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Part 6 – Slavery, Freedom, and Citizenship, 1804 – 1860

Following the 1804 Gradual Abolition Act, New Jerseyans faced a new world in which the end of slavery was on the horizon. Yet, the meaning of abolition and the experience of enslaved and free people of color in light of impending abolition was hardly clear. For one, the 1804 Act created a new legal status for those born to enslaved mothers, and the Act itself did very little to explain what this status would be like. Moreover, whites in the state, both those averse to freeing the slaves and those who supported abolition, were unsettled in their opinion of what should happen to free blacks. Many whites supported the idea of colonization, which, by sending African Americans to newly created settlements in Africa, would have created an entirely white population in the state. Most African Americans, of course, rejected this idea and fought against it. 

This era was also a time when the problem slavery in New Jersey grew to be more connected to national issues. Abolitionists and anti-slavery whites in fact turned away from the state to address slavery in the South. At the same time, people of color in New Jersey, both enslaved and free, were kidnapped and/or sold to the southern planters, with many spending the rest of their lives working on plantations in the newly established cotton and sugar fields of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. For those who remained, the struggle for freedom and to gain the rights of citizenship continued. The state curtailed voting rights and took decades to officially decouple African ancestry with slave status. Nevertheless, people of color established their own communities and towns with their own churches, schools, and mutual aid societies. From this base, a few acquired land, established businesses, and accumulated wealth, and, in some cases, these places became refuges for both free people and those escaping bondage on the Underground Railroad.


Overall, the population of African Americans in New Jersey grew from 14,185 in 1790 to 25,336 in 1860. Yet, given that this is sixty years, a growth of just 11,000 people is less than expected. Wright (1988:35-36) in fact observes that between 1820 and 1840, that black people in New Jersey “increased in number by fewer than 2,000, from 20,017 to 21,718. By contrast, during the same period New York’s black population grew from 39,367 to 50,031 and Pennsylvania’s from 30,413 for 47,918.” The implication here is that African Americans in New Jersey were leaving state and establishing new lives most likely in Philadelphia and New York City. The presumed draw was a combination of better work opportunities and better chances to join a community. During this era the state did see a steady decline in the number of enslaved persons, as expected given the 1804 Gradual Abolition Act. From a peak of 12,422 in 1800, the number of enslaved fell to 7,557 in 1820, 684 in 1840, and just 18 in 1860. Notably, in these years, slavery was concentrated in the northern counties of the state. In 1800, northern counties recorded 11,915 slaves versus just 507 in the southern counties. In 1820 these figures were 7,375 in the northern counties and 182 in south. All 18 enslaved persons in 1860 were in northern counties in 1860 (Wright 1988:81-86).

Looking specifically at Bergen County, Hodges (1999:229) notes that “as the slave population dropped from 1,683 in 1820 to 222 in 1840, the free black population first rose to 1,059 to 1,894 in 1830, then dropped to 1,529 in 1840, not regaining its 1830 level until 1900.” Hodges reports similar patterns of stagnant growth in Monmouth and Middlesex Counties. He also notes an uneven distribution of African American men and women such that rural areas had many more men while urban centers had more women than men. Finally, he shows that black autonomy was hard won as “of the 1,879 free blacks [in Bergen County], 1,185 lived [as dependents] on the property of whites just before the Civil War.”

Slaves for a term

James Gigantino (2015:95) helps to explain the meaning of the 1804 Gradual Abolition Act by referring to an observation made in 1824 by the traveler Peter Chandler. Chandler wrote upon entering Pennsylvania that “Today [he] left the land of slavery, New Jersey. The blacks are permitted to be held in bondage.” While this is an accurate statement since no one was actually freed by the 1804 Act, Gigantino (2015:96) explains that this observation was an assessment of the status of people of color in the state, whether they were enslaved or “slaves for a term.” His point is that even though the children of enslaved mothers were legally free, to observers like Chandler this was not likely evident. In the vast majority of cases, these free boys, girls, and young men and women did the same sort of work, lived in the same conditions, and suffered essentially the same fates as their mothers and other enslaved African Americans. This included especially the possibility of being worked to death, sold, and corporally punished. At the same time, it also included the possibility for the same sorts of resistance by these slaves for a term that we have seen among enslaved people. 

It is important to understand the legal status of a slaves for a term, which Gigantino (2015:99) describes as “one different than apprentices and closer to slaves.” The case of slave for term Betty illustrates. Betty and her enslaved parents were purchased by Thomas Morrell who promised to free them after seven years of service. However, Morrell sold the trio to Phineas Moore who then sold them to Elihu Price. When the seven years were up, Betty’s parents declared themselves free. Price, not a party to the arrangement made with Morrell, petitioned to have his property returned. The case came to focus on the legal status of Betty and after appeal to the state Supreme Court, it was determined that Betty’s status was to be considered separately from her mother: “the condition of service attached to the child from the circumstances of its birth… resulted from being born of a slave; it was separated at its birth from the fate and was no longer to follow the destiny of the mother.” As Gigantino (2015:100) explains: the child was attached to the mother “by kinship, but not by law” in the same manner as would be a slave. 

Another way to understand the status of children like Betty is to compare them to indentured whites. Indentures themselves were legal contracts specifying not only the expectations of the servant in terms of their length of service and the sorts of work and behavior they would do and demonstrate, but also what they would receive in return. “For apprentices, this included the skills the master would teach the child, the food or clothing provided, and any payment distributed at the end of the contract … [which could include] one hundred dollars, a Bible, and two sets of clothes” (Gigantino 2015:103). Slaves for a term were not working under a contract, other than a law that stated they were to remain the de facto property of their mother’s master for two decades after their birth. At the end of their term, they received nothing, nor could they claim they were owed anything. 

