heritage along the Delaware Bayshore. Developed by Lisa Stewart Garrison in close collaboration with church groups, academics, government agencies and educational organizations, it incorporates storytelling and singing so people of diverse backgrounds can explore the roots of Cumberland County’s mixed-race settlements.
The two pickup locations are:
• Cumberland County Council of Educational Associations, (CCEA), at 12:30 p.m., Dandelion Plaza, 1672 N. Delsea Dr., Vineland, 856-794-1221.
• Bridgeton High School, 111 N West Ave., Bridgeton.
To register for a spot (deadline is October 31st), email your name, phone number and pickup location to [email protected]
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Springtown Homecoming Festival
The festival will be held at Bethel Othello African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1092 Sheppard’s Mill Road, Greenwich on Saturday 24 September from 10:30am to 6:00pm.
At 4:00 PM, enjoy a 2-hour tour of the Underground Railroad path for $20 per person. The festival also includes a skit, gospel music by Allen and the Allen Choir, food and drink, and more. A Springtown history book sells for $25. All proceeds from the festival go towards church repairs, according to Robin Winrow Henry.
Tour visitors are taken to Delaware Bay, where escaped slaves would travel to reach the area. Also on the tour: Ambury Hill Cemetery, circa 1818, home to some of the original occupants who built the church before the existing church was built. It is also the burial site of two of Springtown’s Underground Railroad conductors, Alges and Julia Stanford, as well as former slaves.