Lost Souls Public Memorial Project holds virtual recitation of slaves’ names; connection made to modern-day issues of racism


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EAST BRUNSWICK–More than 200 years ago, Middlesex County Judge Jacob Van Wickle used his political power to steal and sell nearly 200 African Americans into slavery.

To honor those who were enslaved, the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project held its third annual Recitation of Names event to continue honoring Van Wickle’s victims.

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Founded in 2017, the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project is a grassroots, community-based effort to remember almost 200 African Americans whose freedom was stolen by Van Wickle in 1818. The project would build a memorial at the East Brunswick Community Arts Center, according to the Rev. Karen Johnston of the Unitarian Society of East Brunswick.

“The project was established to uncover this whitewashed history, to raise community awareness and to build a public memorial so that the people who have come to be known as the ‘lost souls’ would never again be forgotten,” Johnston said, “so that we would fulfill our moral obligation to remember them back home was founded to be a collective act of liberatory memory.”

The New Brunswick Area Branch of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the New Jersey Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, and The Unitarian Society are the primary partners, along with other community groups and individuals, working to bring this memorial into being, according to a prepared statement.

“The primary purpose of the is the third recitation of the names of those individuals who were lost as a result of an illegal slave ring that practiced here in the New Jersey area,” said Project Member Toni Hendrix, who is also an officer for the NAACP’s New Brunswick Area Branch.

More than 95 attendees from around the U.S. attended the event on May 30, which was held via video conference. Attendees included Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin, Mayor Brad Cohen and East Brunswick Councilwoman Sharon Sullivan.

Coleman and Pinkin both vocalized their support for the project.

“Our intention in pursuing this mission is always to center the lost souls and their experience over that of the corrupt judge or the network of white men and some white women who made this heinous act possible,” Johnston said. “Our intention is always, always to ensure that the perspective of members of local black communities are centered in the process and in the project.”

Using a pre-recorded video, project members, non-members, Sullivan, Cohen and Pinkin recited the names and ages of the nearly 200 victims. In the video, a metal bowl, which when hit produced a chiming sound, was used to symbolize the victims who have not yet been identified.

New Brunswick Area Branch of NAACP President Bruce Morgan said the branch is proud to partner with the project to help honor and remember the African American men, women, children and even babies who had their lives stolen.

“These lost souls had their lives stolen by immoral, unscrupulous and evil men. In the last 30 days, the deaths of Ahmed Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd are reminders of the legacy of these evil men,” Morgan said. “We must honor the lost souls by using their stories to destroy the legacy of lies and deceit, created by these evil men and prevent any new senseless deaths.

“We take this time every year to give these lost souls a name so they are not just another nameless person totally under the thumb of oppression and their dignity as human beings are restored. I hope and pray that our remembrance will come to the spirit of these lost souls. We pray our remembrance will enable themselves to become the embodiment of the words from the African proverb that says, ‘When death comes to find you may it find you alive,” Morgan said.

Project Historian Kristal Langford said Van Wickle tapped into an already existing infrastructure of slave trafficking. Recognizing the possibility to reap financial reward from this practice, he orchestrated the Van Winkle slave ring with his family and political network.

“One of the most egregious acts against New Jersey’s black population occurred in 1818. Government officials who held offices of public trust exploited a series of laws that were put in place to not only protect the rights of the slaves but also guarantee that their children would one day be free,” Langford said.

One of the chief architects of the slave ring, Langford said Van Winkle served as a judge on the Court of Common Pleas in Middlesex County and he was also a resident of present-day East Brunswick.

“[Van Wickle], along with his brother in law Charles Morgan, also a government official for the State of Louisiana, concocted a scheme to secure as many enslaved blacks, or just blacks period, as possible to man the grounds on Morgan’s his newly acquired plantation in Pointe Coupee, Louisiana,” Langford said.

Considering Van Wickle was well aware of the laws, Langford said he knew that Morgan would be prohibited from removing any enslaved persons out of the state, even if they gave their consent. So he planted his son, Nicolas Van Winkle, as the middleman to mediate transactions.

Another person of interest, Langford said, was New Jersey’s eighth Gov. Issac Williamson, who at that time, had connections to the New Jersey jail system.

“With Africans and African Americans in the state, they always have to prove their status. So we had African Americans who live to work in close proximity of the enslaved population,” Langford said. “So if a person had to go to the store, or to the market, they probably sometimes have to walk through or pass through small pockets of black communities.”

Langford said with enslaved people walking through certain communities along with free people, if the free person was approached by a slave catcher, they would have to prove their freedom and if they could not prove their freedom, then they would be in prison.

“After 10 days, if [an enslaved] person wasn’t picked up by their slave master, then he or she would be placed on an auction to be freed up for purchase,” Langford said. “So considering the governor had access to the jail system with Van Wickle, he actually acquired some black people from the jail.”

With peaceful protesting and violence erupting across the country in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Mayor Brad Cohen said the U.S. has a true problem with an inherently unfair criminal justice system that disproportionately treats African Americans, mostly males, in a most unfair and discriminatory manner.

“We see this in criminal cases, wrongful arrests, jail time, plea deals, and access to fair representation and at its extreme. We see events such as the killing of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement and this must be addressed,” Cohen said. “At the same time, we need to recognize that bad behavior by some members of our law enforcement community should not cast a shadow on all of our officers.”

Cohen said most police officers commit their lives to providing safety and protection to the community that they serve. They work hard, committing to a brotherhood of fellow men and women, upholding the highest standards to which everyone all aspires. Most law enforcement officers look at the events of the past week, and all others that preceded Minneapolis, disgusted.

“As a father of a 30-year-old son, I take for granted that my son can go out for a safe jog, walk into a store without someone thinking he’s a thief, getting caught speeding and not end up arrested, and certainly never fear that a chance encounter with law enforcement ends up with me holding nothing but a picture for memories,” Cohen said. “For the vast majority of African American men who have sons like I do, that is the reality they must face here in the United States today in 2020.”

“Having now spent over three years as mayor of East Brunswick I can tell you that I have a very close relationship with our police department that services, our township, and I know there is a code of conduct and a very high standard that these officers must uphold,” Cohen said. “We spend a great deal of time being extremely selective in the search for new enforcement professionals. These are dedicated folks that swear their lives to our community.”

For more information about the project, visit www.lostsoulsmemorialnj.org.

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermedia.com.

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