In fact, during the abolition era, the claims went the other way as slaveowners petitioned that the costs of raising the child were in excess of the amount of labor they could expect in 21 to 25 years of service. More than 700 Bergen County slaveowners petitioned to repeal the Abolition Act in 1806 on the grounds that “holders of such slaves [deserve] an equal right to the unlimited services of their issue or offspring and more especially as they protect, clothe, and support the parents” (in Gigantino 2015:109). Note that even though the children in this description were legally free that the slaveowners refer to them as slaves, a common ‘mistake’ over the next two decades state-wide. 

In order to manage the ambiguous status of slaves for a term, the state of New Jersey established that all counties would keep a record of black births. In this way, the name of the slave for a term, their date of birth, and the name of the mother’s owner would be public record. Over 3,500 individuals were recorded in these books which were kept from 1804 until the middle of the century (Hodges 1997:175). While these are a magnificent record of slavery and slavery for a term in the state, at least one instance shows its potentially significant limitations. This was the case of Peter, who, when purchased at age seven, was found to have never been registered in the Middlesex County black births book. Without this sale it likely Peter would never have been registered and perhaps never freed when he reached the legal age. What we learn here is that “the state pushed the responsibility for enforcing freedom onto the slaveholder and the slaves for a term themselves” (Gigantino 2015:109), a situation which confirms the state’s minimal concern for those in bondage. 

Rather, the state’s interest as expressed in its laws and statutes effecting the action of slaveholders, seems to have been the perpetuation of slavery and the minimization of free black households and communities. Gigantino (2015:111) notes that “blacks in New Jersey established their own households at a slower rate than in Connecticut, Rhode Island, or Massachusetts … [where] blacks in Boston, Providence, and New Haven crossed the critical two-third threshold of independent households in 1790.” Even in the 1820s, 35% of free people of color still lived in white-controlled households in Newark. 

One factor was the nature of the abolition law, which designated some of the most the productive years of a young servant’s life to be for the benefit of mother’s owner. In this way, both slaves for a term and even their manumitted parents were unable to gain from the work of the young people. This does not include the pain of leaving children behind. As such, the preservation of multiracial households headed by current and former slaveholders was sustained. In one case, Ann and Rufus Thompson were freed in 1828, but since their children would remain slaves for a term until 1848, they remained in the employ of their masters for an additional twenty years, a situation that certainly limited their freedom and capacity to build autonomous lives. 

Situations like these suggest that the nominal freedom of the 1804 Act imposed severe restrictions on people of color in New Jersey. Thus, it is not surprising that resistance by slaves for a term looks much the same as that of enslaved persons in earlier years. For example, Benjamin Anderson assaulted his master in 1832 for which he received three years of hard labor. Thirteen-year-old Tom and fourteen-year-old Tillman ran away from their masters. These acts are not at all different from those perpetrated by enslaved people such as Bill, who ran away from his master Israel Crane in 1816, Francis Cisco who ran away from Gary Wistenwell of Hackensack in 1845, thirteen-year-old Ann Hitchens who poisoned her master and mistress in Hunterdon County in 1813, or Sam and Chloe who burned down their master’s barn in 1816 (Gigantino 2015:133,124). 

Negotiating freedom and poverty

Slaves and slaves for a term are also known to have negotiated with their masters for their freedom. In some cases, they entered a contract in which they promised to provide faithful service for a finite set of time like Daniel from Sussex County, who made deal with his master Benjamin Youmans to serve an additional four years (Gigantino 2015:125). In other instances, bonded men and women purchased their own and others’ freedom all at once or over time. One was Sam, a slave owned by John Blauvelt in Bergen County, who agreed to pay his master $50 per year for four years starting in 1809. Again, we see the perpetuation of slavery during the abolition era as young men and women, some of whom were born free, are made to trade years of their lives or accumulated wealth in order to escape bondage. 

Those who escaped slavery, whether legally or not, and remained in New Jersey found that freedom came with its own set of burdens that reflect the many ways white anti-black racism could be expressed. One way freedom was acquired was by slaveholder manumission. In a very few cases, slaveholders granted freedom in their wills. David Johnson of Newark, for example, freed Cuff within one month of his death (Gigantino 2015:130). However, most slaveholders perpetuated slavery as they had done for decades. In Newark and Morris Township, only two wills registered after 1804 granted freedom and in once instance this was to be delayed until the slave Jack reached 31 years of age. It was, in fact, common that slaves and slaves for a term were sold to pay debts or to provide support for living spouses. This was the case for the wife of John Morris who was to be cared for by the sale of two slaves for a term in 1820 (Gigantino 2015:130). Hodges (1997:151,178) also notes that very few slaveowners in Monmouth County freed their slaves at the time of their death, where a total of 192 saves were bequeathed to relatives between 1816 and 1841. The 1814 will of Kenneth Hankinson, for example, 

granted to his son Peter ‘my negro boy as his slave for life.’ He also established a timetable for the gradual emancipation of his other slaves, Abraham would be freed in seven year, at age twenty-five. The indentures of Cyrus, nine, and Humphrey, eight, were to be sold until they to reached twenty-five, after which they would be free. Likewise, the indentures of three female slaves were to be sold until each reached age twenty-five. Finally, Hankinson extended to his inheritors a claim on Dick, ‘who is now run away,’ establishing a fifty-dollar reward for his capture and perpetuating his slavery ‘for life if he is ever taken.’

