Hit the ‘trail’ and learn about New Jersey’s Black history

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by Jay Watson, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

James Still always wanted to become a doctor, but as a Black child in the 1800s, never had the opportunity to go to medical school. Undeterred, he learned to make botanical extracts from native plants, and studied books on anatomy, physiology, botany and medicine. Still became a skilled healer with an office in Medford, and earned fame as “the Black doctor of the Pines.”

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Friday Truehart, an enslaved teen, was taken from South Carolina to the Sourland Mountains of New Jersey in the late 1700s. After laboring for many years, he gained his freedom and became one of the first African American landowners in the region. Today, land once owned by one of Friday’s descendants is the site of the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM), dedicated to preserving stories of early Black settlement in the area.

T. Thomas Fortune was born into slavery, but after being freed by the Emancipation Proclamation rose to become a leading journalist and civil rights activist. As the editor and owner of the New York Globe – which spoke out against racial inequality – he was one of the nation’s most influential Blacks by the time he moved to Red Bank in 1901. He also founded the African American League, which later became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

What do Dr. Still’s medical office, Fortune’s home and SSAAM – located in the former Mount Zion AME Church in Skillman – have in common?

All three are now part of the New Jersey Black Heritage Trail, a route highlighting important Black history sites, and illuminating the struggle for freedom, justice and equality. The new trail will lead visitors on a winding journey throughout this state we’re in, using historical markers to describe the contributions of notable Black residents and institutions.

The stage was set in 2022, when Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law calling for the creation of a Black Heritage Trail. Earlier this year, the New Jersey Historical Commission (NJHC) invited towns and organizations to nominate sites. Over 60 entries were received!

In April, the Commission announced the inaugural selection of 32 sites. Each will get a historical marker telling its story, along with a QR code that visitors can scan for more information. More sites are expected to be added in the future.

“Our goal is to showcase the many contributions of Black Americans to more than 300 years of New Jersey history,” said Sara Cureton, executive director of the NJHC. “The creation and maintenance of this trail will be an ongoing process, but I am thrilled to have the first sites selected and proud of the work of the New Jersey Black Heritage Trail team.”

Here, by county, are the initial 32 sites:

Atlantic County – Chicken Bone Beach in Atlantic City, where Black families gathered before segregation was ended;

Bergen County – Cleveland School in Englewood, the site of 1960s sit-ins to protest school segregation;

Burlington County – The Timbuctoo African American settlement in Westhampton; Dr. James Still’s office in Medford; Bethlehem AME Church and its pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Pierce;

Camden County – Kaighn Avenue Baptist Church in Camden; abolitionist and activist Rev. Alexander Heritage Newton’s home in Camden; Lawnside, the first incorporated and self-governed Black municipality north of the Mason-Dixon Line; The Point, an historically Black neighborhood in Haddonfield;

Cape May County – The Harriet Tubman Museum of NewJersey, honoring the Underground Railroad icon; theMacedonia Baptist Church; and the Franklin Street School, all in Cape May;

Cumberland County – The communities of Bivalve and Shellpile, and the Maurice River, where many African Americans worked during the heyday of the oyster industry;

Essex County – Site of East Orange Freedom Schools (1905-1906); and the Montclair Young Women’s Christian Association;

Mercer County – The earliest known burial place of African Americans in Trenton; Black soldiers at Washington’s Crossing; Enslavement at the Falls of the Delaware in the 1720s in Trenton; 626 Perry Street in Trenton; Black soldiers at Princeton Battlefield;

Middlesex County – The Metuchen birthplace of Thomas Mundy Peterson, the first African American to vote in a U.S. election;

Monmouth County – Jazz pianist, bandleader and composer William J. “Count” Basie and the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank; T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center in Red Bank; the Turf Club in Asbury Park; the historic Cedar View Cemetery in Lincroft; U.S. Army “Black Brain Center” at Fort Monmouth in Wall Township, where Black scientists and engineers advanced their careers;

Morris County – The site of a 1964 protest against a barbershop in Madison that refused Black customers;

Passaic County – Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, home of the first professional Black baseball leagues; the home of James H. Penn, Passaic’s first Black mailman and first Black attorney;

Ocean County – Manitou Park School in Berkeley Township, a one-room schoolhouse built in 1929 to serve the township’s African-American children;

Somerset County – Mount Zion AME Church in Skillman, now the site of the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum;

Union County – Shady Rest Country Club in Scotch Plains, the first Black-owned golf and country club in the U.S.; the Drake House in Plainfield, honoring Caesar (1702-1806), a freed slave who served as a teamster with the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

For four centuries, the Black community in New Jersey has helped shape the state’s history, culture, government, educational and religious institutions, businesses and industries. But for too long, many remarkable stories of Black contributions have gone untold.

The New Jersey Black Heritage Trail is an important step in illuminating the Black experience, while building pride and boosting tourism. This inaugural listing of sites should stimulate communities around New Jersey to search their local history and historic sites as potential future additions to this unique and long overdue experience.

For information on the New Jersey Black History Trail and how it was established, go to https://nj.gov/state/historical/his-black-heritage-trail.shtml. Details about the 32 inaugural sites are not yet available on the state website, but https://visitnj.org/Black-Heritage includes information about many sites.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org

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