Lea Kahn, Staff Writer
It’s no secret that the original settlers of the Sourland Mountain – that rocky ridge which runs through Montgomery, Hopewell and Hillsborough townships – were Europeans, mostly Dutch and then English.
But what is a secret – and a surprise to many – is that there was also a thriving African-American community that lived and worked side-by-side with the white community.
Three descendants of those early African-Americans – Beverly Mills, John Buck and his wife, Elaine Buck – outlined the history of the Sourland Mountain’s African-American community at a talk sponsored by the Sourland Conservancy.
Mills and the Bucks also are the co-founders of the soon-to-be-opened Stoutsburg Sourland African-American Museum. It will be housed in the former Mt. Zion AME Church on Hollow Road.
William Stives, who served in the Revolutionary War, is believed to be the first African-American settler on the Sourland Mountain, Mills said. He was in one of the boats that crossed the Delaware River with Gen. George Washington, leading up to the first Battle of Trenton.
Although no one knows where Stives grew up, Mills said, at some point he became enamored with the Sourland Mountain and settled here.
Stives was a free man – not a slave. He married and had 10 children, of whom nine married. Of those nine, half married another African-American and the others married a white person, Mills said.
There is a marker for Stives in the Stoutsburg Cemetery, off Province Line Road, Mills said. The Stoutsburg Cemetery is an historically African-American cemetery. It is also the burial place of about a dozen African-Americans who served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
While Stives was a free man, some of the African-Americans who lived on the Sourland Mountain and in the Hopewell Valley were slaves, Elaine Buck said. New Jersey permitted slavery until was it outlawed in 1804, and permitted the gradual emancipation of those who were already enslaved.
The African-American slaves worked on small family farms, Mills said. The typical family owned one or two slaves, and the farmer/slave owner worked beside the slaves. There were more than 11,000 slaves in New Jersey in 1798, she said.
“The only way to be free was to die, work out (a deal) to buy your freedom or, if you had a benevolent owner, to be manumitted (freed upon the owner’s death),” Mills said. Sometimes, an owner would stipulate in his will that the slave was to be freed.
Mills said that one of her ancestors, Frost Blackwell, was freed by his owner, Andrew Blackwell, upon Andrew Blackwell’s death. The Mount Rose distillery was owned by Andrew Blackwell, who never married. His nieces and nephews could have challenged the decision to free Frost Blackwell, but they chose not to do so.
Friday Truehart, another one of Mills’ ancestors, was freed after his owner, the Rev. Oliver Hart, died around 1789. The minister served as the pastor for a church in Charleston, S.C., for a few years before returning north and becoming the minister at the Hopewell Old School Baptist Church in what is today’s Hopewell Borough.
African-Americans continued to settle on the Sourland Mountain and in the Hopewell Valley. They worked in the peach orchards and in the clay pottery works. Some were involved in making baskets, such as Tom Nevius, who lived on Minnietown Lane and who was John Buck’s great-grandfather.
Later, John Buck’s uncle, Earl Nevius, became the first African-American postmaster in Hopewell Borough.
And Herbert Albert Hubbard, who was Mills’ great-grandfather, became the first African-American to graduate from the Trenton Business College – the forerunner of Rider University.
Lea Kahn, Staff Writer