Just as slave births were recorded, the state also expected manumitted slaves to be registered by the counties. Manumission records are an excellent view on slavery in the state, though they do show that slaveowners were not as eager to embrace black freedom as they could have been. In most counties, especially those in the former East Jersey, manumitted slaves were freed on average close to or over 30 years of age. Given that the labor of enslaved persons was typically hard, life expectancies among African Americans were not much above 40 years. Thus, those freed after thirty could look to live another ten to twenty years, though these would not be their strongest years, a fact that indeed led to many formerly enslaved men and women to require public assistance (Gigantino 2015:Table 3). Evidence for this appears in the overseer records for Newark that show between 1807 and 1816 that twenty-nine black claimants received support for food, housing expenses, funerals, and medical care. The frequency of such claims led the city to initiate a process of ensuring that all poor black people were legal residents of Newark and to remove those who had recently moved there back to where they lived while enslaved (Gigantino 2015:135). Hodges (1998:54) notes that “no emancipated blacks in Bergen [County] were able to accumulate enough capital to warrant a legal statement” in the form of a probate inventory. 

Concerns for African American poverty led to some acts that were truly shocking. In one case, Phebe was re-enslaved by the overseer of the poor of West Windsor in 1813. Phebe and her daughter were freed by purchase when her free husband, Boston, purchased them from their owner Thomas Truxton. A few years later Boston died, so Phebe and her daughter were forced to request public assistance. In response, the overseers declared that Boston’s purchase was actually a manumission, which put the burden of Phebe and the girl’s care on Truxton, who was responsible as her former owner. To evade this cost, Truxton sold Phebe as a slave to William Covenhoven, officially returning her to slavery, and act sustained by the overseers. 

A second shocking example of limited freedom was implemented by the Newark Female Charity Society, who provided poor relief to city residents both black and white. However, in order to qualify for food and supplies, families were required to have their homes inspected and the characters judged. If Society members deemed them unsatisfactory, relief was tied to an expectation that they would “surrender their children to the overseers of the poor, who would bind them out to labor for a white family until majority” (Gigantino 2015:136). 

Another example of the struggles imposed on free people of color was what Hodges (1997:163) calls a “cottager system” in Monmouth County that worked similar to share-cropping. Here, free people of color entered into seasonal or annual agreements with white landowners to earn a living. They would provide specified work for a period of time and in some cases be allowed to live on and work land owned by the white farmer. This situation improved on day laboring, but most African Americans cottagers remained landless. Hodges (1997:163) concludes, that though a cottager “was an independent contractor, not a slave” their life “resembled more a ‘mild slavery’ than the free choices of nascent capitalism.”

Free people of color also faced the stigma of race along with the struggles of poverty. On July 22, 1811, a letter to the Newark newspaper, the Centinel of Freedom, reported that a member of the local “committee charged with quelling the ‘noisy and riotous’ blacks” was knocked down. The letter spurred 

a group of white Newarkers … to punish those responsible by making open war on the black community, destroying the home of one freedman and damaging another. In the melee of revenge, whites destroyed furniture and beds and looted several homes that contained large quantities of playing cards, proof, they claimed, that the July 22 commotion involved enslaved and free blacks who consorted together and engaged in games of ill repute” (Gigantino 2015:123). 

One can only wonder what the women of the Newark Female Charity Society did following this incident. Regardless, the conclusion among Newark leaders was that the problem was the African Americans themselves, so, “city officials called a meeting in 1812 ‘to adopt measures for the removal of free blacks not resident here and to prevent riots at night’” (Gigantino 2015:195). 

An equally vicious attack on the African American community in Newark occurred in the summer of 1834. Following a sermon titled the “Sin of Slavery,” delivered by William Weeks, the white pastor at the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Newark, “a number of whites charge[d] the altar” and captured a black man who stood with Weeks to confine him in the town jail. Subsequently a mob of two to three hundred white men who “had assembled outside the church. Proceeded to smash its windows, destroy the pulpit, and break the majority of the pews … Violence quickly spread to other areas of Newark where white mobs targeted free black businesses” (Gigantino 2015:210). 

 Denial of voting rights and other legal actions

Anti-black racism among legislators and state leaders also informed decisions regarding African American liberty and voting rights. Only three years after the 1804 Gradual Abolition Act, the state legislature passed a voting rights act which denied the franchise to African Americans and women, while at the same time lowering the property requirements for white men. The impetus for the Act was a perception of “striking evidence of the miserably defective system of New Jersey elections” in which “restless, ignorant, and viscous aliens, Negroes, and transients” supposedly interfered with proper procedure (in Gigantino 2015:146). Notably, the latter scapegoating statement was made William Griffith, president of the Federalist Abolition Society. While the new Act disenfranchised both women and African Americans, that it was passed immediately following the Gradual Abolition Act makes the case that free blacks with vote was the primary threat being addressed. When African Americans sought to fight their disenfranchisement through a series of conventions in the 1840s, the state legislature was unmoved. It was not until 1870 that their voting rights were reinstated and then only by virtue of the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.

In the intervening years African Americans suffered more setbacks than gains in terms of their civil rights. One of the most egregious was an 1821 court decision that declared that in New Jersey “all black men were prima facie slaves.” The case was a trial of man accused of helping a self-emancipated slave escape to New York. He claimed he should not be liable since he was unaware of the escapee’s legal status. The court thus declared that all African Americans in New Jersey should be assumed enslaved unless they can prove their freedom (Gigantino 2015:176). This decision remained the de facto law of the state until 1836, when the State Supreme Court reversed its assessment and established that the prima facie status of African Americans should be as free people. Yet, this change did not address the surviving statutes of the 1798 slave code. Thus, the state continued to “restrict slaves from testifying against whites, mandated a 10 p.m. curfew for free blacks, prohibited ‘disorderly conduct’ by both slaves and free blacks, and barred free blacks from owning firearms and begging in public” (Gigantino 2015:200).  Moreover, one year later, in 1837, the state passed legislation requiring all free people of color to register with the state. So, while they might have been seen as a free people, they were nevertheless still regarded as something other rights-bearing individuals.

