East Brunswick residents aim to rename road

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EAST BRUNSWICK Shining a local spotlight on the infamous history of Judge Jacob Van Wickle, residents voiced their support to have Van Wickle Road renamed.

Unitarian Universalist Congregation Rev. Karen Johnston said that over the summer she had familiarized herself with Jacob Van Wickle’s notorious history.

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“Jacob Van Wickle, a Middlesex County judge and resident here, used his court in 1818 to send nearly 100 African-Americans into permanent slavery in the south. At the time when these activities were uncovered there was public outrage and the incident of human trafficking was brought to an end and though others were indicted Van Wickle was not, yet the historical record shows [that] he was at the center of this abuse of power,” Johnston said.

On Sept. 25, the Township Council heard from Johnston along with a few other residents who expressed their support to have Van Wickle Road renamed, during its semi-monthly meeting, at the municipal building.

Historian and former Councilman Richard Sears Walling has been spearheading the campaign to get Van Wickle Road renamed.

Walling said that he has known about the history of Van Wickle for the past two years.

“His [Van Wickle’s] evil deeds that sent 100 innocents to certain death were too similar to the Holocaust. We would not tolerate a local road named [after] Josef Mengele, we should not tolerate a public road named for this murderer,” Walling said. “As a judge, he used his position to hold fraudulent court proceedings, which were necessary to meet the requirements of an 1812 law that mandated the free consent of African-Americans of New Jersey to leave the state willingly. Documented proceedings never took place, babies were listed as having testified, [and] men seeking their freedom were beaten by armed guards. His home in East Brunswick was described in his day as a slave castle.”

Walling has spoken at a previous council meeting, informing the council about Van Wickle’s history and has continued to voice his support to have the road renamed.

“This has become a community-based effort, not only to redress the road name, but to honor the 100 local people whose lives were destroyed because of Van Wickle’s greed. Local clergy, citizens, the NAACP, etc., are now actively engaged in righting this wrong and to memorialize the victims,” Walling said.

Mayor Brad Cohen said that the council would have to vote to have the road’s name changed. The mayor said that if township officials knew at the time about Van Wickle’s infamous history that they would have never named the road after him.

“Of course if you come up with another name, we want now to start to think seriously about the process that we use as a town to come up with the names of the streets. We now have the ability more than ever before to do good research and make sure the names are truly reflective of people of honor and that 150 years from now no one is going to be digging up something that we found here. Being embarrassed that we named something for somebody who you would never want to be honoring,” Cohen said.

For the residents who currently live on Van Wickle Road, Cohen said that if the road is renamed the residents would not have to redo their deeds and titles.

“The first people that we are going to contact in the process will be the residents themselves. I am not going to do that until I have all my answers to questions that they are likely to ask,” Cohen said. “We are in the process now of getting all the information of what we would need to do if we went through [with] this, talk to the residents, and then put it out as a vote. The first time they shouldn’t hear it is when it comes up on an agenda that the council is voting on and they never heard about it, that would be wrong.”

Council President Michael Hughes could not be contacted by press time.

“Next year marks 200 years since this travesty took place and it seems a necessary and fitting time to tend to this aspect of the town’s history. We have a street named after this infamous person and it is my understanding that at the time that the street was named that Van Wickle’s part in the slave ring had been erased. There was no way to know that he had done this thing or that his [road] would keep that piece of our history known, but unknown,” Johnston said.

Resident Peter Kahn also expressed his support to have the road’s name changed, but explained that if the road is eventually renamed, “that raises a problem, [Van Wickle] disappears. We would end up with no township memory of what he and his cohorts did, it will be has if nothing had ever happened. I’d like to avoid that and I think I know how we could do it.”

Inspired by a memorial monument in Berlin, Germany that was built near an old railroad track to honor victims who died during the holocaust, Kahn said that the township should build a small memorial monument to honor the victims that Van Wickle wrongly sold into slavery.

Kahn said that the small monument could be placed in the township’s civic center and have information about Van Wickle, the victims’ names, and the dates when his victims were sold into slavery.

“Something public needs to be created lest the memory fade from knowledge,” Kahn said.

Kahn said, the money needed to create the proposed monument can be obtained by private sources and that he would be willing to help pay for the monument to be built.

Resident Elijah Reiss spoke during the meeting and said, “It is of my opinion that we should change the name of Van Wickle Road to no longer celebrate him…Like all towns that have been around for a long time, East Brunswick being one of them, there is a troubled past here and we do need to address it.”

Reiss said that if the road is renamed that it should be named after one of Van Wickle’s victims after further research is done on his or her’s life.

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.

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