During Elaine Buck’s research for her and Beverly Mills’ recently published book “If These Stones Could Talk,” she discovered her husband, John, and Mills were both descendants of slaves owned by the Truehart family, making them cousins.
“We’ve been married for over 40 years,” Buck said of herself and her husband. “I just hope we don’t find out we’re related.”
The two women presented their book, which details African American presence in the Hopewell Valley, the Sourland Mountains and surrounding areas, to a packed auditorium at the Johnson Education Center on Dec. 11.
The book also illustrates how Buck and Mills’ ancestors came to the Hopewell-Pennington area in the 18th century. The event was co-sponsored by the Sourland Conservancy and the D&R Greenway Land Trust.
Buck and Mills are both founding members of the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum, as well as board members for the Stoutsburg Cemetery. Mills is the first African American woman to be elected to Pennington Borough Council.
Three years ago, Buck and Mills were looking to find a publisher and met Kimberly Nagy of Wild River Consulting and Publishing
“They didn’t have any written material yet, but I could feel their voices and their stories immediately,” Nagy said. “To see it all come together as it has so beautifully has been a great honor to me.”
Buck and Mills began their research 12 years ago after curiosity about their roots struck.
“I’ve lived in Hopewell Borough all my life and John has since he was 8 years old,” Buck said. “Beverly has been in Pennington all her life, and when you look around, you don’t see too many black people in Hopewell or Pennington, and I’m wondering, ‘How in the world did we get here?’ ”
According to Data USA, Hopewell has a population of 1,904 people, with 91.5 percent white residents and about 1 percent black residents. Pennington has a population of 2,567 with 91.2 percent white residents and 1.68 percent black residents.
The walls of the auditorium were lined with black and white photos of slaves who were brought to Hopewell, some of whom Mills and Buck are related to. Buck’s ancestors came from Danville, Va., as slaves, while Mills’ ancestors were transported to the area from Charleston, S.C.
In Hopewell, the Stoutsburg Cemetery has been the final resting place for African American residents and veterans since 1858.
To conduct their research, Buck and Mills consulted Special Collections and University Archives at Rutgers, New Jersey State Archives, as well as newspaper advertisements looking for runaway slaves or plantations for sale in the Hopewell and Sourland Mountain areas.
“Frost Blackwell, my fourth great-grandfather, was owned by Andrew Blackwell, who was a farmer and a veteran of the Revolutionary War,” Mills said. “When Andrew Blackwell died, he said in his will that Frost would receive his freedom and $100, which was an amazing amount of money to give a man of color back in 1819.”
Buck discovered a piece of her husband’s history through an article published in The New York Times in 1880 involving “barbarism” — or racial intermarriage. The story criticized the practice and called those in the Sourland Mountains, including Buck’s mother-in-law, “barbarians.”
Chapter 4 of “If These Stones Could Talk” talks of Mills’ grandfather four times removed, a 13-year-old slave named Friday Truehart, who was brought from Charleston, S.C. He worked for Oliver Hart, who came to Hopewell Borough to become the minister of the Old School Baptist Church, which still stands on West Broad Street. Aaron Truehart, a Civil War veteran who is buried at the Stoutsburg Cemetery, is also a descendant of Friday Truehart.
During a conference celebrating Mercer County’s 350th anniversary, Mills became aware of the cabin in the Sourland Mountains where Friday Truehart lived.
“I jumped up, disrupted the entire conference, and I ran outside and called Elaine,” Mills said.
The cabin, Mills said, is deep in the mountains and unable to be seen from the road.
“The first time I saw the cabin, Elaine got her camera and took this picture,” Mills said, gesturing to a photo of her outside the cabin, touching the worn exterior. “I could barely stand.”
Buck and Mills said they hope their book will “leave a legacy.”
“They don’t teach you this in schools and it’s sad because we’re missing out on a lot of history,” Buck said.