In the new constitution installed in 1844, the restrictions on voting rights already in place were reproduced. Yet, new language in the 1844 document which declared that “all men are by nature free and independent” was cited by lawyer Alvan Stewart in an attempt immediately abolish slavery in the state. Opposing attorneys rejected the claim, stating that this language was simply a rhetorical flair that was not intended to impact the property rights of New Jerseyans. The State Supreme Court agreed (Ernst 1986). In response, the legislature established the following year that there were no longer slaves in New Jersey, but rather, that those 700+ individuals who were held captive were to be considered instead as “apprentices for life” (Hodges 1999:225). As Hodges (1997:174) concludes, this act established that “New Jersey property rights took precedence over human rights.” 

The state maintained is regressive approach to African American freedom for the rest of the antebellum and Civil War eras. Despite eloquent pleas to affirm their citizenship rights by African American attendees at a Trenton convention in 1849, state leaders strongly supported propertied interests defined in the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. “Senator Jacob Miller of New Jersey extolled it and the institution of slavery. Referring to the South, ‘where the slave labors contentedly in the cotton fields for his master,’ Miller applauded slavery as a key part of the ‘best system of laws ever devised by man.’ The Fugitive Slave act ensured that ‘the rights of property and the rights of citizens are protected and defended by the constitution and the laws of slavery’” (in Hodges 2019:81). Given this sentiment it is neither surprising that New Jersey was known to many as the “Georgia of the North” (Wright 1953:91) nor that the state legislature both denied Lincoln’s right to free the slaves in the emancipation proclamation and failed to ratify the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments (Hodges 1997:192-194). 

Connections to slavery in the South

One reason for legislative recalcitrance was a direct interest in the well-being of the southern states who during these years became large-scale consumers of the New Jersey industrial goods. Largely driven by demand for basic farm equipment including clothing and tools for slaves, the products of New Jersey industry became tied to the preservation of slavery in the nation. Among these product were shoes, clothing, leather and iron goods produced in Newark, Paterson, and in forges across the state. Hodges (2019:61) states that “shoes, often manufactured for the cotton producing slave states, were Newark’s primary industry.” Wright (1988:28) argues that “white New Jerseyans increasingly felt that the abolition of southern slavery would ruin them economically.”

The influence of southern slavery also came in another form: the kidnapping and sale of African Americans in New Jersey so they could be sold to labor-needy southern slaveowners. Hodges (1997:148,175) notes that internal sales of slaves among New Jersey farmers continued, such as the sale by James Baird of Bett, a slave for life, in 1814 to D.W. Disborough of New Brunswick or the sale of a “healthy black woman, 34-35 years of age … used to all sorts of domestic work” by Peter Smock in 1837. Yet, the sale of African Americans to southern planters introduced a more nefarious set of practices that rightly terrified people of color, whether they were free or enslaved. 

In one version, New Jersey slave owners sought to dispose of their slaves before they would be set free as a result of the 1804 Act. Such actions required the state to institute laws in 1812 and 1818 requiring the consent of the slave being sold if they were to leave the state (Fishman 1997:178). Still, a report from Paterson notes that “a tavern-keeper on Main Street … occasionally took a string of horses South to sell and usually took several Negroes to care for the horses. He never brought either horses or Negroes back” (in Fishman 1997:178). Another instance of duplicity is the case of Samuel Thompson of Monmouth County who “convinced a black mother, aged twenty-five and a ‘slave for life,’ to go to Louisiana, because there her sons Philip, three, and Ralph, five, would be servants only until age twenty-five. Through the ruse he stole rather than gained the boys freedom” (Hodges 1997:150). Fishman (1997:178) also notes two reports of dozens of slaves sold out of the state made in 1818, one in which the slaves were found aboard a ship in Perth Amboy. 

Kidnapping and human trafficking 

The other version of this human trafficking perpetrated by New Jersey residents involved working directly with southern planters to kidnap slaves for sale to the South. The Cannon-Johnson Company kidnapped and sold more than 200 African Americans in the 1820s, running through taverns along the Nanticoke River on the Maryland-Delaware border. They bribed sheriffs, employed black associates, drafted false documents, and created safe houses in a sort of “reverse underground railroad” (Hodges 2019:80). The most notorious of these rings was led by a corrupt Common Pleas Judge Jacob Van Winkle and his brother-in-law Charles Morgan, a Louisiana planter. Under Van Winkle’s judicial authority, the team produced false affidavits of slave’s consent for their sale out of state. The draw was that southern planters were willing to pay twice the price for a slave as those in New Jersey, plus as was reported in a New Orleans newspaper, the ringleaders were able to convince customers that “Jersey negroes appear to be peculiarly adapted to this market – especial those that bear the mark of Jacob Van Winkle, as it is understood that they offer the best opportunity for speculation” (in Fishman 1997:179). Van Winkle was eventually indicted when seventy-five slaves were found to be shipped south. Van Winkle claimed that they had given the consent, including the young children, which included a ten-day old infant, whose cries were interpreted as consent to be sold. Van Winkle himself was never convicted (Hodges 2019:79, Fishman 1997:178-179; also see Fishman 1997:204-210). 


