The Lawrence Township Council has endorsed proposed legislation to establish a state-level task force to study making reparations to African Americans living in New Jersey who are descendants of slaves.
The Council adopted a resolution in support of state Senate Bill S-386 and its companion state Assembly Bill A-938 at its July 19 meeting. The two bills, which would establish the New Jersey Reparations Task Force, are pending in the state Legislature. They were introduced Jan. 11.
The proposed bills, if enacted into law, would create an 11-member task force to “examine the lingering negative effects of slavery on living African Americans and on society in New Jersey and the United States,” according to the state Senate Bill.
The task force would make “recommendations for remedies, as well as what form those remedies would take and to whom those remedies would be awarded,” according to the state Senate Bill. The task force would have two years to complete its mission.
The Council had been mulling over endorsing the proposed bills since they were brought to its attention in May by a coalition of Lawrence residents and groups, including the Lawrence chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Mercer County Commissioner Samuel Frisby Jr. and Lawrence resident Fred Vereen Jr. thanked the Council for approving the resolution. The Mercer County Commission – formerly known as the Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders – also has endorsed the resolution, Frisby said.
“This is how government is supposed to work. The people have some ideas about things, and you are elected by the people. I know the road wasn’t smooth and there were some bumps in it, but that’s how this work goes,” said Frisby, who lives in Trenton.
“Unless you push the Legislature, it won’t work. This is just a task force about studying (reparations). Until you study it, you’ll never fix it. History will shine well on Lawrence Township (for endorsing the proposed bills).”
Vereen, who lives in Lawrence, also praised the Council for its actions.
“It sets a positive example for young people,” he said. “The Township Council reviewed the proposed resolution several times and came up with a ‘good one’.”
Mayor John Ryan acknowledged that several draft resolutions were proposed before settling on the one that was approved. He gave credit to Council members Christopher Bobbitt and Cathleen Lewis for working on it.
“Thank you for giving us time to work things out – to look at it, talk about it and just to get it right. There were five drafts (of the resolution). All of us are happy with it,” Ryan said.
The resolution also urges the Lawrence Township Public School Board of Education to join the Council in supporting the task force “and in finding actions to enhance understanding of the impact of slavery within Lawrence and to address the impact of systemic racism within our own community.”
The resolution calls for the township to ask Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes “to identify ways to enhance Mercer County programs to further educate on the impact of slavery in Mercer County and to identify ways to address systemic racism within the county community.”
It asks for the township’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee to identify actions and programs to enhance the understanding of the impact of slavery within Lawrence and to reduce the impact of systemic racism on Lawrence residents.
The resolution also outlined the history of slavery in New Jersey, starting with the importation of the first slaves into New Netherland in the early 1600s. Parts of present-day New Jersey were included in New Netherland, according to the resolution.
New Jersey outlawed importing Africans into the state in 1786 and adopted the “Gradual Abolition Act of 1804,” according to the resolution. But by 1830, more than two-thirds of all enslaved people in the northern states were held in New Jersey.
New Jersey initially voted against ratifying the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to abolish slavery, but later ratified it after it became part of the Constitution.
The resolution stated that many of Lawrence’s prominent landowners owned slaves, including Benjamin Van Cleve. He operated a plantation or farm on land that is now part of the Rider University campus. Van Cleve’s home was used by Rider University for many years as its Office of Admission, according to the resolution.