Even liberal whites in New Jersey contributed to the racist conditions of African Americans in the state. This came in two forms. The first was a tacit declaration that passing the 1804 Act met the goals of the anti-slavery community. As such the New Jersey Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery had its final meeting in 1809. It would not be until the 1830s before another state-wide anti-slavery organization was founded (Hodges 1999:192, Wright 1988:31). 

The other liberal response to the African American struggle was colonization, which was established in the state in 1816 under the auspices of the American Colonization Society (ACS). In this scheme, whites proposed to send free blacks from New Jersey to Africa where they would be Christian “civilizing agents” among Africans (Wright 1988:35). The New Jersey branch of the ACS was founded by Reverend Robert Finley, a Presbyterian Minister from Basking Ridge. Finley enlisted the support of social leaders across the state including many Princeton university professors as well as politicians and elites such as Commodore Robert Field Stockton, Theodore Frelinghuysen, General John Frelinghuysen, and Samuel Bayard (Wright 1998:35). 

The impetus for colonization was based in an awareness among its founders that the situation for African Americans was difficult. Finely explained that “everything connected with their condition, including their colour, is against them,” so, “sending them to the land of their ancestors” was seen as the best and kindest option. At the same time, white benevolence had its limits. Other New Jersey colonizationists feared that the free blacks, “an enormous mass of revolting wretchedness and deadly pollution” would cause “a moral and political pestilence” (in Hodges 1999:215-16). Samuel Bayard claimed that “whites were leaving New Jersey because they disliked working with blacks.” He feared black insurrection if they were to remain, since how could they be expected to accept white authority if their population continued to grow. Arguing that there would be 320,000 more Negroes by the 1920s, Bayard posed these questions: “Will they be content to endure every burden, while they enjoy but few privileges? Will they be content to have questions of life and liberty decided by white Jerseymen, when perhaps from mutual antipathy, and impartial trial will be impossible? Shall they vote? Shall they be entitled to Representatives?” (Wright 1948:180). The general theory of colonization was that objective white racism combined with perceived black “ignorance, misery and depravity” was creating an untenable situation in the state (Hodges 2019:66-67). 

The colonization process involved the creation of schools to educate free blacks so they could “evangelize in Africa.” Sabbath schools were created for teaching how to read the Bible in Parsippany and Newark. These were the first schools for African Americans in the state, though they were segregated. Despite this opportunity, the majority of New Jersey African Americans rejected colonization, for they could see clearly that it reflected white priorities, which as Hodges (2019:68) observes: “better, members of the ACS concluded, to sacrifice black rights that to provoke racial conflict.”

African American anti-colonization

George Fishman (1997:183-193) provides a detailed examination of the successful black anti-colonization struggle in New Jersey. From the very beginning free people of color organized their opposition in public rallies, the first being in 1817. Rallies continued throughout the early 1800s in Westfield, Rahway, Elizabeth, Paterson, Newark, Trenton, and New Brunswick. In 1830, New Jersey-native Rev. Peter Williams, Jr. stated: 

We are natives of this country. We ask only to be treated as well as foreigners. Not a few of our fathers suffered and bled to purchase its independence; we ask only to be treated as well as those who fought against it. We have toiled to cultivate it, and to raise it to its present prosperous condition; we ask only to share equal privileges with those who came from distant lands, to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Let these moderate requests be granted and we need not go to Africa or anywhere else to be improved and happy.

A major anti-colonization rally took place in Trenton in 1836 at the African American Mount Zion Church. Speakers at the rally declared colonization as “a positive libel of our character.” In a series of resolutions, African Americans asserted their native claim to America, though they did suggest that could be enticed to move to “a portion of the Western territory as a state with the same rights as any other free state.” They also penned a strict condemnation of the ACS: 

we view the Society as the inveterate foe both to the free man and the slaveman of color … it has unequivocally declared its object, to wit, the extermination of the free people of color from the Union … they have not failed to slander our character by representing as a vagrant race; and we do therefore disclaim all union with the said Society and, one and for all declare that we will never remove under their patronage; neither do we consider it expedient to emigrate anywhere. 

Among the most eloquent anti-colonizationists was Rev. Samuel Cornish, a founding editor of Freedom’s Journal in New York, America’s first black newspaper, and later the Colored American. In 1839, Cornish wrote that colonizationists were “swindling up the souls and drying up the liberality, benevolence, and piety of Jerseymen.” He also noted that he had seen in New Jersey “the bitterest persecution, the meanest and most shameful deeds worked upon and toward defenseless colored people.” In 1840, Cornish writing with Theodore Wright of New York published a twenty-six page “definitive manifesto of African American aspirations” titled The Colonization Scheme Considered in Its Rejection by Colored People. Among a host of concerns, rejections, and corrections, the authors “brought out the deleterious effects on free African American resulting from the place of honor accorded to slaveholders: 1. The activation of ‘un-Christian’ prejudice; 2. Public persecution; 3. Deprivation of employment, resulting in poverty; 4. Demoralizing influences.” 

Photo of Samuel Cornish

Rev. Samuel Cornish, a black minister, writer, publisher, and activist from Belleville and Newark.

Black anti-colonization activism in the state was successful in that very few African Americans from New Jersey immigrated to Africa. Fishman (1997:193) notes that between 1820 and 1853 only twenty-four people left the state. By 1872, even after stepped up efforts by the ACS, the number did not reach 100, “a very small fraction of one per cent of the free African American population.”

Establishing African American communities in New Jersey

Instead of embracing colonization, African Americans in New Jersey put down roots and created communities and institutions to support their well-being. These achievements did not come without struggles of their own. For the most part, African Americans were poor. One assessment by Hodges (1997:178) based on tax records from Upper Freehold in 1839 shows that of “the sixty-one names of ‘colored persons’ on the list, all were taxed at the minimal level.” In this community and many others in the state, the only work for black people was agricultural labor, which left them dependent on whites for their livelihood. Probate records from Monmouth county reveal that black people with estates tended to be valued very low such as Hagar Smock’s which was valued at less that forty dollars (Hodges 1997:198). Moreover, agricultural work was arduous and at time dangerous. Coroner’s reports for Monmouth County record African American deaths from falling from the second story of a barn, being kicked by a horse, and exposure, such as James, a 13-year old who froze to death (Hodges 1997:179-80). 

African Americans working in urban areas did not fare much better. Hodges (1999:238) notes that black couples found places to live in the urban fringes where men could remain working in agriculture while women commuted to work as domestics. This system worked since neither occupation was considered skilled labor. Rather, skilled labor was informally restricted to whites. Even the forward-looking Alexander Hamilton’s in his 1791 Report on Manufactures, “called for an industrial plan that would attract immigrant manufactures and artisans to the new nation, a method Hamilton and associates used in Paterson” (Hodges 2019:60). As such, new industries developed in New Jersey hired very few African Americans. Even laboring jobs were hard to acquire. “In Elizabeth, construction of railway lines and factories attracted Irish immigrants, which competed fiercely with black residents for jobs. Black unemployment in the city became so bad that a number of residents left for the British colonies of Trinidad and Guiana” (Hodges 2019:61). 

Despite these struggles, African Americans continued to survive and develop independent communities. Several all or mostly black towns or settlements were established in the state. These included Lawnside, Fettersville, Kaighnsville, Springtown, Gouldtown, Jordantown, and Timbuctoo in southern New Jersey (Hodges 2019:62, Fishman 1997:195, Barton and Orr 2015). There were fewer northern communities like these, though Joan Geismar (1982) researched the Skunk Hollow community in Harrington Township, Bergen County through both historical and archaeological research. Descendants of some of Old Tappan’s original patentees still lived in the area along the New Jersey-New York border (Hodges 2019:64). A smaller community in Paramus known as Dunkerhook is also being researched archaeologically (Lutins 2002, Norris 2010, Johnson and Matthews n.d.). Rather, in northern New Jersey African Americans congregated in urban neighborhoods such as the African Shore in Paterson, as well as in sections of Newark, Hackensack, Elizabeth (Fishman 1997:227, Hodges 1999:238). Hodges (1997:189) also notes that black communities developed in Monmouth County in the “newer towns of Ocean, Atlantic, Raritan, and Manalapan.” 

Of course, the basis for a successful community is tied to capital and social organizations. Black landownership was not common, but it did exist. Cuffe Minkerson owned land in Monmouth County which has passed as an inheritance to his wife, Esther, in 1813. By 1860 twenty-four African Americans in Monmouth County had estates valued at over $1,000, including Willam Larebe whose real estate was valued at $4,500 (Hodges 1997:L164). Ceasar Jackson of Washington Township in Bergen County also owned land, though his estate was valued at only $164 (Hodges 1999:237). Bass Staats Bergen of Somerset County purchased his freedom in 1818 and then acquired a small plot land from John Tumy. After Tumy died, Tumy’s children claimed the land as their own and evicted Bergen from his home. Bergen won his appeal and got his land back, though it required an act of the state legislature to do so (Fishman 1997:211)! At Skunk Hollow, the first landowner was Jack Earnest, a former slave, who purchased five acres and 30 square rods of land in 1806 for $87.50 (Geismar 1982:17).  

Sylvia Du Bois followed a different path to success in nineteenth century New Jersey. Du Bois was born into slavery, though she emancipated herself after an altercation with her mistress. Later in life she established and ran a nightclub in Hopewell, Somerset County. The club was an attraction for free people of color, slaves, and whites who came for the alcohol, dancing, cockfights, fox chases, prize fights and prostitution. She recalled her own dancing expertise in which she could “strike a heel or to [sic] with equal ease and go through the numbers as nimble as witch.” She notes that “we had frolics almost every week … we was sure to have a fiddle or a frolic.” Training Day or the general militia muster was annual highlight, “then we’d have some rum and then you heard them laugh a mile and when they got into a fit [sic], you’d hear them yell more than five miles” (in Hodges 1999:221). Du Bois recalled that the tavern burned down in 1840 after which she “she rebuilt a wigwam style hut on the land and for a couple of decades made a living raising hogs” (Gillette 2017). 

Sylvia Du Bois and her daughter Elizabeth Alexander, 1882.

Sylvia Du Bois and her daughter Elizabeth Alexander, 1882. 

African American Churches and Schools

Landed wealth among a few African Americans enabled communities build institutions for meeting their collective needs. The most common was the church. The first black churches in the state were in Salem County and the Bushtown African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, established in 1807 (Hodges 1999:217). In 1811, African Americans in Trenton organized the Religious Society of Free Africans in Trenton, which affiliated with the AME church in 1816. AME Churches were also founded around the same time in Mount Holly, Mount Moriah, Bethlehem, and Mount Zion. The Clinton AME Church in Newark was founded in 1822, and a black Presbyterian Church opened in Elizabeth in 1823 (Hodges 2019:68). Over a dozen more towns saw black churches founded the state during the 1830s, a fact Hodges (1997:183) calls “the black church movement.” African American churches were also built at Skunk Hollow and Dunkerhook in Bergen County (Geismar 1982:25). 

The impetus for building separate churches is an artifact of white racism that extended into the churches themselves. Some churches designated “negro pews” where people of color were required sit for services. Samuel Cornish published a series of articles in the Colored American detailing the regular racism he experienced within the Presbyterian Church regarding “pay discrimination, bureaucratic snubs, and a lack of association between black and white ministers exacerbating the sores caused by the ‘negro pews’” (Hodges 1999:240-41). He also noted that free people of color “starved for the breathe of life … no one cares for their souls … [because they] are not allowed equal privileges in the, said to be, God’s houses, nor at his table.” In Morristown, Cornish reported that “three hundred poor, outcast, oppressed colored people [could not] worship God in the houses that their sweat and blood has helped to build” (in Gigantino 2015:202).  

Schools were another institution that allowed black communities to find footing. I mentioned above that the first schools for African American children were run by the ACS in Parsippany and Newark. Another early school was established by the New Brunswick African Association in 1817, which taught a cohort of thirty-four men and a dozen women (Hodges 1999:219, 2019:71). A Newark Sunday school for African Americans opened in 1815, and over 200 people of all ages enrolled. Similar schools opened in Elizabeth, Hackensack, and Aquackanonck. Newark’s first common school was opened in 1826 by the AME Zion Church with both adult and children as students. In 1828, Abraham and John King opened a second “colored” school in Newark. In 1816, Newark’s Centinel of Freedom reported that “the little time they employ every Sabbath in the school, furnishes their principal opportunity; and yet their improvement has been extraordinary … Judging from the facts and observations, it would seem to be vain any more to oppose the cultivation of the mind of the coloured people on the ground of inferiority of intellect” (in Fishman 1997:198). This school acquired public funding in 1836 and remained open until 1909. Known later as Mr. Baxter’s school, it was a key institution in Newark early African American history (Wright 1941).

Betsey Stockton stands out as one of the state’s most important African American educators. Stockton was born in 1798 as a slave of the Stockton family in Princeton. At six years of age she was gifted to her owner’s daughter Betsey Stockton Green and her husband Rev. Ashbel Green, the eighth president of Princeton University. A professor, Green made sure Betsy was educated and then freed her when she was twenty years old. Stockton then took a missionary post in Hawaii where she established the first school for ordinary Hawaiians. She returned to Princeton in 1828 and established a Sabbath school as well as secular programs for black children and adults. She even encouraged Princeton students to teach courses in algebra, Latin, history and English literature. Finally, in 1858, she founded the Witherspoon School for Colored Children which taught African Americans in Princeton until the city schools were integrated in 1948 (Hodges 2019:63-64).  

Photograph of Betsey Stockton

Betsey Stockton. Born enslaved in Princeton, she founded the Witherspoon School for Colored Children in 1858.

The history of black education in New Jersey also includes difficult stories related to white racism. For example, in 1846, a letter to the New Jersey Freeman detailed the mistreatment of African American students: 

In the town of Plainfield in this State, there is public free school supported by tax levied on the inhabitants without distinction. Last year, the colored children, whose parents paid their proportionate share of this tax, were put in a basement by themselves where teacher visited them a few times a day to instruct them. Those parents of colored children who are willing to submit to such outrage, continued the children at school until it got too cold to be in the basement without fire, when they took them away. 

Months later, the Plainfield school found a solution to this problem by no longer accepting black students (Fishman 1997:230). 

African American political and cultural voices

Other outlets for social organizing also developed in African American New Jersey. Black-owned newspapers provided updates and analysis of happenings in the state. Samuel Cornish’s Colored American was founded in 1837. Inspired by its success other black writers followed suit including Alfred Gibbs Campbell who published The Alarm Bell out of Paterson. Campbell was also a poet and is known for his poem I Would Be Free

I Would Be Free

I would be free! I will be free!
What though the world laugh at me?
To me alike are its smiles and its frowns,
I trample in scorn on its riches; and crowns
Are worthless to me as the heads which wear them.
O! how can humanity bear them?

I would be free! I will be free!
Free, though the world laugh at me!
I smile at its jeers and spurn its control,
And ne’er to its fetters shall bend my soul;
Let those who have need of a master wear them,
But never can my spirit bear them.

I would be free! I will be free!
And Truth shall my leader be!
Yea, whither she leads shall my willing feet
Joyfully tread in her footprints; and sweet
Shall her lessons be to my hungering soul!
To my thirsting and hungering soul.

I would be free! I will be free!
Though scorching my pathway be;
I can cheerfully bear the cross, and dare
The lot of my chosen leader to share;
And the cross shall be lighter than air to me,
For Truth shall my guide and helper be!

Paterson’s black community appears to have been particularly well-organized in the ante-bellum era. Besides Campbell’s poetry and The Alarm Bell, there was a powerful anti-slavery broadside produced by the “Citizen of Paterson” in 1841 titled Address to the Legislature of New Jersey on Behalf of the Colored Population of the State. Here is an example of this text:

We have petitioned our State rulers to repeal all the partial and unjust statutes, as uphold slavery or impose inabilities on men for their color or descent. But these petitions have been treated with cold neglect, not, we charitably believe, because our statesmen approve of slavery, nor on the account of the interest of a few dozen slaveholders among us, who are as well able to pay for the labor they require as the rest of us; but chiefly because of the unjust ascendancy of the Slave Power in the National Government. Men of both parties who feel that slavery in New Jersey is wrong, are afraid to act in relation to it, lest is jeopard [sic] the interests of their own party in the South … How can we allow mere questions of pecuniary advantage or of party ascendancy to overshadow the great question of Human rights? (in Fishman 1997:224). 

Preceding these citizens of Paterson was another organization founded in 1817 as the African Association of New Brunswick. Though nominally established by the white Rev. Leverett F. Huntington, the society was run by its members who recruited new members, elected officers, and ran the meetings. Members paid a fee of fifty cents to join and fifty cents per year in dues for free people and twenty-five cents for slaves, with their master’s permission. The Association ran a well-attended “African School” in Parsippany. As Fishman (1997:199) writes, “attending African Americans were primarily interested in group contact and education as a means of overcoming their oppressed status and possibly going on to a career in the ministry or teaching.” 

Another source of common ground among African Americans that seems to be evident in the antebellum era was a reconnection among some members to their African heritage. While Cornish argued for adopting the identity of “Colored,” fearing that identification with Africa bolstered colonizationist schemes (Wright 1988:31), others appear to have embraced their ancestral heritage. Hodges (1999:258-59) points to the African Society for Mutual Relief, which in the 1840s, “began to decorate their most sacred ground by African methods … At Gethsemane Cemetery in Little Falls, Bergen County, graves are covered with pieces of broken white pottery; one contains pipes reaching from the grave to surface.” Hodges interprets these practices as “a vernacular re-creation of the African past of the interred.”  

Photo of Gethsemane Cemetary

Historic marker at the Gethsemane Cemetery, Little Falls. 

Political action among African American Americans blossomed in the 1830s with the formation of the state-wide New Jersey Anti-Slavery Society in 1834, the state’s first black abolitionist body (Wright 1988:32). Hodges (2019:88) notes that the society touted a long list of accomplishments including having “secured black dignity and rights in American society, settled constitutional and biblical questions about human rights, abolished the ‘Negro Seat’ in churches, and helped black students gain an education … Locally the society established the newspaper The New Jersey Freeman, which ran from 1844 to 1847 [and] hosted such black political luminaries as Henry Highland Garnet and white abolitionists Lewis Tappan and Luther Lee, though Alvan Stewart was the most popular out-of-stater.” Alfred Gibbs Campbell and Samuel Cornish were among the Society’s officers. 

Beginning in the 1830s African American activists met at annual national conventions to commune and discuss how to implement an anti-slavery and anti-racist agenda. New Jersey never hosted a national convention, but it did have state-wide conventions. A convention in 1849 met at Trenton’s Mount Zion Church to craft a demand for African American citizenship and voting rights. At a rally organized by the convention, Dr. John S. Rock spoke with passion. Rock was a self-trained medical doctor who had been denied admission to medical school because he was black. He turned at the point to dentistry and later studied law and became the first African American to be admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court. His intellectual talents were made public at the rally in 1849. He clarified that African Americans were “not human being enough to vote but they were for paying taxes and obeying the laws.” He also explained the inconsistency in the logic that would allow foreign-born residents the vote while denying it to native-born black people who were more familiar state and local affairs. He also rejected the conception that African Americans were degraded challenging that: “you shut every avenue of elevation and then complain about degradation; what else can be expected when we are looked upon as things, and treated worse than unthinking animals?” He concluded his speech with this:

The country a man is born in, is his country; and the humanity that would oppress a colored man for a white man’s sake, is not humanity for us; and the man that will refuse to assist suffering humanity, on account of color, is undeserving the name of man …  Our design, in speaking frankly, is not to upbraid you, but to show you our maltreatment, and ask that you ameliorate our condition, by giving us our rights (in Fishman 1997:247)    

Photo of Dr. Rock

Dr. John S. Rock was a doctor, dentist, lawyer, and orator in New Jersey.

The Underground Railroad

Political activism on the surface often reflects actions that are not as easy to see in the historic record, and of course one of the most powerful anti-slavery political acts during the antebellum era was the mostly invisible Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad involved the clandestine passage of escaped slaves out of the South into the North and Canada. While there were many routes north, New Jersey had a series of passages that allowed for travel from Maryland and Delaware up to New York City. Most of the known routes in the southern part of the state converged at Bordentown leading from there to New Brunswick and to Perth Amboy or Jersey City. Isaac Hopper a Philadelphia Quaker is credited with being among the earliest freedom fighters associated with the underground railroad in New Jersey. Escaped slaves knew of him and where he lived and would turn up at his home to find refuge and if necessary legal counsel. He also identified New Jersey farmers to establish places of refuge for escapees. 

As the railroad grew, conductors developed a series of trunk lines consisting of safe houses and routes such as from Camden to Burlington to Bordentown or leading from the Delaware Bay north through Cape May and Salem. Black towns like Lawnside, Guineatown, Sadlertown, Springtown, Goudltown, Colemantown, and Timbuctoo became both destinations for self-emancipated people as well as stopping points for those travelling further north (Hodges 2019:81). 

Map of New Jersey's Underground Railroad routes in 1860

Underground Railroad Routes, ca 1860.

The most well-known of New Jersey’s underground railroad operators was Harriet Tubman. Tubman escaped slavery in Maryland and ended up in Philadelphia. From there she moved to Cape May to work as a domestic servant in the resort business and met and began to work with Stephen Smith, “the wealthiest black man in America.” Tubman learned from Smith and many others in Cape May about the railroad network, which provided her safe passage from Smyra, Dover, or Odesa in Delaware to Springtown or Marshalltown in New Jersey. In all Tubman led nineteen rescue missions that emancipated more than 300 captives (Hodges 2019:92-95).